As a feminist, I looked forward to attending a screening of Suffragette but didn’t expect to like it. I was dismayed to learn beforehand that the movie is a work of fiction inspired by actual events – not an authentic biopic. This seemed to me a missed opportunity to explore an intriguing and divisive episode in women’s history and shed light on a long-standing fallacy.
In these 100 years since the term “Suffragette” was introduced into our lexicon, its meaning has changed, becoming a catch-all for anyone who strove for women’s voting rights. This false, uplifting view is one we hold dear – depicted by Glynis Johns in her joyous portrayal of Mrs. Banks in the Disney film Mary Poppins (1964). Proudly wearing a “Votes for Women” banner, she sang the praises of agitator Mrs. Pankhurst in the energetic tune, “Sister Suffragette.”
This common misconception supplants the real women who deserve our respect: Suffragists.
Suffragettes were anarchists who gained infamy. Suffragists won the Vote.
The Suffragettes were members of the W.S.P.U. (Women’s Social and Political Union) founded in England by widow Mrs. Emeline Pankhurst. Under her sole direction, they committed acts of violence toward innocent persons, set off bombs at private homes and on public property, and practiced self-destruction through needless attempts at suicide. Simply put, they were crazed fanatics hell-bent on publicity – some for their own personal notoriety.
Their illegal activities became so alarming that two of her daughters, Sylvia and Adela, bolted from the organization and in doing so, Adela was estranged from her family (she was forced by Mrs. Pankhurst to emigrate to Australia). Only the eldest daughter, Christabel, remained at their mother’s side.
I don’t relate to this militant group or to its tactics. Neither did most feminists during its 14-year existence.
In the film, Suffragette (2015), scheduled for release by Focus Features on October 23rd in the U.S., we’re presented a glimpse of this dangerous organization, but from inside its ranks through rose-tinted glasses. This limited scope creates a misleading perception. The audience is left to assume that these women were ‘martyrs for the cause’ when, in fact, they were lost souls caught in the spell of a charismatic leader who defected from the all-inclusive (and ultimately successful) immense community of Suffragists.
No mention is made of the larger movement or its honorable members, so the viewer surmises that there’s only one person who might lead them toward equality: Mrs. Pankhurst.
The screening was held at the Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood (September 28, 2015). The theatre was filled to capacity with men and women showing their support for a movie about women, produced by a woman (Sarah Gavron), and written by a woman (Abi Morgan). Nearly everyone in attendance remained in their seats for the Q & A hosted by Jeff Goldsmith with special guest, British screenwriter Abi Morgan. Her candor was refreshing when a man asked the key question: Why did she choose to write a fictional screenplay even though she must have known the true story would be fascinating?
She admitted that the research overwhelmed her. She found the lives of the real women to be so extraordinary that she didn’t know how to begin. To my mind, the irony is that sifting through research to find the gems of a great story would have likely taken less time than writing, as she said, “100 drafts” before creating a fictional story she felt was good enough.
Even still, Abi Morgan wrote an evocative script. Suffragette draws the viewer in. Through characters beautifully portrayed by Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, and others, their tenderness, struggle, and drive imply that their path is the only way out of despair, and that drastic methods are the only means to acquire the same rights as men. It’s a good film. It could have been a great film if she had simply told the truth.
The Back Story
Feminists (male and female) in the Early 1800s began working diligently and systematically toward expanding rights for women by elevating society as a whole. They strove to enact laws to benefit women, children and the working man, and to put an end to racial inequality. Those who concentrated their efforts on education were deemed “Educationalists.” Those who braved the struggle to end racism were “Abolitionists.” Those who focused on voting rights: “Suffragists” (from the Latin “suffragium” meaning “a vote”).
For decades, feminists in the U.K. participated heavily in politics: conducting speeches and rallies across the country, and forming Liberal and Radical clubs to elect like-minded candidates as Members of Parliament. Together, they battled the ‘sweating system’, introduced an ‘eight-hour workday’, elected women as Members of School Boards, built clean model-dwellings to replace slums, and made education mandatory for all children of all races. By the Late 1880s, nearly everyone in England could read and write and many did so in multiple languages… As a result, the ‘Media Age’ was born – information was gobbled up by the masses via the very affordable ‘penny press’.
But the turn of the 20th century found feminists disheartened by changes in the mindset of the Liberal Party they placed in power, and no longer believed in its ability or intention to pass the Women’s Suffrage Bill. While Suffragists searched for new ways to keep their cause imminent in the press, Mrs. Pankhurst took action by forming her all-women splinter group in 1903, demanding to be heard.
On January 10, 1906, using the suffix “ette” (to represent “faux” or “fake”), the Daily Mail newspaper coined the word “Suffragettes” to describe provocateur Mrs. Pankhurst’s W.S.P.U. rebels as a means of clearly differentiating them from the respected Suffragists. Her ‘soldiers’ quickly embraced the title with gusto and eagerly committed crimes to exemplify her motto, “Deeds, not words.”
Mrs. Pankhurst’s self-aggrandizement placed her devoted followers in ever greater jeopardy. They became so entrenched in the business of pleasing her (while she conveniently remained in hiding) that when they were arrested, they refused to pay their fines (which would have granted their release) in order to appear to be suffering for the cause.
But Holloway Prison wasn’t brutal. It was humdrum, routine, boring. According to firsthand accounts – letters written by female prisoners – the common complaint among them was that they were forced to wear ill-fitting unflattering clothing and an unsightly numbered badge. Because it wasn’t bad enough there to claim ‘martyrdom’, some of Mrs. Pankhurst’s cohorts (following her lead) made their confinement newsworthy by staging hunger strikes. Doctors customarily adjusted diets to suit prisoners’ tastes (including accommodating vegetarians) but the strikers refused nourishment of any kind. To save the lives of these reckless women (who would sooner die than leave the jail), the doctors had no other recourse than to feed them by force.
Ironically, the scene depicting force feeding in the movie induces a knee-jerk reaction of horror – as if we are witnessing a ‘victim’ being tortured. It’s a prime example of how films loosely based on history can inadvertently or intentionally promote ignorance. In reality, if any of Mrs. Pankhurst’s followers had died of starvation in Holloway, she should have been held personally responsible.
Suffragette should have been a cautionary tale. If honestly told, it would have fascinated, educated, and kept us on the edge of our seats: wondering if these women would choose to live or die… if they might stumble across one of the thousands of Suffragists who could show them a better life… if only they might finally break free of Mrs. Pankhurst’s hypnotic hold and see her for who she truly is…
Deeds not Words
Surprisingly, the saving grace of the film is the realistic portrayal of the leader, herself. What the fictional story didn’t provide, the actor did…
Meryl Streep is a really smart gal. And, what’s more, she’s a feminist – who, as it appears, had the insight to bring fully to life the charlatan, Mrs. Emeline Pankhurst. In one fell swoop, Meryl single-handedly redeemed the misleading elements of the entire tale by pulling minutiae from her bag of tricks: a glance, her tone of voice, subtlety of movement… In the brief time we see her onscreen, she has managed to cunningly amalgamate and emanate the complicated and conflicting personality traits of this dynamic, controlling, idealistic, self-centered, domineering, elegant, and sinister woman… making the movie Suffragette worth seeing.