An industrial laundry in 1912 London, the steam infusing the air, the sweat on the workers’ faces so vivid the viewer herself feels the heat. These laundries were not only literal sweatshops, but surrounded workers with burning toxic lye. This opening scene in Sara Gavron’s new film, Suffragette, is as powerful as any that follow. It is intended to surprise-not what one expects from a film about the British woman suffrage movement, because the history books have mainly told us about its elite leaders, Emmeline and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst.
It took the revival of second-wave feminism to get historians, such as Jill Liddington and Sheila Rowbotham, to explore working-class feminism.
Gavron, director of the 2007 film Brick Lane, centers working-class women in her film, a bold move. She does so through a device common in historical novels and films, by creating a fictional lead character-Maud Watts, laundry worker, played by Carey Mulligan-along with several “real” women to tell the story. Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, in a cameo appearance disparaged by some critics because its brevity comes as a surprise given the use of Streep in the film’s promotion. Helena Bonham-Carter plays Edith Ellyn, who is partly real; she is a character possibly amalgamated from the real Edith New, Edith Garrud or Barbara Ayrton Gould, who did a degree in chemistry at University College London. (Viewers can’t know some juicy bits of irony: that Bonham-Carter’s great grandfather, Herbert Asquith, who was British prime minister 1908-1916, vehemently opposed woman suffrage; or that the suffragettes tried to kidnap his daughter, Bonham-Carter’s grandmother.)
Emily Wilding Davison is also real, played by Natalie Press. She was the movement’s only fatality, trampled by the King’s horse after trying to float a “Votes for Women” banner at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
Suffragette is the first film to depict a women’s movement with major Hollywood stars. And Gavron’s introduction, skyped in at the preview I saw, was superb, emphasizing global women’s struggles and class and race inequality as well as the historical fight for suffrage. As more celebrities come out as feminists, we can hope for more.
The American women’s-rights movement offers unmatched material for such a film: the black and white women speaking out against slavery, the male anti-slavery activists who tried and failed to shut them up because women should be seen and not heard, the 1840 anti-slavery convention that refused to seat the women-and these are just the conflicts of the first decade. But the British woman suffrage campaign was more dramatic at its peak, in the years before World War I. Frustrated by governmental refusal to give an inch, Emmeline Pankhurst jump-started a militant group, the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903. It was an independent, woman-only organization affiliated with the Independent Labour Party. (Its early leaders included George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, and it rejected sectarian Marxism in favor of an openness that brought in Fabian, Christian, and feminist socialists.) The WSPU motto was “Deeds, Not Words.” Its members came to be called “suffragettes,” to distinguish them from the more polite woman suffragists who rejected direct action. (By the way, US suffrage activists were never called suffragettes.)
Working-class women’s participation in the suffrage movement was a complex matter because Britain’s political inequality was not only one of gender but also of class. Only 60 percent of British men could then vote-a matter probably unknown to most of the film’s viewers. Certainly Maud’s husband Sonny could not vote, because the suffrage extended only to those men who held land valued at £10 or paid rent of £10 a year. (That’s about £1100 today.) Nevertheless, many working-class women participated actively, convinced that woman suffrage would bring about other reforms, improving wages and working conditions, health and education.
The early suffragettes engaged in demonstrations, picketing and lobbying. They included the working-class suffrage leader Annie Kenney, who once led a demonstration to 10 Downing Street, where they refused to disperse and stood pounding on the door, demanding an audience. Police on horseback regularly charged into demonstrators, encouraged public hostility with jeers and obscene gestures, and arrested and imprisoned those who couldn’t or chose not to escape. Imprisoned women responded with hunger strikes, which the authorities answered with forced feeding. It was carried out not only brutally – “On Saturday afternoon the wardress forced me onto the bed and two doctors came in. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It is two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing. The end is put up the right and left nostril on alternative days. The sensation is most painful – the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches. I am on the bed pinned down by wardresses, one doctor holds the funnel end, and the other doctor forces the other end up the nostrils. The one holding the funnel end pours the liquid down – about a pint of milk…egg and milk is sometimes used.” But also in a manner designed to humiliate – using rectal and vaginal “feedings”-at a time when women, born into Victorian culture, were socialized to regard purity as central to respectability. Enraged, WSPUers began a campaign of violence against property. They threw bricks and stones into government office windows, cut telephone lines, blew up mailboxes, destroyed greenhouses at Kew Gardens, disrupted gatherings. In 1908 they tried to force their way into the House of Commons.
The forced feedings evoked greater public sympathy and the hunger strikes extended. Fearing that a prisoner might die a martyr’s death, Parliament passed the “Cat and Mouse” law, which provided for releasing from prison those who became ill, allowing them to regain strength, then re-arresting them and resuming the forced feedings.
The narrative of British suffragism created challenges for Gavron and her screenwriter, Abi Morgan. The dictatorial Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the suffrage campaign in 1914 to support the war effort (breaking with the ILP in doing so), and British women gained equal suffrage only in 1928. So their peak militance did not produce victory. And the forced feedings began before the WSPU violence.
