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; they also surrounded workers with burning toxic lye. This opening scene in Sarah Gavron’s new film, Suffragette, is as powerful as any that follow. It is intended to surprise. It is 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 Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel.
It took 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, puts working-class women at the center of her new work, 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—to tell the story, along with several “real” women.
Suffragette is the first film to depict a women’s movement with major Hollywood stars. Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, in a cameo appearance criticized by some for its brevity, given the prominence of Streep in the film’s promotion. Helena Bonham-Carter plays Edith Ellyn, a character possibly based on real people: Edith New, Edith Garrud, or Barbara Ayrton Gould, who earned a degree in chemistry from University College London. (A juicy bit of irony: Bonham-Carter’s great grandfather, Herbert Asquith, who was British prime minister from 1908 to 1916, vehemently opposed woman suffrage—for which the suffragettes tried to kidnap his daughter, Bonham-Carter’s grandmother.) Another historical figure, Emily Wilding Davison, is played by Natalie Press. She was the movement’s only fatality, trampled by King George V’s horse after trying to raise a “Votes for Women” banner at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
Gavron Skyped in at the preview I saw, offering a superb introduction that emphasized global women’s struggles and class and racial inequality as well as the historical fight for suffrage. As more celebrities come out as feminists, we can hope for more films about women’s movements.
We could, for example, use a cinematic exploration of the American women’s rights movement. It offers unmatched material for drama: the black and white women speaking out against slavery, the male antislavery activists who tried and failed to shut them up because women should be seen and not heard, the 1840 antislavery 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 intransigence, Pankhurst jump-started a militant group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), in 1903. It was an independent, woman-only organization affiliated with the Independent Labour Party (ILP), whose early leaders included George Bernard Shaw and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl (the ILP 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.”)
The narrative of British suffragism created challenges for Gavron and her screenwriter, Abi Morgan.
Working-class women’s participation in the suffrage movement was a complex affair because Britain’s political inequality was a matter not only of gender but of class. Only 60 percent of British men could then vote—a fact probably unknown to most of the film’s viewers. Certainly Sonny—the husband of the film’s protagonist—would not have been able to 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 £1,100 today). Nevertheless, many working-class women participated actively in the movement, convinced that woman suffrage would bring about other reforms, improving wages and working conditions, health and education.
The early suffragettes demonstrated, picketed, and lobbied. One working-class suffrage leader, Annie Kenney, once led a demonstration to 10 Downing Street, where the women pounded on the door and refused to disperse, 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. The feedings were carried out with brutality, as suffragette Mary Leigh recounted in 1909:
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 … 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.
They were also carried out in a manner designed to humiliate: authorities often employed 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 provoked growing 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 that protesters who became ill would be released from prison. Once they had regained strength, they would be rearrested, and the forced feedings would resume.
The narrative of British suffragism created challenges for Gavron and her screenwriter, Abi Morgan. The dictatorial Emmeline Pankhurst, who personally made all decisions for the movement, suspended the suffrage campaign in 1914 to support the war effort (breaking with the ILP in doing so). Ultimately, British women gained equal suffrage only in 1928. So their peak militance did not produce victory. Moreover, the forced feedings actually began before the suffragettes resorted to violence.
The film solved these narrative problems in two ways. First, the film reverses the chronology of events, showing the suffragette’s violence first. Although this move obscures the fact that the WSPU was responding to official brutality, it helps build the arc of escalating action. Second, even though concluding the film with Davidson’s death at the derby leaves us with a woman sacrificing herself, it also avoids a simplistic “you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby” happy ending. The truth is that feminism is unfinished.
But the filmmakers’ most foundational decision, and the film’s greatest strength, is the invention of Maud Watts to stand for working-class women’s stake and participation in the movement. Her world is beautifully visualized, in a grayed palate of colors, from threadbare coats and muddy streets to the tiny, dark flat she shares with her husband and son. A lecherous boss adds sexual violence to the slow violence of the laundry’s working conditions. Embedding 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 the 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 arguably sympathetic. He wants the women to be patient.
Carey Mulligan carries off a working-class demeanor (if not the accent) with grace and dignity. Her role presents challenges for an actor, because her conversion has to occur in such a short time. Contributing to its plausibility is the fact that others who work at her laundry are already WSPU supporters, and that her boss (played subtly by Geoff Bell) tries to force her into sex and she loses her job. But some parts of her transformation are just too condensed: when her husband throws her out, she adapts too quickly and comfortably; when she loses custody of her son, her desperation and grief turn into activism too soon.
Most contrived is the coincidence that propels this neophyte activist into being the speaker at a parliamentary committee on behalf of woman suffrage. This coincidence was unnecessary: the film would have been no weaker had another WSPUer given the testimony. Annie Kenney would have done nicely here, and I wondered why Gavron did not put her into the film. A cotton mill worker from age 10, Kenney became the only working-class woman in WSPU’s official leadership. In 1913, just after her release 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. The middle-class Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) is a chemist and apothecary who serves a working-class community in a multitude of ways: she provides drugs, medical care, a safe house, and a place for secreting radical leaflets and banners. Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of the fictional Miller is absolutely riveting. Combining warmth with the hardness created by hardship—and, in the film, by her determination—she is Maud’s key supporter.
The film is gripping, emotional and complicated, and in fact reviews 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 black people 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 T-shirts, provided by the magazine Time Out for a photo-op, with a quotation from Pankhurst: “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. This controversy is all the more ironic given that Gavron’s previous film, Brick Lane, was a direct critique of British racism.
Disclosure: I spoke by phone with director Sarah Gavron about the race issue before seeing the film. She was concerned about the texts on-screen at the film’s end announcing 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 T-shirt flap illustrate the problems of cultural translation—in this case, that the Black Lives Matter movement has recently made racism more prominent in public discussions in the US, while no analogous case has done the same in the UK.
Today, no progressive social movement elicits allegations of racism as much as feminism does, despite the fact that, as many polls show, white feminists are less racist and more favorable toward antiracist causes—such as Black Lives Matter—than are white nonfeminists. Why feminism is chronically scapegoated for its alleged racism 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. Certainly, many fear and resent the transformations in gender structures that feminism promises. Americans’ poor historical education also contributes to the misunderstanding: there is a myth that feminism is a white thing, which ignores the long history of African American feminism. Most likely, this scapegoating of feminism is an expression of all the above, over-determined. But it’s a loss to us all.