Full disclosure: I have been waiting for a decent film about the women’s suffrage movement for years. As a historian of women and gender, I am accustomed to disappointment when it comes to the portrayals of women on screen. Films about women’s struggles are few and far between. Even when the male-dominated industry does attempt to create a film about women’s experiences, the narrative is often historically inaccurate. Characters are often hyper-sexualized and overly-romanticized, and the more radical and controversial elements are frequently glossed over for a more palatable version of the past. A good example is HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels, which is a film about the American women’s suffrage movement that focuses on the activism of Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Conner). Though well received by audiences and critics, many historians found this film to be a disappointment because of its problematic interpretation of such an important social movement in American history.1
In contrast, the film Suffragette avoids all of these common pitfalls. The result is a nuanced, historically accurate, and visually stunning depiction of the militant British women’s suffrage movement. What makes the film so important is not just its narrative about the past, but its contribution to the ongoing debate about feminism as solely a white women’s movement. Prior to its release, Suffragette was widely promoted as a movie directed and produced by women (Sarah Gavron and Meryl Streep, respectively) about the history of women. The promotion campaign was not without some controversy as the film gained criticism for its nod to feminism’s white foremothers (Nursing Clio’s Lauren MacIvor Thompson also wrote about it). However, the complexity of feminism’s roots cannot be told in a single film. Gavron’s work is not meant to be the “single story” of feminism, but rather the beginning of a conversation about women’s rights in the world.2
Suffragette tells the story from the point of view of Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan), an East End factory worker who becomes swept up in the militant activism of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Rather than attempt to tell the story of the entire suffrage movement or focus on the major figures of the British movement, the movie instead reflects how fractured the movement was in the quest for equality. Focusing on a particularly fraught year between 1912 and 1913, viewers learn just how divided the movement was over the issue of militancy. Constitutionalists, such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett with the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies, believed that non-violence was the only way to keep male support for suffrage, while militants like Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) and select members of the WSPU encouraged women to “be militant, each of you in your own way.”3
Militants engaged in a variety of destructive acts, including the defacing of public property, violent parades and demonstrations, hunger strikes and imprisonment, and the bombing government officials’ homes. One such militant was Emily Wilding Davison (played by Natalie Press), who threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 and became a martyr for the cause. These tactics were not for the faint of heart, nor did all members of the WSPU embrace them, something this film makes very clear throughout.4
Suffragette is a visually stunning film. Its authenticity is in large part due to the use of vintage costumes and beautiful reproductions of WSPU banners and colors. As a result, the viewer feels part of the events and is drawn deeper into the story. Likewise, the film aptly captures the essence of militancy and its supporters. In one scene, Maude asks Edith Ellyn, a militant member of the WSPU played brilliantly by Helena Bonham Carter, “Are you a suffragette, Mrs. Ellyn?” to which Edith replies, “I consider myself more of a soldier.” In the beginning, Maude is slow to embrace militancy, and suffrage in general. At first she is quick to reply, “I’m not a suffragette,” when questioned about her activism by Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). Yet the film goes on to depict Maude’s feminist awakening, as she becomes more involved in the movement, even at great personal sacrifice.
By the end of the film, she is a passionate advocate for suffrage, and, after another arrest, tells Inspector Steed, “We break windows, we burn things, because war is the only language men listen to, because you’ve beaten us and betrayed us and there is nothing left. We’re half of the human race, you can’t stop us all!” In the end, this is Suffragette’s greatest strength as a film: its successful demonstration of why a woman would become involved in the militant suffrage movement. Director Gavron excels at pulling the audience into Maude’s struggles: sexual harassment, legal inequalities, and being targeted as terrorists by the British government. Suffragette makes it clear that these are not just Maude’s struggles, but also those of every woman.
However, as good as Suffragette is, it is not without faults. For one, it portrays men as either enemies to be fought, such as Inspector Steed and Maude’s husband, or weak supporters who cannot stand up to the strong women in the movement, such as Edith’s husband, Hugh Ellyn (Finbar Lynch), who is described as being part of “that damned Men’s League.” This good versus bad dichotomy is a common but problematic one in women’s history, particularly when studying the history of suffrage. Male lawmakers (John Stuart Mill, Keir Hardie), artists (George Bernard Shaw, Laurence Houseman), and activists (Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence, Henry Nevinson) heartily supported the suffrage movement in Britain. The Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage began in Great Britain in 1907 and spread to the United States and internationally to garner support for the cause of suffrage. Suffragette makes it seem that men were on the outskirts of the movement, when in fact they were some of the largest supporters and contributors.5
Suffragette also ignores women of upper classes in favor of focusing on the East End workers of the WSPU. But militants were not just poor women with very little to lose, as the film suggests. The portrayal of elite members of the WSPU as sponsors of tea parties and quietly holding vigils outside of Holloway Prison is inaccurate. Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, spent several stints in prison for suffrage activism and endured hunger strikes on a number of occasions.6 However, to be fair, these are minor quibbles with an otherwise excellent film. Suffragette ends with archival footage of Emily Davison’s funeral, an event that is shown with chilling accuracy in the film, and a scrolling list of countries and the years they granted women the right to vote. The final country on the list is Saudia Arabia and the date is 2015, reminding viewers that the fight for suffrage is not over and the battle for women’s equality still continues.
- Iron Jawed Angels is problematic for a number of reasons. One, it suggests that a deep friendship existed between Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. In reality, Paul was considered by her peers to be abrasive and difficult to work with, and Burns was often forced to act as a mediator between Paul and the movement. Two, the film constructs a fake romantic relationship between Paul and a reporter (Patrick Dempsey), most likely to romanticize her and make her seem less anti-male. Third, there is a scene that shows Paul in a bathtub after a long day of standing on the White House picket line. This scene does nothing to further the plot and is only included to titillate audiences and frame suffragists as sexy protesters. Return to text.
- Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TED Talk, July 2009. Return to text.
- Constitutionalists are not portrayed in the film; Emmeline Pankhurst, “I Incite This Meeting to Rebellion,” London: Royal Albert Hall, 17 October 1912, published in Harold L. Smith, The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928, London: Pearson Longman, 2007. Return to text.
- Smith, The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign, 52. Return to text.
- For more information about the Men’s League in Great Britain, see Sylvia Strauss’ Traitors to the Masculine Cause, Claire Eustance and Angela John’s The Men’s Share, and Ben Griffin’s The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain. Return to text.
- Smith, The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign, 3-60. Return to text.