Sometimes films are not easy entertainment but powerful statements about humanity. Suffragette, the recent release about the struggle for British women’s equal rights is such a film. It is the first major film to examine the issue and long overdue. Until now, the stereotypical image of a suffragette is Mrs Banks parading up and down the hall, singing and then requiring Mary Poppins to rescue her and her children. It is a film every woman (or man for that matter) should see, preferably with their daughter or their mother. Women account for 50% of the human race give or take and it is easy to forget how hard one sex had to fight for basic human rights. And the fight (which isn't fully over) took place less than a hundred years ago.
The subject is not an easy one. The struggle for equality was not peaceful in the UK. But there again, the stakes were high. Women were the property of men. They did not have the right to vote, to look after their own money or indeed have any say about their children. Such things were considered beyond their capacity. The film makes this abundantly clear. They were also not taken seriously until they started to misbehave.
The film follows Maud, a worker ( Carey Mulligan) in a laundry who has few prospects. She was born out of wedlock, and the laundry has been her home. She is married with a son but it is clear that she still is being abused by the manager. At the start of the film, she is not interested in politics but by the end, she is committed to the cause of improving women’s status in society. There were parts of the film which made me cry and parts that had me literally sick to my stomach. There were a number of times I wanted to punch various men in their smug over-bearing faces.
The film highlighted the big injustices as well as the petty ones. For example, a well to do suffragette asks her husband who is an M.P. to post bail for the five other women who were arrested with her. She in part feels responsible for the predicament Maud is in because she was the one who encouraged her to take part and to give her testimony to parliament. He refuses. She says in a low tone but it is my money and he still refuses, saying she shamed him. The larger injustices such as a man being able to put children for adoption without consulting his wife is also highlighted. Giving women equal rights to their children in the UK only happened in the 1920s. So the struggle was not just about voting, but also about how women were treated in society. There is no love interest. Maud’s husband who seems decent enough at the beginning has no epiphany. But that is fine, the film is powerful and shows Maud’s growth. Helena Bonham-Carter is excellent as the woman who married a pharmacist so that she could use her intelligence. And Meryl Streep has a brief cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst. (Something which is not brought out in the film is that Mrs Pankhurst had she not died, would have stood for election as a Tory, not a Labour candidate. Labour came late to the woman’s movement as they were formed to serve the working class man.)
After the film finished and the credits started to roll, my fellow movie-goers and I sat, no one moving and then someone started to clap. The applause echoed through the cinema and then people started to move. My daughter and I had a lively discussion about women and their rights after the film. I suspect that once the film is out on dvd, many high school history teachers will acquire it to show their students. But it is important to support this film so that more films are made about the same subject.
The struggle for equality does continue today and it is easy to forget the price many women paid so that women living in Britain can enjoy certain freedoms, freedoms we often take for granted. Women have obtained/regained many rights but they were hard won. One of the things I know from my own research is how women lost some of those rights and had their freedoms curtailed. We have to be vigilant. And some of that can start by seeing this film.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a wide range of time periods. Her most recent book was Summer of the Viking published in June 2015. You learn more about Michelle and her books on her website – www.michellestyles.co.uk