Suffragette attempts to portray the struggle of women in Britain to obtain the right to vote. It was never meant to be an encompassing film. Instead Suffragette attempts portray the intense struggle and vicious opposition women faced to obtaining their civic right to participate in the political sphere of their country by focusing on a small group of women.
The movie opens in 1912 with fictional Maud Watts (Carrie Mulligan), who works at Glasshouse Laundry, delivering a package for her employer, Mr. Norman Taylor (Geoff Bell). While doing this errand on her way home from work, Maud becomes caught up in an act of civil disobedience by the suffragettes who throw stones at shop windows. She escapes the ensuing melee between the suffragettes and police and makes her way home but not before recognizing a co-worker, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff).
The suffragettes are encouraged by Alice Haughton, the wife of an MP, to speak before parliament regarding amendments to the suffrage bill. Maud tells Violet, who has been chosen to testify she will accompany her but when Violet shows up badly beaten by her husband, Maud is asked to step in. Reluctantly Maud prepares to read Violet's statement but she is questioned about her own situation by Prime Minister Lloyd George. The suffragettes are pleased with Maud's success and Edith Ellyn (Helen Bonham Carter) invites Maud to tea.Edith runs her husband's chemist shop. Her father opposed her getting educated but she was able to do so because of her mother. Her husband inherited the shop but she runs it, although she really wants to be a doctor.
When the suffragettes return to parliament they learn that the Prime Minister has not granted the right to vote. Furious, the suffragettes begin protesting but the police immediately begin kicking and punching the women. Many are arrested including Maud, Violet, and Edith and Alice Haughton. Alice wants her husband Benedict to bail all the women out but he refuses. He doesn't allow her to use her own money as she wishes. They are kept for a week in prison under harsh conditions. During this time Edith and Violet encourage Maud to be strong and introduce her to Emily Davison who is on a hunger strike.
When Maud returns home, her husband Sonny is angry over her involvement with the suffragettes and completely unsympathetic to what she went through in jail. Maud promises him she will not be further involved. Meanwhile Pankhurst is in hiding and the suffragettes await her further instructions. News arrives of a secret meeting where Emmeline Pankhurst will speak to the suffragettes and Maud attends with her friends. Pankhurst encourages the women to become rebels, to fight in anyway they can since their demands have been ignored now for years. She tells them "Deeds not words" is their motto.
The police raid the meeting arresting Maud and others. On the orders of Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson) who has been tracking the suffragettes, the women are taken to their homes so that their husbands can "deal" with them. Sonny, furious at Maud's participation refuses to let her back into their home or to see their son, George.
Haughton and Steed meanwhile decide they need to get into the East London group and hope to obtain an informer by publishing photographs of the women involved in the suffragette movement. Maud is shown her picture by a disapproving neighbour. When Taylor sees the pictures, he fires her. Ridiculing her for the abuse she has suffered at his hands, Maud burns his hand with the iron.
Inspector Steed who has been called to the factory tells Maud that she will go home provided she becomes an informant for the police. Maud tells him that Taylor deserved what happened because of what he's done to her and other women, but Steed reminds her that no one listens to "girls like you."
Maud meets with Edith who explains to the group that they will be bombing the King's post office boxes. Before she undertakes her part in this Maud manages to see George and spend some time with him but when she returns him to Sonny he tells her by law their boy is his and he can prevent her from seeing him. This results in Maud writing Steed to inform him that she has decided against his offer. She believes in fighting for her rights as a woman and if the law won't let her see her son, she needs to work to change that law.
All of this leads to Maud becoming more radicalized and more involved with suffragettes. With each arrest and jail time, she along with the other suffragettes become determined to win the right to vote and to obtain other rights for women too.
Suffragette is a movie that provides an excellent starting point to create awareness of how different life was for women a century ago and that many of the rights women enjoy today were hard won. The women's movement in the United Kingdom began in the 1800's as more and more women desired to participate more fully in society. Women's rights became a national movement in the UK around 1872. Women began lobbying for more rights but change was slow and often piecemeal. For example, in 1882 women won the right to own property but as of 1912, women could still not vote, despite years of lobbying.
Emmeline Pankhurst emerged as a leader in the women's movement in the UK. She founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) which challenged women to act in order to secure more rights. Conditions in Britain for women at this time were deplorable. Many worked long hours in factories in terrible conditions for pay that was far less than that of men. They had no parental rights and no say in the political process. They were unable to hold meetings because it was almost impossible to find a venue. Unable to secure the right to vote Pankhurst decided that a more militant approach was required and her group advocated civil disobedience in the form of smashing windows, bombing postal boxes and eventually arson. She and many of her followers were arrested and staged hunger strikes while in prison. Many were brutally force-fed.
Suffragette is set against this backdrop in 1912 to 1913. The movie, directed by Sarah Gavron, accurately portrays life for women during this time period.
In Suffragette, as Maud experiences the injustice of laws which favour men, she becomes increasingly radicalized. The abuse by her employer, the loss of her husband and her son, the brutality of the police, the ridicule of those around her and torture by doctors in the jail all drive her towards supporting the suffragettes. Carrie Mulligan portrays Maud's increasing desperation and her transformation from reluctant mother and laundress to determined activist realistically. It's gradual and not without conflict.
Helena Bonham Carter's performance as Edith Ellyn was wonderful. It was enjoyable to see her in a role where her considerable acting abilities could be brought to bear. She gave Edith a refreshing brashness that made her seem the most realistic of all the film's characters. Bonham Carter brought out Edith's resourcefulness and stoic determination to make things better for the next generation. She saw her own dreams of becoming a doctor and owning her own business thwarted merely because of her gender. Yet she soldiers on and encourages the other suffragettes to do so too. Meryl Streep brief performance as Pankhurst was solid.
The event that forms the climax of Suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison's walking out in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby was a real event that occurred on June 4, 1913. Emily was struck by King George V's horse, Anmer and trampled to the ground as she tried to offer the women's vote flag to the rider. She died four days later in hospital. Her death and funeral made headlines around the world. Below is actual film of the race.
As the movie does not fully develop the real life characters, Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison, viewers are directed to research these women. Pankhurst's autobiography, Suffragette: My Own Story is worth reading.
Canadian women might be interested to know that women in Manitoba were the first to get the vote in Canada. That right was granted on January 28, 1916. They could run for provincial office and vote in provincial elections but they could not vote federally. The right to vote in federal elections was not fully granted to women in Canada until May 24, 1918. Aboriginal women did not gain the right to vote in federal elections until 1960.
Emily Davison's Funeral
Women's Suffrage in Canada