In her fascinating reflection on the making of Suffragette in Women’s History Review, director Sarah Gavron expresses a hope that the film will ‘provoke discussion’. It certainly has achieved that, not least within the women’s history community. In a recent posting on this blog, June Purvis, a distinguished Suffrage historian and consultant on the film, asked why Suffragette has attracted some critical commentary from scholars (including myself), given what she sees as its undisputed significance as a ‘stunning feminist success’. Purvis’s answer builds on themes raised by Krista Cowman and Diane Atkinson (who also advised Gavron’s team) in a piece in the Telegraph, in which they took issue with those lamenting the absence from the film of the ‘constitutionalist’ non-militant wing of the movement as well as suffragism’s socialist and pacifist adherents. This type of critique, all three suggest, springs from an old-fashioned, ideologically-entrenched ‘socialist feminist paradigm’ within women’s history, whose claims have long been discredited by recent scholarship on the movement.
I should make it clear before going any further that I am not a suffrage historian. I have written about British women’s involvement in internationalist activism in the twentieth century, about feminist campaigns for gender equality in diplomacy and international politics, and, most recently, about change and continuity in women’s relationship with family and paid work. My perspective on Suffragette stems from these broader areas of expertise and from general knowledge accumulated through several years of teaching women’s and gender history to undergraduates. I urged my students to watch Suffragette for some of the same reasons that Purvis dubs it a ‘stunning feminist success’.
As I noted in my original blog post, the film provides a sober treatment of a serious subject which stands in sharp contrast to the trivialising or comic tone of such popular representations to be found in Mary Poppins or the recent BBC2 sitcom Up the Women (wildly funny though the latter undoubtedly is). I agree with Purvis that the filmmakers deserve praise for creating a working-class heroine whose passionate commitment captures and conveys the power of militant Suffragism to inspire and mobilise women from across social classes and all walks of life.
Yet it is not as an unreconstructed ‘socialist feminist’ that I raise concerns with the depiction of working-class women in the film, or with the narrative it imposes more broadly of women’s political awakening. Rather, it is as an academic historian concerned with the complexity of women’s engagement with a broad array of political traditions over the centuries, and as a feminist anxious to combat simplistic readings of the solidarities produced by gender. History is valuable for feminism not only because through it we gain inspiration from the courage of the women who came before us, but because it allows us to see the fractures inherent in any political project which seeks to organise women across difference.
Class was an important category of difference in early twentieth-century Britain (although not the only one), and it drew many (not all) women towards a different type of politics rooted in the material struggles of the working class. Gavron mentions that Carey Mulligan, who plays the lead character of Maud, carried a copy of The Hard Way Up, the autobiography of working-class suffragette Hannah Mitchell, with her on set.
But Maud is no Mitchell, whose socialist feminism was the dynamic product of class and gender: it was the sum of her experiences of being snubbed by the middle-class woman who addressed her local ILP branch but would only talk to the men; of being expected to cook dinner and keep house for her male ‘comrades’; and of fighting in local government for municipal services which would ease the drudgery of poor housewives. Class demands our attention as historians of feminism – as does race and ethnicity, as discussed here by Sumita Mukherjee in relation to Suffragette – because it is only by confronting alternative and often conflicting sources of belonging and identity that we understand how to organise and speak collectively as women.
Of course no mainstream feature film could convey all the nuances and complexities of feminist politics in an hour and a half; I wholly appreciate that choices must be made for dramatic purposes, and as a piece of compelling storytelling, Suffragette works brilliantly. Yet the silences and omissions of the story that it tells are consequential nonetheless, because films of this kind help to fix collective understandings of the past. They are a form of public history, and, as such, are always contestable and will always be contested.
In her expressed wish that the film will spark debate, Sarah Gavron evidently understands this; by contrast, her historical consultants seem troubled and even surprised by the fact that some of their academic colleagues have offered critical commentaries of Suffragette. We ought, they imply, to be content simply to welcome the film as a major victory for the public standing of women’s history in general and suffrage history in particular. I do welcome Suffragette for those reasons, and I hope many millions of women (and men) will watch it and stamp and cheer and shed a tear just as I did. But I also hope that the debate it has provoked (and the number of cinema tickets it has sold) will lead to other films telling different stories which together weave an even richer picture of the suffrage movement in all its variety and diversity.
So, come on, you directors and producers: what are you waiting for? The time is now.
Image: Mary Macarthur addressing the crowds during the chainmakers’ strike, Cradley Heath (1910) [Wikicommons].