When celebrating my birthday this year, my husband gave me a wonderful present; the film Suffragette, the release of which I missed in 2015. Prior to viewing the film I had naively believed that in the civilised UK, women would have inevitably gained the right to vote, even without the suffragettes’ campaign.
After taking a decade to get off the ground, Suffragette made its UK premiere as the opening movie of the London film festival, in October last year. Directed by Sarah Gavron, with Abi Morgan as screenwriter (The Iron Lady), this intense drama traces the story of the early feminist movement in London between 1912 and 1913, at the midpoint of the civil disobedience struggle to achieve equal voting rights. Under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, it was a tough and prolonged fight to gain votes for women. The intense campaign in the UK started in 1903, but women did not get the vote on the same terms as men until 1928.
In chronicling that emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the women’s movement, the film doesn’t gloss over other important issues from the beginning of the 20th century, such as routine dangerous working conditions, low pay and sexual abuse in the workplace, which continue to this day, often but not totally, in developing countries. The plot incorporates a wide spectrum of protest, from scuffles and vandalism to arson, with Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep in a cameo performance, determinedly exhorting her audience: “Deeds, not words. Never surrender, never give up the fight.” But she is actually hiding from the authorities to avoid jail, so her performance is very brief, moving the focus of this breathtaking production to the rank and file, with the main character being an ordinary and poor working-class woman called Maud Watts (fictional). So much of what those amazing foot soldiers fought for is still pertinent today and it’s a shame that it’s taken such a long time for those stories to be told on the big screen.
Maud starts in the film as a wife and mother who has been working in an industrial laundry for quite a while. She ends up getting politically engaged in suffragist activities almost through circumstances beyond her control. Her struggle is the centre of the drama. Maud Watts is the image of ‘the girl who is never heard by society’, performed by Carey Mulligan in a stunning, courageous and, at the same time, simple way. She is gentle, delicate, feminine and feminist without being aware of it, but always assertive when dealing with her husband’s incomprehension and demands (Ben Whishaw). Despite being so suave, she also faces her depraved boss (Geoff Bell) and a very scheming police inspector (Brendan Gleeson), showing an amazing inner strength. The character Maud Watts doesn’t only garner public sympathy, she melts our hearts, leaving us deeply moved and tearful. When called to testify before Parliament, replacing Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), she suggests in a meek manner: “I thought there’s another way of living this life.”
Maud Watts is the personification of many women during the suffragist activities in this country, fighting politically and believing that when the right to vote was given to women, it would be the start of new achievements. The right to vote remains vital to us all and gives us the right to express our own will, a gift that voiceless women like her weren’t allowed to do in those days. Maud Watts ends up joining a sisterhood (the Suffragettes), through attending concealed meetings in the back room of a pharmacy run by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Her actions take her to prison, where she is force fed after a hunger strike, in a way that shocked even the police inspector. When released, she has to face the emotional and dramatic loss of her family, as her husband couldn’t cope with her way of thinking.
I am not keen on radicalism, in fact I agree with the police inspector when he shows his reservation to violence, saying “…Violence doesn’t discern. Violence takes the innocent and the guilty…,” but I understand those heroic women had to be fiery and definitely not genteel, in their struggle to gain rights and show that gender equality was possible. The film is deliberately left hanging in silence, as the activist Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) throws herself in front of a horse owned by King George V at a race in 1913 (real-life story), in a moment showed by the press to the world, aiming to make public the struggle for women’s rights. That silence at the end is a heart-warming invitation to take a breath and think. Suffragette is a historical lesson for all of us brought to the present day, as women everywhere are interconnected. America gave women the right to vote in 1920, after the Suffragettes and other countries did the same, for example Spain (1931), Brazil (1932), France (1944), Italy (1946), Liechtenstein (1984), among others.
Suffragette is not just about the vote, nor simply a push to look back at how terrible things used to be and reflect how much better they are now. Actually, the movement gave new perspective to women’s rights, at a time when these things were unthinkable. Their struggle for the vote was effectively a wake up call on behalf of all the abused and silent women, worldwide. So, these days our first vote should be for the Suffragettes, for acting with heroism that hopefully becomes increasingly infectious and will never be forgotten. They made it clear that they would respect the law, as long as the law was respectful, thus, they broke disrespectful laws, so that women who used to live in quietness could stand up and come on board. Females now believe that little changes can make a huge difference and can challenge inequalities every day. The production’s ambition was achieved, as all the messages depicted are about empowerment and equality for all women universally. Unfortunately, the right to vote nowadays becomes important only when we lose it, so women should never miss the right to express their opinions through voting, remembering that only a century ago the brave Emily Davison threw herself before a horse for that right. Besides being an inspiring reminder of how far we have come, the message delivered early in last century by those brave women is echoing here and now. So, as long as we aim for the best for women, we must strive in unison with each other and take the challenge further!