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Suffragette and the cost of winning the vote for women

People often find their interest in a cause awakened by a dramatization on stage, screen, between the pages of a book or, these days, on YouTube. This fall, Americans are learning about the highly dramatic battle in Britain to win the vote for women.

Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette offers up a glimpse of that struggle through the lens of one young working woman’s hard-won conversion to the cause in the year 1913. In the leading role, Carey Mulligan, playing laundress Maud Watts, vividly brings to life some of the reasons British women joined the fight: brutal working conditions, sexual abuse and discrimination in the workplace, sorely limited legal rights as a woman, wife, or mother, and government repression of suffrage demonstrations. Her nascent desire for self-determination draws her into activism and then into acts of violence against property. For her trouble, she is arrested and endures force-feeding after a hunger strike in jail.

Most Americans know little about the history of women voting, thanks to the lack of women’s history in classrooms. Some confuse the term suffrage, which means the right to vote, with suffering; the two words stem from different origins. Many filmgoers probably wonder how the American struggle compares to the one in Britain.

Before looking at the differences between the British and American militants in the votes-for-women movement, let’s note a few key aspects of the British movement that were absent from the film, as Suffragette dramatized history from the perspective of one person, inevitably limiting the filmmaker’s ability to provide an overview.

Throughout the film, we only see glimpses of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organization spearheaded by Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader of the movement, and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst, a law school graduate who was the brilliant mind behind many of the demonstrations. Indeed, the film suggests that the women’s activism was largely improvised and confined to a small group. when in fact, the WSPU prided itself on its almost military organization.

Emmeline Pankhurst addresses a crowd in 1913. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Emmeline Pankhurst addresses a crowd in 1913” by Topical Press Agency. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

American news coverage of the WSPU was extensive and American activists, who termed themselves suffragists rather than suffragettes, were keenly interested in the fortunes of the Pankhursts. Emmeline made several fundraising tours of the United States, which drummed up even more interest. Attending a WSPU rally became the thing to do when American suffragists visited London. A number of Americans became more involved with the Pankhursts, participating in suffrage parades, selling the Pankhursts’ Votes for Women newsweekly, and, in a few cases, joining demonstrations.

Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, loved the Pankhurst’s open air meetings and parades, consequently introducing this assertive style of suffrage demonstration to New York City. Similarly, Alice Paul, a New Jersey Quaker, and Lucy Burns, an Irish Catholic from Brooklyn, were among the few Americans willing to be arrested and jailed with the Pankhursts in the course of their work. After returning to the United States, both women shook up the American suffrage movement by staging Pankhurst-like demonstrations in Washington, DC beginning in 1913.

It’s interesting that screenwriter Abi Morgan chose 1913 as her focus, since the WSPU was losing support because of its increasing reliance on violence by that time. While the violence was directed against property and not people, many former WSPU supporters, both in Britain and the United States, objected to the new tactic. The death of Emily Wilding Davison, which new information suggests was an accident and not a suicide, shocked everyone on both sides of the pond but ultimately did not advance the suffrage cause in Parliament.

Longtime American suffragists feared the Pankhurst’s violent acts would stigmatize their own political work. Before long, the activities of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns drew criticism from the sole national suffrage group, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), as the young women’s interest in grabbing headlines and aggressively pursuing a constitutional amendment did not sit well with NAWSA leaders, who expelled the two. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, forming their own group, the Congressional Union (later the National Woman’s Party), continued to borrow tactics from the Pankhursts to focus attention on winning an amendment to the US Constitution. NAWSA leaders, in comparison, not only believed in a more “ladylike” approach, but also that many states would have to grant women voting rights before a constitutional amendment could be viable.

Violence became part of the American movement, but not due to actions by suffragists. While Alice Paul always spoke warmly of the Pankhursts, she watched their support decline once violence became the WSPU watchword and chose not to go down that road. Even so, she was not afraid of courting controversy. When Britain, in 1914, and America, in April 1917, declared war, both NAWSA and the Pankhursts prioritized war work over suffrage activism, but Alice Paul continued to send pickets to the White House, where “silent sentinels” had stood since January 1917. The National Woman’s Party took no position on the war, but many observers thought the pickets treasonous; some citizens expressed their anger by roughing up the demonstrators and tearing their banners. When the authorities decided to arrest the pickets in June 1917, most demonstrators chose jail over fines. Imprisoned for terms up to seven months, many were manhandled and some were force-fed, much like in Britain. Even with the WSPU, the violence visited upon women’s bodies by the state far exceeded that caused by any activism.

Suffragette shows the enormous cost to individual women as a result of the long and arduous struggle to win the vote. Like Maud Watts in the film, activists in both America and Britain endangered their reputations by working for the vote and often found themselves estranged from family, friends, and community. The health of many women suffered, sometimes permanently, after rough handling in demonstrations and the later hunger strikes and force-feeding. The 1913 martyrdom of Emily Davison was echoed in America in 1916, when the death of celebrity Inez Milholland while on a suffrage speaking tour gave the United States its own sacrificial lamb.

If Suffragette inspires people to explore the long and storied history of the American and British suffrage struggles, it will accomplish a valuable service indeed.

Image Credit: “Members of the Women’s Social and Political Union campaigning for women’s suffrage in Kingsway.” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Romola Garai

    The direction from Sarah Gavron is great and the film is very well paced and never really drags, which is a major plus. In fact, for a historical drama, the film is truly thrilling at times. However, the main reason I truly enjoyed Suffragette is Carey Mulligan. She was phenomenal and a truly turned in one of the year’s best performances.

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