Why was I so terrified? Because I didn’t know how they were going to get it right. This was the portrayal of a formidable, inspiring group of women, whose cause was just and true yet whose actions are those of controversy and dispute. The film focuses on the militancy of the suffragettes, and I just didn’t know how they would make it work.
I never questioned the actions of my heroes, but something that happened to me on the first night of fresher’s week, five years ago, made me sit down and had a long, hard think. I was 18; young, painfully shy, and dressed in odd, charity shop garments. The first night out- a bar crawl organised by our halls of residence, was themed Heroes and Villains. Now reader, I could write a whole other blog post on the utter discomfort I felt at dressing up as Cat Woman or Wonder Woman; but I won’t. I decided to be myself- to start as I meant to carry on. Dressed in my sturdy lace up boots and a high necked blouse with a cameo brooch on the collar, I flung my sash around me with pride, and marched down the streets of Bristol drinking WKDs.
I cannot remember which fellow first year said it to me- their face is lost in a sea of new names and nights out- but I remember the words clearly.
‘Are you supposed to be a hero or a villain?’
I blinked. ‘A hero, obviously.’
‘But the suffragettes were bad, weren’t they? They hurt people and smashed stuff. They were terrorists.’
It was the first time I ever thought about it- and after watching Suffragette, the question came before me again. I didn’t want to sit through a film that portrayed these women as terrorists, vandals, and nuisances. Indeed, a national newspaper reported of the film that the women in it were terrorists and, to paraphrase: ‘Should have listened to the good men around them’, accusing the women in the film of ruining their lives over the need to cause chaos.
Thankfully, Suffragette does not encourage this idea of the suffragette movement. The militancy of the suffragettes, who did indeed employ arson and vandalism, is shown with a brutal honesty. It doesn’t glorify these actions, but it does demonstrate the desperation and the lengths that the WSPU went to in order to get their voices heard. The acts were not mindless. Though extreme, they were the actions of people who were not free. I think the reason people condone the militant acts of the suffragettes is because the face of the movement- Emmeline Pankhurst- is perceived as an upper middle class conservative who already had already made an impact on the government and on the country. I think it is easy to wonder why she encouraged her devoted followers to employ this sort of behaviour, when she had already made herself and the cause heard everywhere.
However, it is important to remember that not all suffragettes were Emmeline, Sylvia, or Christabel Pankhurst- those names we hear repeatedly when we think of the term ‘suffragette’. The film teaches us an important lesson in this- those women lower down in the class system did not have a voice- essentially, they were not free. The film is a moving portrayal of the working class women who joined the fight- though the protagonist, Maud Watts, is fictional, she represented the hoards of women who came out to fight for their equality and for their vote, and were not remembered in the same way that the famous Pankhurst women were. These were the women who sacrificed everything for the cause.
The collection of Suffragette material at the People’s History Museum is another reminder of this. The suffragette Hannah Mitchell, whose kitchen is replicated in our galleries, is a true example of how working class women gave up their entire lives for the struggle.
Hannah, who eventually became a Councillor in Manchester, did not have the same social freedom as the higher class suffragettes. In her autobiography, she describes her arrest in 1906, and her subsequent release. She wrote: ‘I was not pleased to find my husband outside. He knew we did not wish for our fines to be paid...’ Though many men supported the campaign, the place of the working class woman was in the home- cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children- they refused to allow their wives to fight for their cause in jail, for they were lost without them at home.
These militant acts portrayed in the film and in the museum demonstrate the true struggle these women faced- not merely the right to have a go, and to cross a piece of paper, but the right to own their own lives, their own choices, and their own future.
So- to the fresher so long ago who challenged me. They are heroes. They always will be heroes. They were not mindless militants but women chained to the fate of the men in their lives, women who needed to escape. These women cleared the way for me to vote, to learn, and to flourish.
So thanks Meryl, Carey, Anne-Marie, and Helena. Thank you Abi Morgan. You did the best job in celebrating this movement.
But most of all, thank you to all the women who lived and died for this most worthy cause.
Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind for the dawn is breaking,
March! March! Swing you along,
Wide blows our banner and hope is waking.