Suffragette Movie and History

By Dr Maureen Wright

The recent release of Suffragette, a film which explores just two years of the militant struggle for the women’s vote in Britain (1912-13), has caused something of a sensation in the cultural world of 2015.

Sarah Gavron’s beautifully crafted portrayal of the recruitment, passion and sufferings of the film’s chief protagonist, laundress Maud Watts, has brought the issue of women’s suffrage (and their emancipation more widely) into sharper relief in the minds of many of today’s young women – for many of whom all this is ‘ancient’ history and of interest only to scholars. Gavron has made women’s suffrage relevant once more and for that she, and all who took part in the production, should be applauded. The struggle for women’s freedom, in so many ways and not just in their right to vote for an elected government, is one that continues in many countries even today. The struggle, for many, is not historical, but of the moment.

Historians of women have long regarded the history of the women’s emancipation movement as a core element of the research we undertake and the courses we write for our students. Students are often drawn to study the topic because of the famous (and in some cases infamous) personalities they will meet in the archives – Emily Wilding Davison, for instance, whose actions at the 1913 Derby are so graphically depicted in the film by Natalie Press. Also, of course, there is Emmeline Pankhurst, and her daughter Christabel – chief orators, elegant beauties and founders of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in October 1903.

What the film does not tell us is of the damaging and emotional split between these two Pankhurst woman and the third – Emmeline’s second daughter Sylvia in the winter of 1913. An ardent socialist, Sylvia felt her mother and sister had lost their way and betrayed their roots in the working-class Labour movement from which many supporters, such as Maud Watts, had been drawn. Ejected from the WSPU by her mother and sister as militancy reached its height, Sylvia (who had endured both imprisonment and hunger strike) went on, with the assistance of Keir Hardie, to found the East London Federation of Suffragettes and remained true to socialism her whole life. It is unfortunate that her autobiography, The Suffragette Movement (1931) was so full of venom to her family, because its extensive use as a research source has given an impression of Emmeline and Christabel that is somewhat unjustified.

The move of Emmeline’s suffragette ‘army’ to the political right that Sylvia was so critical of was born out of Mrs Pankhurst’s need, both to recruit more middle-class (and therefore moneyed) women to the movement to fund its activities, and to seek to redress the political balance which had meant that socialism placed a great deal more focus on the granting of adult suffrage than it did to purely the women’s vote. Of course there is much more to this than there is space for here, and I will turn now to the figure of Maud Watts and why I find this ‘fictional’ character to be such a powerful reminder of what so many real women were campaigning for.

I was rather indignant, at first, as a suffrage historian of some years standing, to find that Cary Mulligan, the obvious ‘star’ of the film, was playing a fictional ‘suffragette’ – the name given to the militant campaigners for the vote in 1906 by the Daily Mail. After all, there were so many real-life women drawn to the cause whose lives were as interesting!

“I find this fictional suffragette a powerful reminder of
so many real women’s lives at that time”

I have written extensively about one such women, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, who, in addition to her suffrage activities (and she had a place on the WSPU Executive until 1912) also held office in upwards of 20 other women’s emancipation groups. Wolstenholme Elmy began campaigning for changes in women’s ‘rights’ from 1854 – from the moment she enrolled, as a Headmistress of a girls’ school, as a member of the College of Preceptors who, as a mixed-sex grouping, were campaigning for pedagogical training for women teachers.

While the character of Maud Watts is little like the women Wolstenholme Elmy would encourage into Higher Education, she shared many of the real-life suffragette’s ambitions and Mulligan makes her compelling. Watts finds her support for the militants leads her (a hard-working married mother, caring and law-abiding) into a place where her husband ejects her forcibly from their home, refuses her access to her beloved child, who is later adopted, and calmly accepts her wages at the end of the working week. Under the law of the land, the film suggests, he has the ‘right’ to do all these, simply because he is a man. Except that he doesn’t: in the passing over of her pay, Maud is adhering to cultural norms rather than the law, because the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 permit her to keep her own earned money for her own use. Also, Sonny Watts did not have an automatic right to refuse Maud’s access to their child – for the Guardianship of Infants’ Act, 1886 did allow separated women the right of access to children who were under 16 years of age. But Maud obviously knew (or card to know) nothing of these laws, or how to challenge for her rights – though she knew much, she discovers throughout the film, about oppression.

