The radical methods of the British suffragettes have earned them comparisons to today’s terrorists. Speaking at the Women in the World summit in London on Thursday, Sarah Gavron, director of the new film Suffragette, alongside lead actress Meryl Streep and film producer Alison Owen, spoke about the utility of the suffragette’s revolutionary brand of political action, and the continuing fight for women’s rights today.
The suffragettes, many following orders from Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep), leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), took pains to “terrorize” the state in the early 20th century, throwing rocks at store windows and setting fire to golf greens, even blowing up the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer — all efforts that the film depicts in full force.
“There is something that governments care far more for than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy,” Pankhurst told her followers in a famous address at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1912. “Be militant each in your own way.”
Pankhurst herself was an extraordinarily charismatic figure. “She had the unselfconsciousness, and the belief of someone transported by the message. You could see that in her body, and in her way of moving. There was a sort of awkwardness,” Streep said on Thursday evening, comparing Pankhurst’s likeness to that of a painting of Joan of Arc at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “She always stood on the balls of her feet, ready to fly or to deliver a speech.”
But while the suffragettes confined their acts of violence to attacks on state property, their bodies faced considerable violence in prison. Starting in 1909, they began going on hunger strikes in non-violent protest, and that year the government began ordering force-feeding, according to the Guardian.
Held down by multiple prison workers, tubes were inserted into the suffragette’s noses or mouths, often causing them to vomit and bleed, bruising their necks and faces. “They saw it as a form of rape because they had tubes forced down their throats,” said June Purvis, emeritus professor of Women’s and Gender studies at the University of Portsmouth, who served as one of six historical advisors on the film, in which she also makes a short cameo. One suffragette named Kitty Marion was subjected to the procedure 232 times.
The film does not shy away from depicting the extreme violence the suffragettes suffered. Carey Mulligan’s character, Maud Watts, is brutally force-fed in prison, after being beaten up and trampled by police at a rally.
“They don’t want to destroy the state, they want to be part of the state. What they’re agitating for is inclusion,” said Laura Mayhall, a historian of the militant suffrage movement.
“The suffragettes instituted this campaign against violence only after 50 years of peaceful protest. It was out of sheer frustration,” Alison Owen, the film’s producer, said at the conference on Thursday. “It was out of a complete inability to think of anything else they could do. I would have sympathy for anyone who was in the same position today.”
But what is perhaps most radical about the film is its effort to correct the prevailing historical understanding of the suffragette movement, which has overlooked the role of lower-class women in the fight.
“There’s been a tremendous bias amongst most male historians who have studied the WSPU — they tend to see the suffragettes as wild and deviant, and mainly middle-class women,” said Purvis.
That bias has led historians to diminish the diversity and strength of the suffragette movement in the U.K., depicting the WSPU “as a small pressure group of middle class-women rather than a large political organization,” said Krista Cowman, professor of history at the University of Lincoln and another historical advisor on the film. “For example, there is still no full-length history of the Women’s Freedom League (the third largest women’s suffrage society). Words such as ‘hysteria’ ‘shrieking’ ‘alienating’ and ‘witchery’ were used to describe the WSPU.”
“I remember my grandmother, who was of [that] era. She said that a woman should be seen twice in the newspaper, once at her marriage and once at her death,” Streep said on Thursday evening. “This movement was most upsetting to the powers that be because of its classlessness. There were women across all classes speaking and acting together, and that was so subversive [as] an idea.”
As Maud Watts, the central character of the film, Carey Mulligan plays the role of a young mother who works for 13 shillings an hour at a local laundry, braving toxic working conditions and a sexually abusive boss. Her husband, Sonny (played by Ben Winshaw), earns 19 shillings an hour at the same laundry.
Lower-class women “were the foot soldiers, and their account sounded so contemporary,” Gavron said at the summit, explaining that the suffragettes agitated for issues like equal pay and custodial care of their children. “That felt the most accessible way to make a film about this piece of history and make it speak to now.”
The Maud Watts character, fittingly, is a “composite of working class women and how they became radicalized,” said Purvis. “She sees the suffrage movement as a way of improving women’s condition. The Suffragette movement wanted to end women’s subordinate role in society. They didn’t just want the parliamentary vote, they wanted equality in the home, work, and society. It was a broader movement.”
Agitating for the vote was a way of fighting for a higher quality of life. “I never thought we would get the vote, so I’ve never thought about what it would mean,” Watts testifies to parliament in the film.
Suffragette concludes with a list of countries, paired with the years in which they enacted full suffrage for women. The last entry on the list is Saudi Arabia, where, in August, the first Saudi women registered to vote in December elections.
“We thought about showing this film in Saudi Arabia, but we just found out there are no cinemas,” said Gavron. Meryl Streep then cut in: “There are DVDs, baby.”