Why have some women historians been so critical about a recent considerable feminist achievement? It is a question that has preoccupied me over the last few weeks as I have read some very negative comments about the feature film Suffragette which had its premiere on 7th October 2015.
Scripted, directed and produced by four talented British feminists – Abi Morgan, Sarah Gavron, 1 Faye Ward and Alison Owen – Suffragette is a gripping, inspiring movie. Although based on real historical events, it is nonetheless a historical fiction that has been received enthusiastically by cinema-goers, many of whom clapped and cheered at the end.
Suffragette tells the story of the militant suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Edwardian Britain through the eyes of a married working-class laundry worker, Maud Watts, played in an awards-worthy performance by Carey Mulligan.
Maud’s growing awareness of the inequalities that she faces, including little control over her work conditions and sexual harassment by a bullying male boss, brings her into the struggle for the parliamentary vote for women. She graduates from peaceful protest into window smashing, hunger striking when imprisoned and then arson. She also endures the torture of forcible feeding and the painful breakup of her marriage. Militancy gives Maud a sense of agency, a degree of control over her life, a feeling of empowerment.
This process, conveyed so brilliantly in the film, was a common form of journeying for many suffragettes in the women-only WSPU. Yet a recent blog by Julie Gottlieb and Lucy Delap took issue with Maud’s characterisation, arguing that it lacks ‘complexity’ and is merely a ‘box ticking’ ritual to place this central character in the most sensational acts of militancy. Although some positive comments are offered, the film is framed under the title Suffragette: The Forrest Gump of Feminism, which some might see as belittling.
Gottlieb and Delap’s blog also approved of other ‘anti’ Suffragette comments made by women historians, such as Helen McCarthy and Laura Schwartz. A review by McCarthy condemns the absence of any mention of the non-militant suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and laments the one brief reference to socialist-feminist Sylvia Pankhurst who disagreed with the strategy and tactics of the WSPU, as led by her mother Emmeline. Schwartz’s review too decries the absence of any reference to the NUWSS and notes how, from 1912, many of the suffragists began building alliances with the Labour Party in the class struggle. For such scholars, it seems Maud is the ‘wrong’ sort of feminist because she is not a left-wing trade unionist.
Here we come to the heart of the matter. Women’s history in Britain developed in the 1970s closely tied to socialist feminism. Sylvia Pankhurst’s influential 1931 book The Suffragette Movement, in which she inflates her own importance and downgrades her mother, was revered as the definitive account of the movement.
In this text Sylvia condemned the WSPU’s 1907 break with the Independent Labour Party, dismissing it as bourgeois and unconcerned with wider social reforms for all women. Too many critics of Suffragette are still wedded to this narrative. Recent research that has knocked holes in Sylvia’s analysis is ignored or not read. 2
Suffragette does not fit into a socialist feminist paradigm. Instead it presents a picture of women working together across the class divide, which many suffragettes did. Edith Ellyn (played by Helena Bonham Carter) is a middle-class pharmacist who, in the back room of her business, secretly teaches other suffragettes to make explosives. Alice Haughton (played by Romola Garai) is an upper-class woman who brings recruits into the cause and takes in, as a domestic servant, a young woman who is being sexually assaulted at the laundry.
What do the critics of Suffragette want? A film of one hour 40 minutes that is an academic debate about militancy and class consciousness? A film accompanied by a handout of footnotes detailing all the complexities? Has it not occurred to them that Suffragette tells just one story of the wider women’s suffrage movement? That it has to be commercially successful and appeal to a wide audience?
For me, Suffragette is a stunning feminist success. At long last the much maligned suffragettes have the film they deserve. Its central message, that women’s activism matters in an unequal world, is as relevant today as it was nearly 100 years.
Professor June Purvis, University of Portsmouth, was one of the consultants for Suffragette. She has been researching, teaching and publishing about the suffragette movement for over 20 years. She is the author of Emmeline Pankhurst: a biography (2002) and is currently completing a biography of Emmeline’s eldest daughter, Christabel. June is the Editor of Women’s History Review and also a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine.
On 13th November 2015, Helen McCarthy published a response to this blog.
Image: Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst (centre) at a Suffragette meeting in Caxton Hall, Manchester (c.1908). [Wikicommons]
- Gavron recently wrote an article about the making of Suffragette for the Women’s History Review. ↩
- See, for example, Krista Cowman, ‘Incipient Toryism’? The Women’s Social and Political Union and the Independent Labour Party, 1903-14’, History Workshop Journal, 53 (2002), pp. 129-48; June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: a biography (2002); and Jill Liddington, Rebel Girls: their fight for the vote (2006). ↩