Suffragette: A Review
Why does it matter if women have the right to vote? The film Suffragette (2015) tells the story of East London women’s struggle for the vote. Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, who finds herself at the heart of the Suffragette organisation. This is where public history and film meet—but have the filmmakers done justice to the history?
The film opens with a short overview of women’s political progress. The message is simple: women had not made any progress until the Suffragettes came along. Yet the women’s movement had, in fact, already made strides. For example, in 1869 women gained the right to vote in municipal elections in the UK. The 1870 Forster’s Education Act enabled women to vote on school boards. In the United States, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 marked the first women’s rights convention. These were ‘quiet’ but nevertheless important advances for women . The director attempts to show this by having characters using the ‘deeds not words’ mantra.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of portraying the Suffragettes’ impact on their husbands. Through this plot device, we witness the awkward position of the men: we see the social and mental anguish of Maud’s husband, Sonny, as his wife becomes increasingly involved with the Suffragettes; we experience, vicariously, the emotional and physical breakdown of their marriage and family. Sonny is unable to work and take care of their child, which comments indirectly on the difficult lives of working women, who have to do both. The repercussions of defying cultural norms and the effect this had on communities is something written history often cannot convey. This film is an emotionally complex portrayal of the Suffragettes, women who had to make sacrifices not only in their jobs, but also in their domestic lives.
Moreover, the filmmakers do not shy away from the horrors of Suffragette life. The film documents the historical force-feeding of women, which was a measure imposed upon those who went on hunger strikes, before the 1913 Cat and Mouse Act. The Cat and Mouse Act enabled prisoners to return home to eat, prior to police arresting them again. As the audience, we experience the full horror of this treatment, highlighting the brutality to which prison guards subjected women.
The film ends with Emily Davison’s spectacular jump in front of the king’s horse, on Derby day. Historians remain unsure as to whether Davison’s political act was planned or spontaneous. The filmmakers made it spontaneous, suggesting that the jump was an attempt at attracting the king’s attention. As the film’s climax, this scene was incredibly powerful. It was poignant also, in its inclusion of the original footage from Emily Davison’s funeral. Finishing with this moment made this event the turning point in women’s quest to gain the vote. Of course, this completely ignores the impact of the First World War.
At the end of the film, there is a list of dates detailing when women in various countries received the vote. Finland (1906), Norway (1913), and Denmark (1915) are excluded. Britain is penultimately mentioned, granting the vote in 1931. The last country is Saudi Arabia, which has yet to give women the vote. This casts Britain in a favourable light, as it ignores the countries who granted the vote earlier. Public history should not be about pandering or ego stroking; the list ignores historical attitudes in Britain, as well as the cultural context in Saudi Arabia.
The film also underscores the intense battle for the vote. Whilst it does well on an emotional level, it is less successful in other areas. For instance, there was no exploration of the other women’s movements. It would have been useful to include them and place this campaign within the wider context. Still, the film shows the personal, moral and economic sacrifices made by women to exercise their right to vote. The film answers the question of why the vote was important, and that is the reason it matters.