In tandem with all of last weeks’ events on campuses nationwide, I saw Meryl Streep’s latest British historical drama “Suffragette.” Movie critic Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post calls it a “portrait in miniature” with “uncanny contemporary echoes.”
The film sets off in 1912 London, with scenes from inside a laundry factory reminiscent of Anne Hathaway’s scenes in 2012’s “Les Miserables.” We see young women, amongst them Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), sweating and panting as they work tirelessly for their 13 shillings to a man’s 19. In a voice over, snobbish old British men offer their dissents to the Suffrage Act: “Women are already well-represented by their fathers, husbands and brothers” (of course they’re not) and “once granted the vote, women will then demand the right to be cabinet ministers, members of parliament, judges” (as they should). In just those few lines, the writer tells us why this film is so important.
Of the thousands who partook in the movement, the film focuses in on a group of five women in particular. It is now 10 years after Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 that legitimized the campaign for women's suffrage while terrifying the men in power. But after these 10 years, peaceful protests and written demands have done little to nothing. The media is not paying them any attention, and more suffragettes are being silenced and imprisoned as they threaten the patriarchal order. The statement “It’s deeds, not words, that will get us the vote” is the calling of the day. Women begin throwing stones at store windows, cutting off streets and carrying out other acts of civil disobedience to bring attention to the cause.
Maud, at first shy and indifferent to the movement, is called upon by fellow laundry worker Violet, played by Anne-Marie Duff, to support her as she gives a testimony to Parliament. When Violet comes to Westminster Abbey unpresentable after being beaten by her husband that night, Maud ends up giving her own testimony with Mulligan’s perfect East London accent.
When asked what having the vote would mean for women, she responds, “I never thought we’d get the vote, [so I] never thought about what it would mean,” and finished with, “that there’s another way to live in this life.” And so begins her involvement with the suffragettes.
Maud is quickly introduced to many of the movement's leading women, including Edith Ellyn (Bonham Carter, ironically herself the granddaughter of the British prime minister from 1908-16 who starkly opposed votes for women) and a pseudo-pharmacist (not allowed to go to school by her father) who considers herself “more of a soldier” than a suffragette. She is much more militant and empowered than many of the other woman, with a supportive husband at her side.
Meryl Streep makes her only appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst during an eight-sentence speech to a group of adoring and desperate women. Her running orders: there is now “no alternative but to defy this government” by using scare tactics. “Never surrender, never give up the fight,” she says. With just one showing of her face, Pankhurst is able to turn the women into bomb-throwing, arsonist foot soldiers.
As Maud is pulled further into the movement, she begins to lose all of the comforts she had. Her husband kicks her out of her home, she loses her job, she is incarcerated twice, and her son is put up for adoption without her consent. But despite the mounting consequences, she is constantly reminded of the importance of her fight. The screenplay builds to a tour-de-force final scene, based on the true story of activist Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of a horse owned by King George V at a race in 1913 in an act of martyrdom for the cause.
The film leaves the audience with one question, so vital to all movements for human rights, social justice and equality: Are you willing to risk and sacrifice it all for the cause?
“Suffragette” does not come without its share of (warranted) criticisms on the position it takes and the voices it chooses to ignore. It over-romanticizes some of the true intentions of several suffragettes’ actions in the movement, including Davison’s full intentions in her suicide. Modern historians believe that she did not intend to perish in the demonstration. In addition, writer Abi Morgan decided to maintain one of Mrs. Pankhurst’s problematic statements for Streep’s singular speech, that she’d “rather be a rebel than a slave,” as if being a slave were an indivdual choice. This quote has also caused outrage online after the cast posed for photos wearing a shirt with the quote on it.
The film also ignores the place of women of color in the movement. However, there is little to no evidence that black women were involved with the British suffragettes, or how they were treated if they had attempted to become involved. Jan Adams, a historian quoted in a Telegraph article about claims of racism in the film, said, “I wouldn’t presume [black women] would have been welcome if they’d joined.” British Indian women were, however, welcomed in a limited capacity, such as in the case of Indian princess Sophia, god-daughter of Queen Victoria.
If it weren’t for Mulligan’s empathetic and grounded performance, Duff’s vulnerable defiance, Bonham Carter’s endless wit and strength and, yes, Streep’s mere short presence, the film could have felt dreary, unsteady and bogged down by a sense of duty to the story it tells. Mulligan is able to achieve more with her facial expressions than the majority of her lines.
“Suffragette” strikes a chord with today’s global movements for democracy, equality and feminism. With just one answer to a manipulating and cocky investigator, Mulligan sums up the reason so many fight even today: “You want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable.” The film shows nuances in what can seem like an all-or-nothing debate polarized by two sides. Moving and sobering, the film gave me solace in the work movements have done in recent years, despite all the work that still needs to be done.