Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) from Manchester led the fight during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to gain equal voting rights for women in the affairs of the United Kingdom. With great resolve she took her fight to the women of her generation, who became foot soldiers for the feminist movement, globally; ‘It is deeds not words that will get us the vote’
A new British movie drama Suffragette (2015) produced by Alison Owen and Faye Ward and directed by Sarah Gavron presented by Focus Features, tells the story of the fight for equality for women that she so actively led, one that is still ongoing.
Suffragette is the first major film to document the stories behind the Suffragette movement that became a national movement in England from 1872. It doesn’t shy away from the violence, torture, abuse, persecution, distress, death and destruction integral to the struggle.
This is not a pretty story, but a real life story told by a terrific team of women; mothers, daughters and rebels, including a four – minute appearance by ‘iron lady’ American actor Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst
“To stand on the balcony and look at these uplifted, hopeful young faces, it made me cry,” Streep was reported as saying during filming … “I couldn’t get over it. You take your hope from the next generation.”
The next generation splendid cast includes Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, Helena Bonham Carter as Edith Ellyn, Romola Garai as Alice Haughton and Anne-Marie Duff as Violet Miller.
Carey Mulligan in her role as Maud Watts is a ‘foot soldier of the early feminist movement’.
The film charts her journey starting with rejecting a proposal of marriage, the only avenue open to women if they wanted to be ‘respectable’.
A ‘vocal proponent of equality in the film industry’ claimed to still be a male dominated arena Carey Mulligan has pointed out that the years of struggle are ongoing.
This is because it has taken nearly 100 years for the male dominated film industry to begin to ‘tell the story’ in the first place, which she believes is revealing in itself.
“Suffragette is an urgent and compelling film – made by British women, about British women who changed the course of history,” said the London Film Festival director Clare Stewart.
“It is, quite simply, a film everyone must see.”
The right of women to vote was the outcome of a struggle that had been ongoing in countries around the world for centuries.
Taking on the struggle for universal suffrage by standing up to and confronting the male establishment who met at the Palace of Westminster, the British bastion of male dominated government for centuries was all at once foolhardy, brave, gritty and extraordinary.
No one in Britain thought women would, or could succeed in such a patriarchal society but they did.
The Representation of the People Act, establishing voting equality for men and women was passed on the 6th February, 1918, although women could only vote if they were over 30.
Ten years later in 1928 the Conservative Government passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act giving the vote to all women over the age of 21.
A considerable woman of influence, Emmeline Pankhurst would not have known that in the 21st century, she would be still inspiring the ongoing fight for the equality of women.
Actor Meryl Streep is currently fighting so that equal rights for women can and will enter the American Constitution.
In a place where liberty and justice for all has meant to reign since American Independence 1776, the reality is that it has remained an ongoing process, which is a disgrace in any way you look at it.
Streep has recently taken on the American Congress writing 535 letters imploring its elected members to finally ratify the Amendment to the Constitution, which was not passed by Congress until 1972 and has still not been cemented into the Constitution.
In her letters Streep is reported to have said … “I am writing to ask you to stand up for equality – for your mother, your daughter, your sister, your wife or yourself – by actively supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.”
The first major nation in the world to achieve universal suffrage was way down in the Southern Hemisphere. New Zealand was considered the only free country in the world in 1893, however although the women won the right to vote they did not have the right to run for office.
Interestingly Australia, a colony of England was the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote in federal elections and to an elect a parliament on a national basis
The Suffragette movement succeeded in Australia; South Australia in 1895 with Western Australia following in 1899, the Commonwealth in 1902, New South Wales the same year, Tasmania in 1903, Queensland in 1905 and Victoria became the last bastion for male domination, caving in finally in 1908.
This is the first movie to be given permission to film inside the unique location of the Houses of Parliament in London. Conservative MP Alan Haselhurst, chairman of the cross-party administration committee expressed to BBC Radio 4:
“… It is taking place in a way that absolutely does not affect the normal operation of parliament, and if it helps the bottom line, then I would have thought the public would say, ‘You are being prudent.”
How times have changed.
This year at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles actor Patricia Arquette spoke out. “A whole new generation of women and girls are talking about equality – equal pay, equal protection from sexual assault, equal rights”, she said. Streep was there to cheer her on.
During the eighteenth century many women of influence in England made inroads into the world of male establishment across the social classes by gaining respect for their achievements. If not in their lifetime, certainly soon after.
At one end of the scale you had extraordinary businesswoman Eleanor Code in the world of trade developing one of the hardest enduring building materials Coadestone helping to boost a growing economy, while at the other end of the scale you had the aristocratic Lady Mary Wortley Montague helping to promote the smallpox vaccine in a medical world where male Quacks and Mountebanks still abounded.
During the reign of Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert in the nineteenth century men’s attitudes against women had a retrograde step, with the role of women seen as being only in the home, whether upstairs or down.
A simple poem had a huge impact on Victorian family life that reverberated for over a century and the subject Emily Patmore wouldn’t have known about her involvement. After bearing her husband six children she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1862.
Her husband Coventry Patmore while he was pining for her wrote a poem describing her many virtues. Subsequently other Victorian Gentlemen wished their wives to perfectly emulate Emily; to be endowed with her beauty and innocence of manner, while always doing as she was told.
Victorian ladies of this time in the spirit of chivalry with movements in art were expected to remain chaste as well as virtuous. If passion was sanctified by marriage, sensuality was deemed inappropriate and a woman and her body was her husband’s to dispose of as he pleased.
It needs to be said that the attitude of a lot of women didn’t help either. Mrs. Sarah Eliss wrote in The Women of England in 1842. “To be admitted to his heart to share his counsels and to be the chosen companion of his joys and sorrows’ it is difficult to say whether humility or gratitude should preponderate”.
Lady Tennyson wife of a famous poet wrote ‘…man must be pleased; but him to please is woman’s pleasure’.
Ideas such as this became ingrained in the new societies mores and concerns, and would take until well after World War II to finally break down out in England’s colonies.
Certainly after World War II when I was growing up my own father was a Victorian Gentleman in every sense of the word, despite being born the year the great Queen died.
He ruled his family with a rod of iron and a leather strap instead of through love, as did many other men who came after still try to do. His attitude to women has had ongoing consequences throughout his family.
Daily we still have terrible crimes in society against women by controlling men all around the world, so much so it is, once again, a growing worry. And so the fight continues.
Suffragette is a movie that seems to have come along at the right time to inspire the next generation of women to keep the movement going forward.
‘If they want us to respect the law, they need to make the law respectable’ … Anne Marie-Duff and Carey Mulligan in Suffragette.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Watch the Trailer
presented by Focus Features
Directed by Sarah Gavron and Alison Owen
Produced by Faye Ward
Written by Abi Morgan
Helena Bonham Carter
and Meryl Streep