It was with great excitement that, early in the morning of 6 April 2014, my daughter Catherine and I arrived at Methodist Central Hall, London, ready to be made up as extras for the feature film Suffragette. Although I was one of the historical advisers on the film, directed by Sarah Gavron with a script by Abi Morgan, this was something much more adventurous!
Pictures of hairstyles of Edwardian women were displayed in one section of the hall and I was promptly transformed, to look like an upper-middle-class activist. After my straight shoulder-length hair had been pinned into small, tight curls and a hairnet placed over it, I was taken to the wardrobe department and squeezed into a waspie, to get the “right” shape.
A long dark brown skirt and three-quarter-length jacket fitted well and were complemented by a jaunty black hat, with a large feathery bow, perched on my head. A red fox fur, complete with its head and legs, was draped over my right shoulder. Unlike Catherine, who looked glamorous in her navy suit and black velvet hat, I looked – and felt – formidable. We were both soon on the enclosed cobbled pathways outside Parliament, being filmed as part of the crowd who were presenting a petition, demanding the parliamentary vote for women.
Central to Suffragette are the feminist activists of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 to campaign for votes for women. It brilliantly evokes the spirit of the times, the courage and determination of women who were no longer prepared to be classified with “lunatics, criminals and minors” as unfit to exercise the democratic right of political citizenship.
Although the suffragette movement was a national movement, the events take place in London, where the fierce struggle between an obdurate Liberal government and thousands of female protesters was played out in the full glare of publicity. The ferocity of the police in dealing with peaceful protests is shocking to see on screen.
The focus of the film is on the years 1912-13 when, after years of mainly civil disobedience, the suffragettes turned to more militant tactics, such as mass smashing of shop windows in London’s West End, vandalising pillar boxes, cutting telephone wires and setting fire to empty buildings. Throughout, their leaders insisted that there must be no danger to human life, only to property.
The central character is Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), employed in a laundry in the East End of London. Her acute awareness of the inequalities that women faced in the workplace, including low pay, little control over their working conditions and sexual harassment by bullying male bosses, brings her into the struggle for the parliamentary vote. Critical in this politicisation process is her friendship with a fellow laundry worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), a battered wife who invites Maud to a suffrage meeting.
Maud’s husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) is aghast that his wife becomes a militant suffragette and takes to breaking windows as she adopts the WSPU motto of “Deeds, not words”. Trapped in the conventions of his time, he cannot cope with the shame of her being imprisoned, nor with the backlash from their local community. He resolves the situation in a most cruel manner, by having their young son – whom Maud loves dearly – adopted. But Sonny’s actions, although supported by the laws of the time, cause him a lot of anguish.
The focus on working-class women’s lives does not obscure the friendships between women across the social divide. Thus Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) is an upper-class woman who seeks new recruits to the WSPU and is supportive of those who are less well off. Edith and Hugh Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter and Finbar Lynch) run a pharmacy in the East End – and secretly help to make explosives for those militant suffragettes brave enough to use them. Although such characters are fictional, Gavron explains that the Ellyns were based on three real-life couples who supported the women’s cause.
Personally, I would have liked more space to have been given to Mrs Pankhurst than the cameo role she has in the film, since she was the inspirational figurehead of the movement. But Meryl Streep conveys her charisma and conviction most powerfully when she delivers, from a balcony, the infamous speech “Be militant in your own way.” In reality, that address took place during a crowded WSPU meeting at the Albert Hall, on 17 October 1912.
Nor is any space given to Emmeline’s eldest daughter Christabel, her co-leader of the suffragette campaign and the originator of militancy. But film directors have to make choices; the Albert Hall might have been too expensive to hire and fill with thousands of extras and the focus of the film is on the everyday experiences of the rank-and-file, not the leaders.
The horrendous scenes of hunger-striking suffragettes being forcibly fed in prison made me shed a tear. Feeding tubes thrust roughly up a nose or down the throat, accompanied by overpowering physical force, were experienced as a form of instrumental rape. How could a Liberal government that claimed to be “democratic” be so blind?
Given that there was so much drama, passion and humour in the suffragette movement in Edwardian Britain, why have we had to wait until 2015 for a feature film about the subject? Women’s history has been marginalised in the male-dominated film industry, just as in the academy. Suffragette, telling the story of First Wave Feminism from the women’s point of view, is an inspiring corrective.
But more than this, Suffragette has relevance for a modern-day audience in its message about the struggle for equality for women in all walks of life. It portrays the suffragette movement as a multi-stranded movement, concerned with wider social reforms than the vote. Women in Britain today are still struggling for equal pay, an end to gender-based violence, equal representation in Parliament and in boardrooms.
Suffragette opens in UK cinemas on 12 October.
June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth.
Suffragette opens in the UK on 12 October and in the US on 23 October