History has a way of defanging heroes. Time and distance can smooth out the rough edges, take away the radicalism that defined them in relation to their time, and eventually they become little more than black and white pictures in history books. It took less than a century for that to happen to the Suffrage Movement; however Sarah Gavron’s new film, Suffragette, shares a very different view of the women who won their British peers the right to vote.
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a 24-year-old worker at a laundry, where she’s been employed since she was 7 years old. She works alongside her husband for a sexually abusive manager. She manages to work her way up through the ranks because of her skillful ironing of collars. One day, while on a delivery, she gets caught up in a riot as Suffragettes, called to rebellion by Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), start smashing windows.
As it happens, a co-worker is part of the movement, and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) encourages Maud to get involved. Initially, she’s hesitant; but, when Violet arrives to give testimony before the Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George with her face badly bruised, Maud steps in to share what life is like for the women at the laundry, and why they deserve the right to vote. From there it’s a steep road to protesting, prison, and eventual exile from her family as Maud becomes more and more involved in the fight for voting rights.
In truth, the film isn’t really the story of women’s suffrage in Great Britain. It’s the story of one working class woman’s gradual political awakening and empowerment. Although the fictional Maud is dropped into a cast of historical figures, including Emily Davison, the film is tightly focused on a small group of activists. The Suffragettes of the film are local, tight-knit, and working class.
The incredible struggle for women’s rights is explored through the small band of women. Until now, the most prevalent pop culture reference to the Suffragettes has most likely been the flighty and upbeat Winifred Banks singing of how their daughters’ daughters would adore them. Far from this image, Suffragette doesn’t shy away from showing the very real danger of speaking up. Maud is beaten, arrested, thrown out of her home, separated from her son, force fed … and she’s just one woman.
The film also shows the layered oppression of women. It’s not just the law that keeps women living as second-class citizens. While the cruelty of Maud’s boss is immediately evident, her husband, Sonny, seems kind at first. Eventually, when Maud dares to join the fight, he lashes out against his wife’s “shaming” behavior. Violet’s husband beats her, and when she becomes pregnant she has to back away from activism. Alice Haughton, the privileged wife of an MP, is financially controlled by her husband, who is willing to “indulge” her but refuses to bail out her fellow activists. Despite being empowered and strong women, the precarious nature of their own involvement is underlined by these subtle moments when the men who are ultimately in charge draw a line in the sand.
The most interesting male character, however, is Inspector Arthur Steed, played by Brendan Gleeson. He’s brought in to investigate the wing of the Woman’s Social and Political Union that Maud becomes involved in, and is clearly drawn to Maud as a possible weak link. He repeatedly makes clear that he’s just there to enforce the laws and to follow orders. When he overhears Maud’s anguished choking while being force fed, his discomfort is made clear. The film doesn’t try to make him a convert to the good fight, which would feel like a cop-out. Instead, he’s a manifestation of the passive maintenance of the status quo.
The film has many touching, moving, inspiring and harrowing scenes. But one that stands out as particularly relevant given today’s resurgence of feminism occurs early on in the film. Maud, having just been arrested at a protest, is being interrogated by Steed. When he begins questioning her activities as a Suffragette, Maud is quick to clarify: “I’m not a Suffragette.” She repeats it several times, clearly terrified and desperate to get home to her family, as Steed asks what she was doing there, why she gave testimony, and why she’s been photographed with known activists.
The fight for equality is already Maud’s fight, regardless of whether she uses the word “Suffragette” or not. Shortly after that conversation, Maud joins full-force. Nevertheless, her initial hesitation to align herself with the women decried by the media, hunted by the government, and reviled by her community says a lot. In it, there are echoes of women who today refuse to describe themselves as feminists. As Emmeline Pankhurst once said, what matters are “deeds, not words.”
It is without a doubt that the Suffrage Movement deserves to be brought to vivid life after so many years of blurred photos of women holding banners. And Suffragette does that, balancing the many dangers women who fought for the right to vote withstood and the bonds they made while changing the lives of women and their political futures forever. Finally, their daughters’ daughters’ daughters can get a glimpse of what their fight truly meant and a more accurate picture of what it might have looked like.
WORDS BY: Bridey Heing. Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.