Today (Aug. 18) is the 100th Anniversary of the Constitutional Amendment that at last gave women the right to vote. And so I am bringing up from the archives two films from 2015, Suffragette and Iron Jawed Angels. Neither in America nor in America were women given the right to vote. They had to fight for it. And often at great cost, as both films show.
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 4; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.
Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Ephesians 6:12 (RSV)
Today we shudder at the ways in which women are treated in some Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia where they cannot drive, or in rural parts of Pakistan where radical fundamentalists tried to kill a teenager advocating the right of girls to go to school. However, it was just a hundred years ago, director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan remind us in their new film, that women in Europe and America were not much better off. Their film, set in England a few years before the First World War, could be considered a prequel to the 2004 HBO movie Iron Jawed Angels, the story of America suffragettes Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, both of whom gained experience in the women’s rights movement in England.
The new film mixes real characters with fictional ones, reminding me in a way of the exceptional film about the Montgomery Bus Boycott The Long Walk Home. Whereas both Iron Jawed Angels and Boycott dealt with the generals in the war for equality—the movies Home and Suffragette focus on the foot-soldiers, the lowly but courageous folk whose names never appear in the newspapers or history books, but without whom the generals would lack the power to effect change. It was a Montgomery maid working for a white family in The Long Walk Home. In this London-set film Carey Mulligan’s Maud Watts works at the same industrial laundry as her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). She has been too busy with work, husband, and a young son to pay much attention to the upperclass Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) and the forceful demonstrations of the latter’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which Pankhurst founded in 1903. It is now 1912, and when Maud’s overbearing boss Norman Taylor (Geoff Bell) orders her to deliver a package to London’s West End, she comes upon a protest demonstration in central London that has turned violent, the women hurtling rocks through store windows.
Maud recognizes one of the protestors, as Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), a new worker at the laundry. Through her, as well as goaded by the terrible treatment by her boss, Maud becomes caught up in the movement, especially when she is almost forced to step in and speak for Violet before a Parliamentary Commission because Violte has been beat up, presumably by her husband. Later she befriends Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press), an ardent suffragette. They are inspired by a speech made from a balcony by Emmeline Pankhurst herself, albeit a brief one, as the police arrive hoping to capture the fugitive leader. The women take to heart Pankhurst’s basic message, “It is deeds not words that will get us the vote.”
Other conspirators include chemist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) who hosts meetings of female conspirators in the back of the shop she and her supportive husband Hugh (Fynbar Lynch). Edith does more than talk about fighting the patriarchal system; she acts, mixing the materials for the small bombs that volunteers stuff into corner mailboxes, thereby blowing them up. Like those protesting the Vietnam War several generations later, Edith stresses that care should be taken so that no one would be harmed by the blasts. But what about when the women start bombing buildings?
Maud soon makes the acquaintance of the Irish cop Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), determined to penetrate and break the increasingly violent WSPU. Maud is arrested, much to the disgust of Sonny, who comes to seek her release from jail. After she is arrested several times Inspector Steed offers Maud a way to escape prison time—turn informer. Like many women of her time, Maude pays a high price for her activism, perhaps the worst price that could be imposed on a mother by a hostile husband. Throughout the film women find themselves up against a brutal system, the police at times seeming to enjoy using their heavy billy clubs to beat the women, even when they are down on the ground. In prison, when some of the suffragettes go on hunger strikes, the methods of forcing food down their throats is just as brutal. And at the climax of the film, which takes place at a race track in 1918, Maud’s friend Emily Wilding Davison also pays a terrible price, her exact motive for doing what she did generating considerable debate. But her example inspired her fellow protestors to continue on with what at times seemed like a hopeless struggle. Their motto became, “Never surrender. Never give up the fight.”
This is the second film this year in which I have admired Carey Mulligan as a woman who battles against patriarchy. In Far From the Madding Crowd she played Bathsheba Everdene, a woman who strove to prove to skeptical males that she could take on the man’s job of running the large farm she had inherited. In Suffragette she is far lower down the social ladder, almost by accident becoming involved in a movement that would raise her status in society. What happens to her is what liberation theologians such as Paolo Freire called “conscientization,” an often slow process by which a person becomes aware of the forces that oppress him or her, and then understanding the situation, sets out to change things. I love to see this in such films as The Long Walk Home, Norma Rae, The Official Story, Silkwood, The Burning Season, Romero, and The Grapes of Wrath. In all these films the characters emerging into full consciousness pay a price, and Maud is no exception. Ms. Mulligan’s expressive face conveys the sorrow and pain of one who pays the price, one for Christians symbolized by the cross, for following one’s new convictions against the principalities and powers that dominate the world.
This is a film that every mother, and father, should be watching and discussing with their daughters and sons. Though the “glass ceiling” still prevents women in many areas from full equality, our society has come a long way from the period of this film, something that is worth celebrating. Two of the men, Maud’s boss and her husband, represent the worst of the domineering powers, but there is also a more ambiguous male figure in the man hired to protect the status quo, the police inspector. Arthur Steed shares the prejudices of society, regarding the protestors as dangerous criminals who deserve what they get in the way of beatings and imprisonment. We see him mellowing as he witnesses the courage and tenacity of the women, who refuse to give up, despite their terrible treatment in prison. By the film’s end he is not ready to pick up a sign and join a picket line, but, as both Gandhi and Dr. King noted often, the actions of the women did exert a meliorating experience on his once closed mind.
The film concludes with a series of surprising statistics that show what slow learners most of the world is, the statistics showing how long it took many countries to grant women the right to vote After watching and talking about this film, go on to see how the war spread from Great Britain to the USA by watching Iron Jawed Angels.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Nov. 2015 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.