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Issue #1711      November 18, 2015

Film review by Peter Mac with K Green


In the early 20th century the long-running struggle to gain parliamentary voting rights for British women gave rise to the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The organisation, whose members were derisively described as “suffragettes”, adopted civil disobedience as a tactic to publicise and gain support for their cause.

Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai in a scene outside of Parliament House.

The suffragettes have been depicted as violent, eccentric and deeply misguided, but they played a crucial role in gaining the vote for women in Britain, which in turn had a major influence on the struggle for universal suffrage in other countries.

They certainly adopted violent tactics, but as the BBC film Suffragette makes clear, their experience convinced them they had no other choice. The earnest requests for suffrage, made repeatedly by women’s rights campaigners throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were inevitably met with polite but disdainful refusals.

Moreover, the suffragettes’ civil disobedience campaign was not intended to inflict physical injury on persons, but rather to attack the property of the state, or of organisations or individuals who opposed women’s suffrage. The suffragettes chained themselves to iron railings, bombed letter boxes and broke windows, but they adamantly opposed physical violence against individuals. At one stage they bombed the summer home of then Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, but only in his absence.

Indeed, the personal violence that accompanied the struggle for women’s suffrage was overwhelmingly directed at the women themselves rather than being carried out by them.

The violence included vicious beating and sexual molestation by police officers arresting women demonstrators. The suffragettes organised squads of women trained in jujitsu to inhibit police attempting to arrest leaders of the suffrage movement.

After 1909, imprisoned suffragettes began a series of hunger strikes in a campaign to gain formal recognition as political prisoners.

At first the government released seriously malnourished prisoners. However, as more prisoners went on strike, the government resorted to the excruciating practice of force-feeding. This involved several guards holding down the prisoner, forcing a rubber tube down into her stomach through her nose or mouth, pouring in liquid food and then pulling out the tube prior to carrying out the same procedure at the next meal time. Occasionally the liquid entered the lungs rather than the stomach.

The suffragette martyr Emily Davison endured this torture, which invited comparison with mass rape, an unbelievable 49 times without submitting. Working class suffragettes were said to have been subjected to the procedure more often than wealthier women, but the practice was universal.

In 1910 the government made concessions that ended most of the hunger strikes, but they recommenced in 1912 after the imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst. To avoid deaths in custody, the government then passed the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act (soon nicknamed “the cat and mouse act”), under which women who became seriously ill as a result of hunger striking were allowed to return home, only to be returned to prison to complete their sentences when they recovered.

Suffragette examines British women’s struggle for the vote in the years 1911 to 1913, through the eyes of the fictional character Maud Watts, a young working class woman employed in an appalling Dickensian laundry who becomes deeply involved in the suffrage movement despite her misgivings.

Maud’s political consciousness develops, but she pays a terrible price, losing her marriage and contact with her son, as well as suffering imprisonment.

The film climaxes in 1913, the year Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby race meeting and was trampled to death. The tide of public opinion subsequently began to turn in favour of suffrage for women, and thousands watched or marched in Davison’s funeral procession.

During the War most suffragettes ceased civil disobedience and organised activities in support of the soldiers. In 1918 all British men over 21 were finally allowed to vote, but for women the franchise was restricted to those over 30 who had university degrees or owned property, or whose husbands had property. Suffrage for all women over 21 was not gained for another ten years.

The film is very important because it examines not only the struggle of women to gain the vote, but also other areas of discrimination and abuse in the home and workplace. As the film points out, it was not until 1925 that British women won the right to custody of their children after marriage breakdown. The appalling working conditions and sexual abuse of female employees at the laundry depicted in Suffragette was typical of many 19th and early 20th century British workplaces.

The film is not without faults. It provides a fascinating series of dates when votes for women were granted in various countries (in New Zealand in 1893, in France in 1945, and in Switzerland in 1971). However, it fails to mention that women were first granted suffrage in Pitcairn Island and then Norfolk Island in the 1860s. The Australian government granted it in 1908, but not for aboriginal women. As the film notes, the US federal government granted all women the vote in 1920, but because of intimidation and state laws neither black women nor black men voted in the southern states until the 1960s, after the civil rights campaigns.

The film’s story is presented in simple chronological sequence, with no flashbacks. One reviewer described it with an astonishingly bitchy sneer as “a movie of stultifying, spell-it-all-out conventionality”, and a “three Panky melodrama”, but nothing could be further from the truth.

This gripping and deeply moving film sheds a much-needed light on the historical struggle for a political right which most people in developed nations like Australia and Britain now take for granted, and which forms just one element in the vast global matrix of campaigns for human rights.

The film has great performances from Carey Mulligan as Maud, Meryl Streep in a two-minute cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Helena Bonham-Carter as Edith Elyn, a fictional character based on the suffragette Edith Garrud. (Ms. Bonham-Carter’s great-grandfather, HH Asquith, was British Prime Minister from 1908 - 1916 and opposed the granting of suffrage to women)

Suffragette, now showing in Sydney and other capital cities, is well worth seeing.

Next article – Veteran Day hypocrisy

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