Deeds, not words
Sarah Gavron’s ‘Suffragette’

Suffragette opens in London during 1912, inside the humid confines of a commercial laundry. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been labouring there since the age of seven, under the predatory eye of her unscrupulous employer. In an early scene, he sends her out on a delivery, where, walking the street, her attention is caught by a shop window display. Mannequins of a mother and child, beautifully attired, frolic by the seaside. It is, for Maud, a cruelly unattainable vision, but the expression on her face as she gazes at the advertisement blends sadness and fatigue with the pleasure of imagination.

Maud’s brief idyll is shattered by a suffragette throwing a rock through the shop window. The whole street is soon alive with the cry, “Votes for women!”, as more and more windows are smashed. This destruction, too, is an imaginative act, and also a kind of advertisement. “Deeds, not words,” declared the Women’s Social and Political Union, at the time. The story of how the fictional Maud Watts becomes a committed activist for the real-life WSPU, an organisation founded in 1903 by six British women, is the story that Suffragette has to tell.

Directed by Sarah Gavron, written by Abi Morgan, and with a largely female cast, Suffragette is the first feature-length film in the history of British cinema about this vital feminist movement. Until now, the best-known representation of a suffragette in feature film has been – lest we forget – Glynis Johns’ stirring performance of ‘The Suffragette Song’ in Mary Poppins. (“No more the meek and mild subservients, we / We’re fighting for our rights, militantly.”) But the suffragettes themselves understood the power of the moving image, and in particular how their presence in newsreel footage might deliver their cause to an emerging mass audience. The most famous suffragette protest – Emily Wilding Davison’s horrific self-sacrifice under the hooves of King George’s horse at the Epsom Derby, in 1913 – was caught live on film by Pathé News cameras. Perhaps inevitably, Suffragette leads up to this moment, and Morgan’s script, in combination with a forceful performance by Natalie Press as Davison, suggests that her martyrdom was intentional, though in reality it might not have been.

As a piece of film-making Suffragette is a rather standard historical drama, but the subject matter elevates it, as do the performances. Mulligan is an actor with a great deal of emotional intelligence, and she conveys Maud’s struggle to commit to the movement with both subtlety and power. The personal cost of political militancy was high, especially for working-class women without financial resources or family connections to fall back on, while wealthier suffragettes, too, chafed against the constraints placed upon them as women. Helena Bonham Carter plays an understated supporting role as the fictional Edith Ellyn, a pharmacist and would-be physician who heads the East London WSPU cell to which Maud is recruited by her fellow laundry worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff).

Bonham Carter’s great-grandfather, HH Asquith, was prime minister of England at the time when Suffragette is set, and he was, throughout most of his political career, opposed to the cause of women’s suffrage. In 1912, when the film opens, the third Conciliation Bill was presented to the House of Commons under Asquith’s leadership. Had it – or the earlier Bills of 1910 and 1911 – been passed, roughly a million property-owning British women would have won the right to vote. But the Bills were defeated, owing in part to the kind of parliamentary delaying tactics that we might recognise from Tony Abbott’s recent tangles with the issue of same-sex marriage.

The reaction of the WSPU to these delays was to escalate their protests – not only the broken shop windows, but letter bombs, arson, and prison hunger strikes. The women involved were treated as terrorists then, and no doubt they would be now. The militancy of the WSPU, led by the dictatorial Emmeline Pankhurst (a cameo appearance by Meryl Streep), split the movement. Suffragette doesn’t dramatise this split, though in portraying the lengths to which some women were willing to go (yes, they really did blow up the holiday house of Lloyd George, chancellor of the exchequer), the film may serve as a corrective to anyone who believes that the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain was limited to letter-writing and fundraisers. It was not a genteel struggle, even if some of the women involved were. The bravery and the radicalism was real.

I wish, though, that the film itself was a little braver, a little more visceral. Voting might seem an abstract concern, but it is directly connected to the body; to the question of who is and isn’t recognised as a citizen, and who does or doesn’t get to occupy public space. Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a dramatisation of the civil rights struggle in the United States, released in Australia at the beginning of the year, realised this connection better. And perhaps because of Mulligan’s previous role in Steve McQueen’s Shame, I wondered as I watched Suffragette how a female director with a similar unflinching interest in the body might have approached this subject.

Suffragette has been criticised by some for its failure to include women of colour, and for an advertising campaign which included a quote from Pankhurst – “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” – that resonated rather differently for American audiences than for British ones. There were Indian and Persian women involved in the British suffragette movement, though they tended to be from aristocratic families, and the small scale of immigration to Britain at the time meant that the presence of these women in the British movement was limited. Perhaps the makers of Suffragette should have made more of an effort to include them; the one-year timescale of the film also allows it to dodge the controversial involvement of the WSPU in British nationalism during World War One. Other suffragettes, such as the Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia, instead committed themselves to pacifism and anti-colonial struggle. Like members of any mass political movement, the suffragettes had varying approaches and beliefs, difficult to squash into a two-hour narrative. There are many more stories waiting to be told of the struggle for women’s suffrage, and a roll call of dates at the conclusion of the film shows us clearly that the struggle is not over. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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