By Lucy Delap and Julie Gottlieb

The recent release of the film Suffragette is politically and historically significant. A number of centenaries have now passed: the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (1903) and of the adoption of militancy; Emily Wilding Davison’s suicide under the King’s horse at the Derby (1913); and, of course, the outbreak of the First World War, including the contribution of still unenfranchised women to the war effort and the campaigns of a vociferous minority to bring peace. Many historians are now gearing up for another important centenary, namely the granting of (partial) women’s suffrage in 1918.

Bringing this story to the big screen is certainly a feminist achievement. Much attention has rightly been drawn to the making of the movie and the challenges faced by director Sarah Gavron, screenwriter Abi Morgan, and female leads Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Meryl Streep, to realise their ambition in an industry where the glass ceiling remains double or even triple glazed.

It is inevitable that historians, and specifically women’s and suffrage historians, will watch this film differently to the general moviegoer. So what did we look for in the film? What did we find too much of, or too little of?

Our impressions of the film were forged together, sitting ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in the cinema. And, incidentally, in a spot of Mass-Observation in the theatre’s chiaroscuro lighting, we were just about able to make out that the audience was 10-1 female. We then shared first impressions and figured out what we thought about it walking home on a dark October evening after a long day.

Both of us have done research on and teach about women’s suffrage and its aftermath. When you are so close to a subject – a topic in history or a much-scrutinised novel – that is brought to the big screen, it is inevitable that you will feel that your creativity has been somehow violated, that you have just been divested of intellectual ownership of a most lovingly cultivated piece of imaginative terrain.

We agreed with Helen McCarthy’s assessment that the treatment of working-class politics was trivial. The laundry workers are presented as passive or aggressive towards suffrage politics, and there is no hint that laundry workers were themselves striking and organising to better their conditions. Moreover, as Laura Schwarz argued, the ‘rescue’ of a laundry worker facing sexual abuse to go into domestic service in the house of a middle-class suffragist refused to acknowledge the vulnerabilities of being a servant.

Is Suffragette a feminist version of Forrest Gump? This analogy is not meant as a critical indictment – there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Suffragette’s feel-good story that dramatises individual suffering and political acts. But the two films do work in much the same way, and require the same suspension of disbelief while claiming to be authentic.

Like other recent historical blockbusters – Downfall and Made in DagenhamSuffragette intersperses real historical characters, occasional historical footage and fictional drama. This can work as a device to make both history and fiction more vivid and contextual. But if followed too slavishly, it can also make for historical content as a deadweight, foreclosing the creative options of the director and feeding a turn to the ‘authentic’ that risks reproducing the tedium of re-enactment history.

Just as the counterintuitive hero Gump finds himself superimposed onto the televisual narrative of Sixties’ pop Americana, the eponymous suffragette in this film stumbles into the history of militant feminism without a very plausible backstory.

Mulligan’s Maud Watts, an otherwise anonymous, politically inexperienced, and uneducated young mother, manages to participate as a lead actor in all the set pieces of the WSPU story. She is present at the most sensational acts of militancy — stone throwing, 1910’s ‘Black Friday’ protest outside the House of Commons, hunger striking, arson and, at the climax of the film, the death of Emily Wilding Davies at Derby Day.[1]

The unsatisfying nature of Suffragette is rooted in this Forrest Gump style placement of Maud Watts in every possible suffrage setting. There is a sense of box ticking that did not lend itself to character development and complexity.

The director has clearly consulted widely amongst archivists and historians. She gestures, for example, toward the tensions over suffragist tactics, though only in a couple of lines of dialogue between relatively minor characters. This was nonetheless a welcome nod towards the disunity of the movement. However, like Maud’s perambulations through suffrage set pieces, it felt somewhat contrived and deliberately educational.

The lack of a well-developed personality at the centre of the film meant that the drama and sensation of Suffragette piggybacked on the intrinsic drama of the historical events – Maud’s character and predicament ultimately add little to the imaginative landscape of suffrage history.

As Sarah Gavron’s contribution to Women’s History Review makes clear, much effort was made by the filmmakers to offer an authentic and historically sound rendering of the theme, and that is to be commended. The film offers an excellent example of ‘useable history’, of using women’s past to construct a present-minded feminist platform.

We learned from many students and friends who were deeply moved and mobilised by the afterword, a time-line of women’s suffrage legislation from the beginning of the twentieth century to today, when Saudi Arabia remains an outlier by not yet enfranchising women.

While, as historians, we may quibble and query the finer details, as educators we nonetheless give credit to the makers of Suffragette. The film is and will remain an educational tool, and in this respect it is interesting, if somewhat ironic, that the Girl Guide movement is now offering its members, ages 12-25, two-for-one on tickets to the film.

Despite its contrived elements, Suffragette successfully projects images of feminist commitment and sacrifice that should displace those of earlier popular culture, like David Bowie’s Suffragette city-dwellers, and ‘sufferin’ suffragettes’, such as Disney’s Mrs Banks:

our daughter’s daughters will adore us, and sing in grateful chorus, well done, sister suffragette. [2]

Lucy Delap and Julie Gottlieb have both done research on women’s suffrage and its aftermath. Lucy teaches history at the University of Cambridge, and is the author of The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the early twentieth century (2007), and Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth Century Britain (2011). Julie teaches the history of women’s suffrage and feminism at the University of Sheffield, and most recently she has co-edited The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945 (2013), and edited Feminists and Feminism After Suffrage (London: Routledge, 2015). You can find Julie and Lucy on twitter at @JulieVGottlieb and @suff66.

On 11th November 2015, June Purvis published a response to this blog. Helen McCarthy published a subsequent rejoinder.

Cover image: The Suffragette that Knew Jiu-Jitsu – The Arrest Arthur Wallis Mills (1910) [Wikicommons].

[1] Only the slashing of Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus is excluded. But that may only be because Mary Richardson committed this ‘suffragette outrage’ in 1914, and the film comes to a close a year earlier.  For Richardson’s post-suffragette career, see Julie V. Gottlieb, Feminine Fascism: Women in Britain’s Fascist Movement 1923-1945 (London, 2000).

[2] Mary Poppins [film], directed by Robert Stevenson (Walt Disney Productions, 1964).

Tags : Abi MorganCarey Mulliganfeminist filmshistory of suffrageSuffragette filmSuffragette moviewomen's history
Julie Gottlieb

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