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Suffragette, UK 2015

Posted by keith1942 on November 6, 2015

suffragette 2014

This film has received generally good reviews and quite a few friends, especially women, have been impressed with the film. It certainly has good production values and an impressive set of performances, notably by Cary Mulligan in the central role of Maud. But I found the film problematic, partly because of weaknesses in the script but even more because of the superficial treatment of an important political movement in the early C20th.

The film opens with a set of introductory titles, one of which states that the films deals with a ‘group of working women’. This is a something of a misnomer. Maud and Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) are both clearly working class. Edith (Helena Bonham Carter), with her husband, runs a pharmacy. The employment of the other members of this group is unclear. Moreover, apart from Maud the other women characters are undeveloped. The film fits into a type of historical drama beloved by Richard Attenborough [e.g. Gandhi (1982) and Cry Freedom (1987)]. In this type of films the personal dramas outweigh the social: the plot is constructed around action sequences: and the characters are filled out by star cameos. So, unlike the excellent Selma (2014), we never meet a character who spells out the political line of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The film’s choice of specific years in the period appears to have been chosen so that the plot could include the famous/infamous action at the 1913 Derby. But the film’s production  is not really up to this; the ‘dummies’ and the CGI are rather obvious. And then we have Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, addressing her followers, from a  balcony no less. Yet this is her solitary appearance in the film.

Much of the film’s drama revolves around the activities of the police and state surveillance. The key character here is Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a character who appears to liaise between the political class and the police. He is of Irish origin. And there is one line where he refers to both the Republican struggle against British colonialism and to working class agitation in Liverpool: but that is it. What the film focuses on is the personal confrontation between him and Maud. It even has him expressing distaste when the film arrives at the force-feeding. A change of heart that I find unconvincing.

From a political point-of-view the film is beset with problems. For a start we never get a clear explanation of the politics of the WSPU. There is the famous dictum, ‘deeds not words’ and the emphasis by the organisation on women’s suffrage at the expense of other issues. What the film appears not to notice is that the WSPU demand was for limited suffrage for women based on property right: that right already enjoyed by men. This means that Maud’s struggles in the film, even is successful, would not win her the vote. For that she would need the universal suffrage advocated by alternative organisations. But as the film does make clear the WSPU refused to work with other organisations unless they made the women suffrage demand their primary demand: a line that led to extremely sectarian conduct.

The film does also suggest, though not strongly, the autocratic control of the organisation exerted by Emmeline Pankhurst and her elder daughter Christabel. Opposition to this behaviour led to a split and the formation of the Women’s Freedom league in 1907. In fact there was a larger Woman’s Suffrage Movement of which the film gives little sense and one that predated the WSPU.

Emmeline and Christabel were not really interested in working class members. In the years in which the film is set there were a number of branches in the East End of London but these were closed down by the leading duo. This was a factor in the split with the younger daughter Sylvia. Sylvia’s only mention in the film is a line ‘Sylvia won’t like that’ with reference to militant actions. This is a real distortion. It is true that Sylvia became increasingly critical of the militant line pursued by Emmeline and Christabel. But the disagreements were larger and more political. In fact Sylvia was, in the years in which the film is set, the most active member of the Pankhurst family. In total she was sent to jail over thirty times and suffered force-feeding at least fifteen times. She organised great demonstrations in and from the East End. And she publically addressed Parliament and political leaders. Despite this she was expelled from the WSPU for, among other errors, organising in the East End, speaking on a joint platform with the ILP and George Lansbury, and for speaking in support of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by James Larkin, in the great Dublin lockout.

Sylvia arrested in 1911

Sylvia arrested in 1911

The real disagreements between Sylvia and her mother and elder sister were to do the wider political struggle, almost totally absent from the film. It is difficult to grasp from the film that this period was one of intense political struggle, by women, by trade unions and the working class, by the young socialist organisations and by the Irish freedom fighters. Both the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation officially supported women’s suffrage, though there were dissenters in both organisations. In 1911 George Lansbury [also missing from the film] stood in a Parliamentary by-election on a platform of Women’s Suffrage.

Sylvia’s response to expulsion was to lead the formation of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which in 1914 launched the marvellously titled Women’s Dreadnought. 1914 also bought the imperialist war. The political differences among the women came down to a fundamental line: Emmeline and Christabel suspended the struggle by the WSPU for the duration of the war. Sylvia became an important leader in the anti-war struggle: leadership that won her the praise of Lenin. Emmeline later developed into an anti-Bolshevik and joined the Conservative party, though in her earlier years she had staunchly  supported the young socialist organisations.

It does seem unlikely that Maud, working class, living in the East End, and working in a laundry was more likely to meet middle class WSPU agitators in central London rather than the organised socialist and suffrage women in her own East End. If she had she would not only have campaigned for a suffrage policy that embraced herself but she could also have fought against the exploitation and oppression vividly dramatised in the film’s sequences.

That she does not is down to a plot coincidence, a frequent plot device in melodramas. The rationale for this is that the film dramatises that ‘the personal is political’, where as in the early teens of the C19th social and political struggles, including in the WSPU, were premised on the ‘political is personal’.


One Response to “Suffragette, UK 2015”

  1. […] or ‘socialism’ appears, and no serious content of this: [rather like Suffragette 2015). The novel is part of a trilogy by Gibbons, so I suspect the absence of the later two from […]

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