Tuesday, the 8th of March, was International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate and further the rights of women across the world. Yet, while IWD has been observed in one form or other for over a hundred years, it has taken more than a century for one of the most important stories in the struggle for women’s rights to be depicted in a Hollywood film.
Finally, last year, this was rectified in the form of the film Suffragette and on Friday the 4th of March the University of Sheffield History Society, in collaboration with the Department of History, organised an International Women’s Day panel to to explore the issues arising from the film, assess its impact and evaluate its legacy. The panel was chaired by Dr Julie Gottlieb and featured Professor Krista Cowman, Dr Laura Schwartz, Dr Alison Twells, Dr Jessica Meyer and Dr Jennifer Davey. 1
One of the key debates during the discussion was around the purpose of the film’s historical representation, and whether it should have covered more historical perspectives and debates. Dr Davey reminded the audience that Suffragette is simply one film – it cannot ‘do everything’ and pointed out that it should be a starting point for further histories of the suffrage movement within Britain. And the panel echoed the dangers of placing too much emphasis on this single film.
Professor Cowman, in her role as historical advisor to Suffragette, gave invaluable insight into the historical research and considerations that went into the making of the film. For example, the film script was surprisingly short at only 8,000 words – about the same length as an academic article. This limited the number of historical debates and narratives that could be introduced into one feature-length film.
This idea was also drawn upon by Dr Twells who stated that a film can’t simply mimic historical debate, which is why historians are able to draw upon themes and ideas overlooked or missed within the film – they can’t all be covered. She reminded the audience that historical films serve their own purpose – to create accessible history for a wider audience – and in Dr Twells’ view, Suffragette succeeds in this.
The role of class within Suffragette was discussed at length, and Professor Cowman revealed the decision made by the film-makers to make the protagonist, Maud, a woman from a working-class background. Maud is a fictionalised and necessarily ‘composite’ character, based on the experiences of 14 or so different women. One of the main reasons for this historical invention is the lack of available sources depicting working class women during this era. While clearly true, Dr Meyer pointed out the need to look to less traditional sources in order to present a working-class history.
Professor Cowman also raised an interesting point about respectability and the plight of working class women who faced a ‘triple burden’, as they struggled to negotiate work and running a home alongside campaigning. Maud epitomises this struggle, and is eventually made an outcast from her home and community. In becoming a suffragette, she lost her respectability – the only thing separating the working class from the ‘undeserving poor’.
Dr Schwartz applauded the film’s representation of how women from diverse social backgrounds worked side-by-side and praised the film for showing a working-class narrative –something often overlooked in popular thought. But she criticised the film’s implication that Violet’s daughter would be safe working as a domestic servant in the home of a middle class suffragette, as often pro-Suffrage households were against their own staff becoming politicised. 2
Dr Meyer, as a historian of masculinity, provided an alternative perspective for viewing the film Suffragette. She felt presence of military imagery within the film showed how a traditionally masculine concept was adapted and embraced by a group of women, the so-called ‘weaker sex’. She also described how the character of Maud’s husband, Sonny, highlighted the fragility of masculinity within the period. Her damning conclusion suggested that all the men in the film ended up in the same place – their betrayal of women meaning that the audience placed new interest on the men, rather than focusing on the female characters. 3
Dr Gottlieb finished the discussion by highlight the importance of looking forward. She noted the significance of the rolling timeline at the end of the film that listed the years that women in countries across the world were granted suffrage. 4 In a sense, the timeline is as powerful as the film, highlighting the position of the Suffragette storyline within a wider context. Much is still to be achieved at the end of the film – Britain has yet to grant women the vote when the credits roll – and much is still to be gained for women’s rights.
Dr Gottlieb highlighted the importance of the legacy of the suffragette movement, and the legacy of the film. She sees Suffragette as a ‘usable history’, with a very important legacy. Despite its shortcomings, the film cannot be overlooked – it just needs to be placed into a wider context.
Suffragette is not a definitive history of the suffrage movement in Britain, but one story of many. The film’s strengths lie in its ability to showcase the emotions and sacrifice of women involved in the movement. Though it leaves many aspects unexplored, Professor Cowman summed it up nicely when stating her hope that Suffragette will be the start of a multiplicity of suffrage narratives. Suffragette is a film, not the film. It has opened up interest in the WSPU and the wider lives of women at the time. The stories of these women can no longer be ignored by Hollywood.
The panel discussion was inspired by a series of blogs on History Matters by Julie Gottlieb, June Purvis and Helen McCarthy. This post was written by Connie Jeffrey, Megan Edwards and Helen Morris, committee members of the University of Sheffield History Society. The aim of HSTSOC is to provide social and educational opportunities for its members, as well as support and guidance. A full video of the discussion will be available to view online shortly.
Header image: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh selling Suffragette subscriptions in 1913 [Wikicommons].
In-text image: The IWD panel in conversation at the University of Sheffield, courtesy of the University of Sheffield History Society.
Note: This post was edited on 25/07/16 to better reflect the views stated by Laura Schwartz during the talk.
- The film’s premier in October 2015 caused a boom in public debate and interest in the suffragette movement and Women’s History in general. ↩
- You can read more of Dr Schwartz’s thoughts on the film, including its representation of race relations, in this article for Feminist Fightback. ↩
- Dr Schwartz also pointed out the absence of the wider Labour movement in the film’s coverage of the female suffrage campaign. A possible solution would be to look at the male stories of the time in order to position the suffragettes within a wider society. ↩
- The most shocking of which was Switzerland, who granted female suffrage as late as 1974. ↩