Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter

Women against men?

Christina Black reviews: Suffragette, Sarah Gavron (director) general release

Suffragette is essentially a period piece set around 1912-13, which combines historical and fictional characters in a drama depicting the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, culminating in the martyrdom of Emily Davison.

The run-up to its release generated significant press interest - in part due to the largely female-led production team. Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan (whose previous work includes Iron lady), the film features a cast led by Carey Mulligan (as the fictional Maud Watts) and supported by Anne Marie Duff and a strong, uncharacteristically understated Helena Bonham Carter. The feminist group, Sisters Uncut, used the opening night at the London Film Festival to enact a protest of their own, jumping the barrier and lying down on the red carpet to make a statement about domestic violence. This half-assed Emily Davison homage was not a protest against the film (just as Davison’s act of martyrdom was not a protest against horse racing), but an opportunity to take advantage of the TV cameras’ presence.

One protestor, writing in The Independent, said that, while she was not protesting against the film, she had issues with the lack of black and minority ethnic representation of the women in the movie. She also took umbrage at the slogan, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”, which Meryl Streep calls out from the balcony in her cameo role as Emmeline Pankhurst, as it implied slavery was a lifestyle choice! Intersectionalism gone mad(der).

The film gets away with its lack of nuance because of the strength of the acting. Mulligan’s subtle, emotional portrayal of Maud Watts allows the audience to forgive the sometimes contrived nature of the storyline.

Watts is a laundry worker in Bethnal Green. Orphaned at four, her mother having worked for the laundry, she is put to work from the age of seven and in her early teens is subject to the unwanted attention of the laundry’s owner, who is seen to prey upon women and girls in his employment. At the beginning of the film Maud is portrayed as an apolitical, working class young woman, accepting her lot in work and taking some solace in her domestic life with her husband and son. This soon changes due to her acquaintance and subsequent friendship with Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), a committed member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

In an all-too-convenient twist of fate, Maud ends up filling in for Violet in parliament to give testimony to the then chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George, where she highlights the appalling conditions of female workers in her factory (male workers had it marginally better, as they were often outdoors away from the chemical fumes). Maud, like others, believes the politicians will ‘see sense’ and change the law. But prime minister Herbert Asquith, Lloyd George and their government are not interested in amending the suffrage bill, provoking unrest. The police beat up and incarcerate the women gathered outside parliament and Maud is one of those arrested. Her faith in the establishment gone, she sees that a more militant approach is required. There is a Hollywood-inspired triteness in the political awakening of Maud - but I am prepared to forgive it to a point.

Maud’s husband, Sonny, is the embodiment of working class humility and conservative respectability. In one of our first encounters with him, he makes his son say a deferent goodnight to a picture of the king. Sonny is angry with Maud for embarrassing him, and is concerned with what his elderly female neighbours will think of Maud’s waywardness. Perhaps his male co-workers will question his masculinity in not being able to keep Maud under control. After her second incarceration, he kicks her out, denying her access to their child. Some of the most touching scenes involve Maud’s attempts to see her son (I will admit to shedding a tear).

With nothing left to lose, Maud is among the most militant of the suffragettes. The film does not shy away from portraying acts of violence, such as blowing up letterboxes and Lloyd George’s summer house. Nor does it take the moral high ground that you half expect: ie, these women were committing ‘acts of terror’ that ‘alienated ordinary people’ from their cause.

Edith Ellyn (played by Bonham Carter) is the most educated of the key women in the film and the most militant. Ellyn can be seen as the personification of the fight for equal education for girls and women. At times it seems she is about to be cast as ‘the extremist’ whose unrelenting dedication to the cause and commitment to violence might be portrayed negatively to abate liberal sensibilities. It does briefly allude to a story about Ellyn’s need to obey Emmeline Pankhurst’s instruction so unquestioningly that she begins to alienate those around her. She is told by her husband: “The movement is divided. Even Sylvia Pankhurst is opposed to her mother and sister’s militant strategy.” This is the only mention of Sylvia in the film, and it would have been interesting for the director to have explored further the ideological differences in the movement. In the end, Violet backs away from continued direct action, having been one of its more militant advocates, but this is conveyed as a response to her pregnancy, not as a political difference.

Mr Ellyn (Edith’s husband), is one of the few men in the film actively seen to be supporting the suffragettes. The other male characters are largely cruel, exploitative or paternalistic. Working class men are shown as acting on behalf of the state, policing their women. There is little nuance when it comes to opponents of female suffrage. None are turned, converted or swayed.

However, no punches are pulled when it comes to the role of the police. They are seen beating female protestors to the ground and manhandling those arrested. At the top end of the force, there is collusion with the government to try to break the suffragettes without the bad publicity of martyrdom and to keep reports of civil disobedience out of the press. Likewise, conditions for political prisoners are shown as horrific. One of the most powerful and difficult moments in the film is watching Maud being force-fed through a tube in her nose.

Brendan Gleeson as the fictional Inspector Steed tries to persuade Maud to turn informant - an offer she declines. Throughout the film Steed is portrayed as watching paternally over Maud. He sees her as a working class victim of a movement for which she is fodder.

Despite the welcome focus on working class women, which is often ignored in the historical narrative, there is little in the way of actual class-consciousness. Issues often glossed over by bourgeois feminists are alluded to, such as the notion that, unlike their upper class contemporaries in the movement, they are unlikely to have the ear of politicians, the means to bail themselves out of jail, etc. Nonetheless, the fight is being fought against the establishment in the form of parliament and the police - and reactionary men.

No mention is made of the socialist movement at the time, save the one reference made to Sylvia Pankhurst, in passing, cited above. Given that much of the story is set in east London, Sylvia would have been a formidable force in the politics of the time, not least because of her role in the WSPU (and her subsequent split from it). Also worth noting is that the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party identified women’s suffrage as one of its priorities (and that this should be extended to all men). A deeper exploration of the different views of men and women in the labour movement would have added depth and intrigue to the plot.

What seems a glaring omission is that there is no recognition that not all men had the vote during this period. At the outbreak of war in 1914, only around 40% of men - those able to prove that they paid £10 in rent a year or held the equivalent in land - could vote. In 1918 the state was forced to concede universal male suffrage to the armed, trained and increasingly politicised men, returning from war in the wake of the Russian Revolution. There is recognition here that democratic rights are not bestowed upon us, or are the evolutionary result of an ever more egalitarian society. They result from collective militancy and fear of the consequences if they are denied.

What does not come through from the film, however, is that it is not a question of women against men or a small group of women against the establishment, but a battle of class against class.