I was nervous about attending the preview of Suffragette, it’s been a tough few months and I wasn’t in the mood for something I expected to be very harrowing. As soon as I got over my initial fears, however, I was hooked. Screenwriter Abi Morgan is a superb storyteller, and Suffragette is a fascinating story ably told. It’s not attempting to tell the whole unwieldy story of centuries of history; instead it is a clever and succinct look at one very turbulent year, from 1912 to 1913, and the events that changed the suffrage movement forever. It could easily have been called: ‘The Accidental Suffragette’, as it follows one woman’s journey from being a conventional working-class mother to becoming an unexpected political activist. The story is told with tenderness, wit, intelligence and a lot of righteous bloody anger!
Most stories of the suffrage movement focus on the Pankhursts, and, as there have been constant images of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in the media for months, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film actually focuses on the working-class women and their families who were the backbone of the movement. It also shows the frustrations felt by seemingly privileged middle-class women who were fighting for their right to have a career, as well as the vote.
The story is told with tenderness, wit, intelligence and a lot of righteous bloody anger!
Suffragette is a film about friendship, relationships and about men as well as women. The pivotal role that pro-suffrage men played has all too-frequently been ignored, but Abi Morgan shows us the men who fought alongside, or were bemused by, their women and how the movement impacted on their lives and on society as a whole. Yes, Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, but she is barely in the film: Emmeline is the figurehead, but not the protagonist.
Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff were excellent choices for suffragettes Maud and Violet as their initially unlikely friendship becomes believable and carefully contrived (and that’s “contrived” in a positive sense). Maud makes the viewer not only understand, but empathise with how the police and political climate were able to turn someone onto militant activism, even when she had never intended to be a suffragette. Natalie Press finally gives Emily Wilding Davison the status Davison has been denied for far too long – that of inspirational protester, not deranged victim (as which she is so often dismissed).
Davison was a unique campaigner, she was a woman of intelligence and a schoolteacher who gave up the classroom to focus on political strategy for the WSPU. She didn’t just die after being trampled by the king’s racehorse (which, by the way, she did not “throw” herself under), she was a woman of temperament and passion who should be more widely remembered for the achievement of successfully suing Strangeways prison for brutality as well as for her inspirational ideas. Chemist Edith Elleyn is played by Helena Bonham-Carter in what I consider to be the performance of her career. Her portrayal is perfectly understated, calm, shrewd and thoughtful, and mightily atones for the anti-suffrage stance of her Asquith ancestors. I hope this is a role Bonham-Carter will be remembered for.
The preview was in aid of the charity Care International, whose Ethiopian operations are headed by Dr Helen Pankhurst (granddaughter of Sylvia and great-granddaughter of Emmeline). Care International works with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, addressing issues such as workplace and domestic violence, forced marriage, and educational inequality. Laurie Lee, the director of Care, highlighted the need for men and boys to be as much involved in the fight for gender equality as women and girls (no, he’s no relation of the other Laurie Lee, I asked.) Helen Pankhurst spoke after the film about how many of the injustices witnessed in Suffragette are still happening all over the world; Care is working with communities that need help addressing all these issues. Find out more about their work at http://www.careinternational.org.uk and check out their Walk In Her Shoes initiative.
Annie Lennox, 80s pop star and a great supporter of Care International, was also in the audience. She spoke of her feelings after watching the film: ” I’m so frustrated that we got somewhere then [in 1912] and yet where are we now? We seem to have gone back in time. How do we galvanise globally a voice for women that is shared and how do we create action?
“I feel ashamed when I think that people step away from the word feminism. Some people think twerking is feminism; it isn’t. It really isn’t!” Philippa Bilton, a relation of Emily Wilding Davison, who works with schools on projects about suffrage, spoke of her frustration with political apathy: “If the next generation aren’t going to vote they’re not going to change anything. Target the next generation so they’re empowered to vote for change.”
Suffragette is a film everyone should see – young, old, every colour, every gender, every political persuasion. Despite what the posters might suggest, this is not some Merchant-Ivory style production aimed only at middle-class, middle-aged people.
If the next generation aren’t going to vote they’re not going to change anything.
The film is about so much more than a 20th-century struggle for the vote, it is about empowerment, about breaking free from oppression and about equality for all. It is a very human story about the power of the human spirit and the need for equality of every kind.
HEROINES OF HOLLAND PARK
Number 50 Clarendon Road is remarkable for its association with both Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and daughter Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) and the babies they adopted during the First World War. The mid-19th-century semi-detached house in west London’s Holland Park was Emmeline’s home from 1916 until autumn 1919 and Christabel stayed there with her mother between 1917 and 1919.
Both women, founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), were honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque in 2006. Their combined achievements and bravery have become legendary while their devotion to women’s rights continues to inspire people around the world today. The Blue Plaque was unveiled by Eveline Bennet, one of Emmeline’s adopted “war babies”, and June Purvis, biographer of Emmeline Pankhurst. – Bolaji Babafemi
Suffragette opens in cinemas around the UK on Monday 12 October 2015
Lucinda Hawksley is the author of March, Women, March: Voices of the Women’s Movement. Twitter: @lucindahawksley