Suffragette is a great film.
I took my mother and granny to see Suffragette in honour of my granny’s 89th birthday. As she was born in 1926, women were granted equal voting rights during her lifetime. I have always considered her to be something of a matriarch. She was a single mother to two daughters, now has seven female descendants, and has always been one of my feminist icons.
As I had also brought my daughter with me, we were four generations of women watching the film together, and notably every adult in the screen was a woman. I sincerely hope that this was not a reflection of the film’s audience worldwide — I believe it is just as important that men see this film as women.
Despite some obvious issues to do with race, I found that the film gets so much right. And, to me, raised one huge question in particular: why hasn’t it been done before?
My mother suggested that this could be because women — or anyone who has risen out of a terrible situation — are inclined to want to leave it behind them. A sort of ‘We have the vote now, let’s move onto the next thing — no need to dwell on the past!’-type attitude. However, I’m more cynical than that. I don’t believe that the reason it hasn’t been done before it because of the attitudes of the women. I think it’s more to do with the way in which their history has been written for them.
Has anyone else noticed that whenever the history of women’s suffrage is discussed, it always seems to be referred to as women having been ‘given’ the vote? What the film Suffragette highlights, unequivocally and unapologetically, is that women were not ‘given’ anything. Women fought — tirelessly and painfully — in a long war that was eventually won. We weren’t ‘given’ shit.
I found that my enjoyment of Suffragette was affected by the memory of how I was taught this subject at school. We’re not talking about many lessons here, perhaps two or three, but the overall tone of these lessons stuck with me. Below are some snippets that I remember my teacher saying, strung together to produce the overall message delivered by these lessons:
“Women were given the vote after the First World War, because they had been so crucial to the workforce and the Home Front. They had proved their worth to the nation and deserved to be rewarded. They had finally shown that they could be trusted, having built up that trust again after all of the terrible things the Suffragettes had done for the cause. They had acted like terrorists, blowing things up and chaining themselves to things — statues in Parliament had to be vandalised in order to remove women who had chained themselves to them. And another really idiotic woman was killed trying to attach a scarf to a galloping racehorse. That could have seriously injured lots of people! If it weren’t for the violent tactics of the Suffragettes, women would have got the vote a lot sooner.”
That’s what I remember being taught. At the time, I didn’t challenge or question it. Some of it even made sense. I knew vaguely that I must always exercise my right to vote at the very least out of respect for the women who had fought for it for me.
So I decided to write this article, about how pissed off I am at yet another aspect of the cesspit of misogyny that was my education, and thought I would read a couple of reviews of the film. And I was amazed. The tone in which I was taught about the suffragettes was also used in the reviews, even now. Several of the reviews of the film chose to point out that ‘historians have often concluded that enfranchisement of women was actually held back by militancy, rather than advanced by it.’ I also read that ‘historians still debate whether the violence of the women’s suffrage movement was justified…the deeds of the suffragettes did not directly result in women getting the vote.’ These are just two of many examples I encountered.
How is it that these journalists and film critics share the same views as my old history teacher?
The problem is with the history itself. More specifically, the problem is with the historians. To use an old cliché, history has been written by men. And I’m tired. I’m tired of history being about men. I’m fed up of ‘women’s history’ being addressed, taught and learned separately. ‘Women’s history’ needs to be included in what we learn as ‘history’ because, as Maud Watts says in Suffragette, we’re half the human race. I don’t want a Women’s History Month. I want it to recognised that women have played an equal part in literally all of history.
But still, why has this film taken so long to be made? I’m not just talking about the fact that we have never had a film about the Suffragettes. That’s bad enough. But let’s consider the fact that it took this very film more than ten years to obtain the necessary backing to be able to get off the ground at all. According to scriptwriter Abi Morgan, this was because the team were too stubbornly attached to their vision: ‘A film that is being fronted by an ensemble of women […] not being funny or romantic, is hard. That became a huge obstacle.’
This is why, in my opinion, it was good that they cast some big names in this film. The inclusion of Meryl Streep has been criticised as just getting an ‘icon to play an icon’, but to me that’s exactly the point. It’s respectful. It’s about trying to maximise ticket sales not just for profit, but to try to give this story the scope of audience it deserves.
Suffragette is not simply about the vote. It also deals with workplace sexual harassment, domestic violence, a woman’s rights over her children, a wife’s expectation to serve her husband, the idea that the roles of wife and mother are the only significant parts of a woman’s life, unequal pay, the expectation on women to be quiet and obedient, and more. These are all issues faced today in every country of the world.
Take a stand against the patriarchy, against the way it manipulates our history and impedes the progress we are still struggling to make in the realm of gender equality. Stand up for greater and better representation of women in film and popular culture. Go and see Suffragette.