Suffragette, depicting British women’s fight for the vote through the experience of laundry worker Maud Watts (Carrie Mulligan), is powerful and moving though screenwriter Abi Morgan’s storytelling and director Sarah Gavron’s visual imagery are conventional. The film takes us up to the game-changing death of activist Emily Wilding Davison who fell under the King’s horse as she protested at the 1913 Derby. The focus on Maud Watts reminds us that it was working class women, often victimised by their employers, ridiculed by their communities and beaten by their men, who also bore the brunt of institutionalised brutality – the police truncheons at demonstrations, the forced feeding in prison. The middle and upper class women like leader Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and pharmacist/bomb maker Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham-Carter) were frequently imprisoned but the State reserved torture for the poor.
The film does not dwell on the horrors of nasal-feeding and its effects on the health of the hunger-striking women. This restraint may have secured the film’s 12a certificate enabling more young people to see it, but it underplays the cold cynicism of the Cat and Mouse Game. The political implications of the Irish detective Steed (played with characteristic charisma by Brendan Gleeson) bringing his anti-Fenian surveillance expertise to the war against the Suffragettes, weren’t lost, however. When Steed objects to the brutality of the government’s strategy we know it’s bad.
Insinuations of systematic child abuse by Maud Watts’ employer are embedded in the story. When Maud shoves a hot iron on his offending hand applause broke out in Clapham Picture House (OK, it was me). Maud’s young husband (Ben Whishaw) becomes increasingly unsympathetic as he is mocked by other men for not keeping her in line. He locks her out of their home, refuses her access to their son and finally has the child adopted. The scene in which Maud tells the small boy to remember her name while his father and new ‘parents’ look on is heart-breaking yet unsentimental. Maud has nothing to lose now and no alternative but to continue fighting for her rights.
As the credits roll a disturbing list of dates flash up: British women over thirty with property get the vote in 1918, British women get rights to their children in 1925, all British women over 21 get the vote in 1928 (decades after Australia and New Zealand). Women of colour in the British colonies don’t receive the vote until much later: 1944 for Jamaica, 1950 for India, 1954 for Ghana. France didn’t give women the vote until 1944, Italy 1945 and Switzerland 1971. Saudi Arabia still hasn’t enfranchised its female citizens. It is a solemn reminder that women should never be too lazy or too complacent to vote.
After the film, we buy dinner with our own money, un-chaperoned in a public house, and ask ourselves if we would be brave enough to risk everything to fight for our rights as women are still doing in many parts of the world. I thought about my grandmother who was a fourteen-year-old domestic servant in an upper class household in Cadogan Square in 1913 yet dared to join the Suffrage movement. Would I fight now from my relatively privileged position if my rights were threatened, if we suddenly found ourselves in a Handmaid’s Tale type scenario? I like to think I would but I am an inveterate coward – one blow from a police baton and I’d probably run home and whip up a Nigella recipe.
Suffragette may bring to life a seemingly remote historical episode and incite a younger generation of women (and men) to ask themselves this question too. It may also stir up a willingness to fund projects about women’s history; the ideas are already out there. Putney Arts Theatre director and friend of Chalk, Lesley Strachan has let me read a draft of her brilliant new play Sylvia about the personal and political divisions within the Pankhurst family. Let’s hope its one of many new works that get commissioned and broadcast a century after Emily Wilding Davison died for the cause.
One for the diary: He Named Me Malala opens 6th November