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Suffragette: "War is the only language men listen to."

I wasn't going to see Suffragette. When it was first announced, I was leap-in-the-air excited, and then as time passed and disappointing reports kept trickling in, that enthusiasm waned and waned until my only motivation for going was a friend asking + a dull desire to learn more about the British women's suffrage movement.

I'm extremely glad I saw it.

My expectations were The Lowest because most of the articles I've seen about Suffragette either commented on the whitewashing involved, or on the hideous PR debacle surrounding the Pankhurst quote "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" t-shirts the cast was photographed wearing. (Does Pankhurst say this quote in the movie? Yes, but it's in context, and therefore not horrifying)

I have to do more reading to verify how accurate this portrayal of the situation was, but Suffragette gives an on-the-ground view of what the actions and consequences were for the everyday women involved in the suffrage movement in England. The film centers around Maud, played by Carey Mulligan, who works in a laundry, has a husband and son, and just wants to live her life. Circumstances surrounding her essentially sweep her into suffrage activism, beginning with accidentally being around a group of window-breakers.

Women would throw rocks at windows to gain attention for the movement, which you can at first dismiss with "Well, wanton destruction of property won't get you anywhere," but then you have to think, how silenced does an entire mass of people have to feel that they think this is their only option? How much frustration had to have been building for decades upon decades for Pankhurst to start issuing orders to blow up mailboxes, hang Votes for Women banners in government sessions before being arrested, and cut telephone lines (among many other activities)?

Remember that while America has its private-letter "Remember the ladies" line of Abigail Adams's in the 18th century, England has Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In 1792, Wollstonecraft is publicly denouncing the chauvinistic bullshit happening to women. And essentially nothing changes. At the time of the movie (1912), Maud has no rights to her child. A peer's wife has to plead with him to use her money to bail other suffrage activists out of jail (he says no). The rights women are fighting for are rights to live as humans.

As to the whitewashing charge, in What did the suffragette movement in Britain really look like?, Dr Sumita Mukherjee says the women's suffrage movement in Britain was “very different from the American case or the Australian case or the New Zealand case, because although there were ethnic minorities in Britain at that time, there wasn’t the same scale or the same questions of citizenship as there were in other countries.”

While yes, there should have been at least some damn Indian suffragette extras in the scenes, America is particularly sensitive to an all-white suffrage portrayal because of our own erasure of minorities from the battle for women's suffrage. There was a large African-American contingent of suffragists in the U.S., but you have probably not heard of them, because, as historian Lisa Tetrault says, women's history gets so little space, more than two names associated with suffrage becomes too much for people. While you may in fact have heard of Sojourner Truth, there's Ida B. Wells, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Nannie Burroughs, and many others. But that's America's story.

Suffragette does an excellent job of pulling the focus from the upper and upper middle class women of the movement back to the working class. These are the women with no power, with no voice, who were risking their entire lives to make things better for themselves, their daughters, and the women of the future. They lost their jobs, their families, suffered force-feeding in a dank prison, beatings in the street by policemen, all because they felt the government had given them no other option.

Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst only appears for about five minutes, which honestly, I thought was the right amount of time. You were seeing Pankhurst from Maud's perspective. They have to sneak her out of the building she gives a balcony speech from because the police were trying to arrest her (this actually happened), and just before jumping into a car, she gives Maud some encouragement: "Never surrender. Never give up." 

This is exactly what you should see from a transcendent historical figure in a historical film. A flash and they're gone. You are getting the same view of her the thousands of women following her had. 

Helena Bonham Carter plays a character named Edith Ellyn, who is fascinating, but not real. She is heavily based on Edith Garrud though, who was famous for teaching suffrage fighters jiu-jitsu. (please see the comic Suffrajitsu and also this). And of course, Emily Wilding Davison is in it, who was extremely real.

I'm glad I saw it. It's given me more of an understanding of why women in England felt they had to resort to activities we in America never did, and an appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who fought.


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