Suffragette: when war became women’s only option

Erin Beesley shares her thoughts on the recently released Suffragette

Everyone knows about the suffragette movement. But very few actually know about those women in the movement who tirelessly fought, starved and campaigned for rights to a public voice. The new film, Suffragette, educates and inspires, demonstrating that half the human race cannot be silenced.

The story follows Maud (played with great intensity and vitality by Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker, who is swept into the spotlight when she accompanies Violet (Anne Marie Duff) to a parliamentary hearing. When Violet arrives bruised from an assault by her alcoholic husband, Maud unwillingly takes her place. But the freedom to speak her mind to Lloyd George marks a turning point, and the start of her interest in the suffrage movement. Maud is torn between her loyalty to her husband and son, and the suffrage campaign; her sacrifices demonstrate the fervour with which these women fought.

Screenwriter Abi Morgan initially wrote the story of an oppressed upper-class woman, but soon realised she was telling the wrong narrative. The women who made the movement were often illiterate and unable to record their stories, so Maud was created to represent those whose voices have been lost in the annals of time.

This film is not your classic period drama; yes, there are corsets, but there are also beatings and force feedings. It is tear-inducing and hard to watch at points. The shots of the suffragettes in the streets appear like news footage, with a shaky camera, placing the audience in the crowds, alongside the women. This contrasts to the close-up shots of the Inspector (Brendan Gleeson) and Maud in the prison cell. Their scenes are electric, representing the stand-off between the law makers and breakers, and it’s a pity that we didn’t see more of this relationship as well as the male perspective on suffragettes.

Helena Bonham Carter gives a strong performance, as a determined soldier in the fight, but Meryl Streep’s cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst lacks a purpose. Perhaps the casting directors should not have pandered to Streep’s desire to be part of such a production – a production which was also an educational process. The cast actively researched the history of the movement, brining suggestions and revisions to the set.

The sense of unfinished business within the film’s narrative highlights that this is a snapshot in history, and that there is also unfinished business within the women’s rights movement. This was demonstrated during the premiere where the red carpet was stormed by ‘Sisters Uncut’ as a protest against cuts made to domestic abuse services. A further illustration is through a report published in August by University of Southern California, which found that women had less than a third of the speaking parts in the most popular films of the last seven years. Hollywood should watch Suffragette and take note.

A problematic aspect of the film was its publicity, and the uncomfortable brandishing of the phrase, ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ by the four white stars on t-shirts. Many understandably took offense to this; yet again women of colour were excluded from the history books. There can be no doubt that black women’s history needs greater representation. Those publicising the film should undoubtedly have selected their slogans more carefully, in full knowledge that the word ‘slave’ carries for many painful reminders of their own battle for human rights.

Yet there was something important about watching this film in the cinema, alongside other women who are the beneficiaries of the suffragettes’ courage. A century ago, women shouted out half the human race could not be ignored. Suffragette is a testimony to the working class women who fought for a voice, when war was the only language men would listen to. A must see film for anyone concerned with women’s rights, history, cinema and justice.

Four stars ****

Illustrations by Isobel Litten 

One thought on “Suffragette: when war became women’s only option

  1. Nice one Erin, this film has been long overdue probably because most studios are run by men with rather Victorian attitudes towards women. On a rather sour note I saw Meryl Streep on a promo and she revealed that she normally gets paid less than the male lead, even when she is the star which rather makes my point.
    Keep up the good work.
    Kim 🙂


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