The film solved the narrative problem in two ways. First, the WSPU’s violence is shown first, the forced feedings later. Although this move obscures the fact that the WSPU’s violence was reactive to official brutality, it helps build the arc of escalating action. Second, since the film could not end with a victory, the death of Emily Wilding Davidson at the derby become its denouement. Although we are left with a woman sacrificing herself, the film thereby avoids a simplistic “you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby” happy ending. The truth is that feminism is unfinished.
But the foundational decision and the greatest strength of the film is its invention of Maud Watts to stand for working-class women’s stake and participation in the movement. Her world is beautifully visualized: from the grayed palate of colors to threadbare coats to muddy streets to a lecherous boss to husband and son with whom she lives in a tiny, dark flat. Imbedding the story of the suffragettes in this world is a fine corrective to more elite renditions of who and what feminism is.
Equally well done are the men-they’re not caricatures. Maud’s husband Sonny, who also slaves at the laundry, is delicately played by Ben Whishaw; Sonny loves his wife but objects to her increasing devotion to activism and time away from home. Edith Ellyn’s husband is an active supporter of the movement. Most of the police are brutal, but a fictional Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) wants to negotiate with the activists and urges restraint. David Lloyd George (Adrian Schiller), Chancellor of the Exchequer, is polite and quite possibly sympathetic. He wants the women to be patient.
Carey Mulligan carries off a working-class demeanor with grace and dignity (if not in accent). Her role is difficult because her conversion has to occur in such a short time. It helps that others who work at her laundry are already WSPU supporters; it helps that her boss (played subtly by Geoff Bell) tries to force her into sex and she loses her job. Some parts of her transformation are just too condensed: when her husband throws her out, she adapts too quickly and comfortably; and when she loses custody of her son, her desperation and grief is turned into activism too soon.
Most contrived is the coincidence that propels this neophyte activist into being the one to speak to a parliamentary committee on behalf of woman suffrage. And this coincidence was unnecessary: the film would have been no weaker had another WSPUer given the testimony. One such could have been Annie Kenney, and I wondered why Gavron did not put her into the film. A cotton mill worker from age 10, she became the only working-class woman in WSPU’s official leadership. In 1914, just released from prison under the Cat and Mouse Act, she had herself carried into a WSPU meeting on a stretcher; too weak to speak, she fluttered her handkerchief as a form of encouragement to others.
Edith Ellyn and Violet Miller complicate the cast of characters to good effect. Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) is educated, a chemist or apothecary who serves a working-class community in a multitude of ways-providing drugs, medical care, a safe house, and a place for secreting radical leaflets and banners. Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of the fictional Violet Miller is absolutely gripping. Combining warmth with the hardness created by hardship-and, in the film, by determination–she is Maud’s key supporter.
The film is gripping, emotional and complicated. Viewers will be entertained and learn a few things in addition.
Reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly positive. Among the few negative opinions, most troubling are accusations that the film is racist because it shows no black people. Viewers might be excused for not knowing that very few blacks lived in England at the time, but these accusations can become viral and damage unjustifiably the reputation of a film and filmmaker committed to social justice. More damaging yet has been the circulation of images of the film’s stars wearing a Tshirt, provided by Time Out for a photo-op, quoting Emmeline Pankhurst saying “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” Apparently British viewers understood the context but some Americans did not, and considered the quotation racist for trivializing slavery. Besides, Gavron’s previous film Brick Lane focuses directly on British racism.
Disclosure: I spoke by phone with director Sarah Gavron about the race issue before seeing the film. She was concerned about texts on screen at the film’s end that announce that American women won the vote in 1920. Gavron knows, of course, that most African Americans (and, I might add, many Latino/as and Asian Americans) were not enfranchised until 1965’s Voting Rights Act. But there are many countries in which woman suffrage was at first limited only to more privileged women, and she couldn’t list all these limitations. Our discussion and the Tshirt flap illustrated for me the problems of cultural translation-in this case, that the Black Lives Matter movement has made racism more prominent in the public discussion here in the US, not so much in the UK.
But no progressive social movement evokes these allegations as much as feminism does, despite the facts that even white feminists are less racist and more favorable toward anti-racist causes-such as Black Lives Matter-than are white nonfeminists (a fact demonstrated repeatedly by polls). Why feminism is a chronically used scapegoat is somewhat mysterious. Perhaps feminism’s vocal condemnations of injustice toward women seem to compete with condemnations of racism; perhaps white racism seems more personal when it comes from women rather than from men, politicians, or corporations; perhaps feminism still seems to some a diversion from the urgent need to resist racism; and many fear and resent the transformations in gender structures that feminism promises. Certainly Americans’ poor historical education contributes, seen in the common belief that feminism is a white thing, thus erasing the long history of African American feminism. More likely this scapegoating of feminism is an expression of all the above, over-determined. But it’s a loss to us all.
Linda Gordon is a professor of history and a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. Her early books focused on the historical roots of social policy issues, particularly as they concern gender and family issues. More recently, she has explored other ways of presenting history to a broad audience, publishing the microhistory The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999) and the biography Dorothea Lange: A Life beyond Limits (W.W. Norton, 2009), both of which won the Bancroft Prize. She is one of only three historians to have won this award twice.