- whether it’s a dirty word
- shifting perceptions of and reclaiming it (thanks to the help of some universally liked women like Emma Watson) as something positive.
Which makes the release of Suffragette, the historical fiction-based film about the suffragette movement, incredibly prescient and timely. The term used then might have been suffragette instead of feminism, but this is a debate that is long-running and perennially important.
As someone who’s always identified as a feminist (I successfully petitioned to get female bin girls and female altar servers back in my local municipality), there was no question I would review this film. And while I don’t know what I expected of Suffragette, but I have to admit it wasn’t the realisation that I don’t know my suffragette history as well as you’d think I would.
It’s London, 1912, and the suffragette movement is gathering momentum. The voiceover contains excerpts of politicians and other powerful men debating the pros and cons of giving women the vote. Protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a 24-year-old laundry worker, is largely oblivious to this.
She was born in the laundry and was strapped to her mother’s back as an infant. Her poorly paid, poorly educated mother was forced to return to work as quickly as possible. Maud started working for the laundry part time when she was seven years old and full time when she was 12. Repeating the little-opportunity cycle, she now has a child of her own.
Maud doesn’t identify as a suffragette—in fact, she denies it multiple times throughout the film. But trapped and dreaming of a better life, she gradually she finds herself drawn in, and eventually contributing, to the movement out of necessity.
Suffragette is the story of one group of women’s experiences of the suffragette movement. Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) looms large in the psyche, making brief cameos at key moments, but this film drills down to the personal. Maud, with her blistered hands, poor pay, exhausting hours, and lecherous boss is an everywoman with which we can identify.
She’s supported and encouraged by a cast of incredible actors, including Helena Bonham Carter, who plays a chemist who was never allowed to become a doctor. One police officer describes her character as ‘educated with scruples’, which makes her particularly dangerous.
‘It’s deeds, not words, that’ll get us the vote’ is one of many memorable phrases this film contains. ‘You want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable’ and ‘They don’t want to be lawbreakers, they want to be lawmakers’ are other phrases bandied about as the women participate in national campaign of civil disobedience.
I spent a vast portion of this film wondering what I would have done had I been alive during this time—I’m the beneficiary of these women’s courage, but I wonder how courageous I would have been. I came away with a whole new level of respect for their bravery. And an appreciation for the filmmakers who saw this film as warranting being told, which all too rarely happens with ‘women’s stories’.
There was much impromptu and impassioned murmuring as the film credits rolled. Or, more specifically, a list detailing when and where women’s rights began to be recognised.
For example, after years of suffragette action, women over 30 and of a certain character in the UK were finally allowed to vote as of 1918. It took until 1928 for the rest of the women in the UK to be allowed to. And it took until 1925 for the UK to recognise a mother’s right to her child.
Australia was comparatively forward: women received the vote in 1902.
We sat right until the end of the credits, marvelling, talking, maybe even shedding a surreptitious tear or two. It was during this time that my co-reviewer noticed two women leaving the cinema wearing suffragette hats. Something tells me they contributed to the original suffragette movement and the film held special significance for them.
In light of this, and in light of the fact I’ve realised I don’t know as much about suffragette history and homage as I probably should, I’ve decided my Christmas present to me is going to be suffragette-themed books. I’ll be starting with The Suffragettes: The Fight for Votes for Women and the simply titled Suffragette. If you can recommend any others—particularly seminal texts—I’m all ears.