The increasing role of Maud as a campaigning ‘troublemaker’ shows also the breaking down of her community’s solidarity with her – her friends no longer wish to know her, or support her family. She becomes an outcast – her only family her fellow militants and her only maintenance, after she leaves the laundry, coming from WSPU coffers. It is thus this, her denial of cultural rather than new, legal norms, that sets Maud apart from the hundreds of thousands of women who were defined, even in the Edwardian era, by what is known as Victorian domestic ideology – an ideology of the home, the stable family, the moral code. The Suffragette working woman, in denying these things by viewing the world through the lens of gender over class, put herself at significant risk of precisely the censure Maud experienced. Maud Watt’s ‘life’ is written for the screen to encompass nearly all of the ‘rights’ women were denied, either by government legislation, patriarchal culture or both. Perhaps it is for this reason that it was judged best to keep her life a fiction.

“Suffragette working women by viewing the world through the lens of gender over class put themselves at significant risk”

Maud’s friend Violet (Ann-Marie Duff) was the woman who recruited her into the movement, and when Maud finds Violet’s daughter being attacked by their bullish boss (as she was herself in her youth) it ignites the spark that truly converts her to the cause. Scholars have written of this moment of ‘conversion’ as being of intense significance to the members of the movement – often recalled in suffragette autobiographies as an almost religious experience. Certainly the expression on the Maud’s tearful face shows the beginnings of conviction and a certainly that nothing will change if women stand by in the face of such abuse. The motto ‘Deeds not Words’, the slogan of the WSPU, plays a central role in the film, especially as Maud becomes one of the ‘young hot-bloods’ as the extreme militants were termed. In disguise she blows up post-boxes, resists the police, blows up the county home of David Lloyd George and, finally, accompanies Wilding Davison to the Derby, where she witnesses her fateful accident. Her interactions with Inspector Steed, the policeman placed in charge of controlling suffragette protests, are played out by Gavron with depth – as Maud’s increasing physical frailty after hunger-strike and forcible feeding making her increasingly determined to continue her fight. As the body weakens, the resolve deepens.

A review of the film in The Guardian criticises it on the grounds that it does not truly open the modern eye to the ‘effectiveness’ of militancy as a campaign tactic – an argument that has kept historians gainfully employed for many years. The role the war played in turning the tide of women’s enfranchisement was significant, but of course beyond the timeframe of this film. As such the viewer appreciates the ultimate end of the campaign without being able to carry Maud’s own narrative through to a conclusion. The last we see of Mulligan is of a figure in white, with a black mourning sash, taking her place in Davison’s funeral procession. She becomes one of the army – the mass suffragette army for which the vote was symbolic of something new, the freedom of half the world’s population.

More articles on the film

Learn more about the suffrage movement

Purple and green flyer describing the New Park Cinema Chichester event on suffragettes and the artsThe Women’s Political Rights Research Project will be involved in a Suffragette education days which will look at the role of women in political history and film. The first event will be at the New Park Cinema, Chichester on Saturday 21 November 2015. To book, please contact the cinema. Maureen Wright and Abha Thakor will be talking about ‘Becoming Visible: The Rise of the Suffragette, 1880-1918’.

A programme of talks on this and other subjects including the real lives of The Pankhurst women, can be booked via the Women’s Political Rights Research Project. For interview requests with Dr Wright, contact the Project.

The day event at the New Park Cinema is part of ‘The Time is Now’, a UK-wide film project, which launched in October 2015, and is a BFI Film Audience Network initiative with the support of the BFI, awarding funds from The National Lottery.

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