The right kind of feminists

June Purvis responds to fellow academics’ criticisms of the film Suffragette

November 19, 2015
Anne-Marie Duff (left) and Carey Mulligan star in Suffragette

Why are some female historians so unsupportive of the considerable achievements of some feminists? That question has preoccupied me over the past few weeks as I read some very negative comments about the film Suffragette, which had its premiere on 7 October.

Scripted, directed and produced by four talented British feminists – Abi Morgan, Sarah Gavron, Faye Ward and Alison Owen – Suffragette is a gripping, inspiring movie. It tells the story of the militant suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Edwardian Britain through the eyes of a laundry worker, Maud Watts, played in an award-worthy performance by Carey Mulligan.

Maud’s growing awareness of the inequalities that she faces, including lack of control over her working conditions and sexual harassment by a bullying male boss, brings her into the struggle for the parliamentary vote. She graduates from peaceful protest to window smashing, hunger striking when imprisoned and then arson. She also endures the torture of forcible feeding. Militancy gives Maud a sense of agency, a feeling of empowerment.

This was a common journey for many suffragettes who joined the women-only WSPU. Yet in a recent post on the University of Sheffield's History Matters blog, Julie Gottlieb (University of Sheffield) and Lucy Delap (University of Cambridge) decry Maud’s characterisation, complaining that it lacks “complexity” and is merely a “box ticking” device to place the central character in the most sensational acts of militancy. Although they also include a number of positive comments, the film is belittled by their calling it “the Forrest Gump of feminism” – a phrase that smacks of academic snobbery. Sadly, some academics seem to take great satisfaction in undermining initiatives that don’t originate from the rarefied world of universities. Historians in particular are often guilty of this, nit-picking at the smallest detail or feeling slighted if their pet project is not mentioned, seemingly oblivious of the financial let alone practical and artistic constraints of producing a film.

Gottlieb and Delap praise other critical comments about Suffragette made online by female historians. Helen McCarthy (Queen Mary University of London) condemns the absence of any mention of the non-militant suffragists of the mixed-sex National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and laments the one brief reference to socialist-feminist Sylvia Pankhurst, who disagreed with the strategy and tactics of the WSPU, led by her mother Emmeline. Maud is the “wrong” sort of feminist because she is not a trade unionist. Laura Schwartz (University of Warwick) notes how, from 1912, many suffragists began building alliances with the Labour Party in the class struggle.

Here we come to the heart of the matter. Women’s history, as it developed in Britain in the 1970s, was closely tied to socialist feminism. Sylvia Pankhurst’s 1931 book, The Suffragette Movement, in which she inflates her own importance, was revered as definitive. This condemns the WSPU for its 1907 break with the Independent Labour Party, dismissing it as bourgeois and unconcerned with wider social reforms for all women. Too many commentators on Suffragette are still wedded to this paradigm. Recent research that has questioned Pankhurst’s text is not read or dismissed.

Suffragette does not fit into the socialist feminist paradigm. Instead it shows women working together across the class divide, as many suffragettes did. Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) is a middle-class pharmacist who, in the back room, secretly teaches other suffragettes to make explosives. Upper-class Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) brings recruits into the cause and takes in a young woman who is being sexually harassed at the laundry.

What do all these critics of Suffragette want? A film a hundred minutes long that centres on an academic debate about militancy and class consciousness? A film accompanied by a handout detailing all the complexities? Has it not occurred to them that Suffragette tells just one story from the wider women’s suffrage movement? That it has to be commercially successful and appeal to a wide audience?

For me, Suffragette is a stunning feminist achievement that movingly portrays the importance of women’s activism. That message is as relevant today as it was nearly a century ago.

June Purvis, professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Portsmouth, was an unpaid consultant on Suffragette. This is an edited version of a piece that appeared on the University of Sheffield's History Matters blog.

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