Now, a new film starring Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Whishaw charts the story of those who risked their lives and liberties to secure the vote for women.
Here, writing for History Extra, Professor June Purvis from the University of Portsmouth offers her views on Suffragette…
***NOTE: This article contains spoilers***
Suffragette is a moving and inspiring film that must be seen. Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) with script by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), it tells the story of the militant suffragette movement in Edwardian Britain through the eyes of the working-class activists who risked so much to achieve their goals.
The location is London and the central character is Maud Watts (an awards-worthy performance is given by Carey Mulligan), a working-class woman who is employed in a machine-driven, noisy laundry in the East End of London. Maud’s work is arduous, dangerous and backbreaking. Her growing awareness of the inequalities that women face in the workplace, including low pay, little control over their working conditions and sexual harassment by bullying male bosses, brings her into the struggle for the parliamentary vote.
Critical in this politicisation process is her friendship with a fellow laundry worker, Violet Miller (played by the spirited Anne-Marie Duff), a battered wife who invites Maud to a suffrage meeting.
Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband, Sonny, with sensitivity – a decent but conservative man who teaches their young son to salute a picture of the king each night before he goes to bed. He too works in the laundry, but accepts his lot.
Carey Mulligan plays Maud and Ben Whishaw plays her husband, Sonny, in Suffragette. (Image copyright Focus Features/MovieStillsDB.com)
Sonny is aghast when his wife becomes a militant suffragette who breaks windows. Trapped in the conventions of his time, he cannot cope with the shame of Maud’s imprisonment, nor with the backlash from their local community. He resolves the situation in a most cruel manner, by having their son – whom Maud loves dearly – adopted. Yet Sonny’s actions, supported by the laws of the time, cause him deep anguish.
Maud is a composite character who explores well why women became militant in the women’s suffrage cause and why they suffered, as she does, the torture of forced feeding (this scene made me shed a tear or two).
Bruised and battered after years of peaceful protest in a just cause, betrayed by the false promises of Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime minister of the day, and by the wheeler-dealing of one of his ministers, David Lloyd George, suffragettes were prepared to go that extra mile.
Suffragette also explores the friendships that existed between women across the social class divide. Alice Haughton (played by Romola Garai) is an upper-class women who seeks new recruits to the suffragette cause and is supportive of those who are less well off, even finding ‘safe houses’ for those like Maud who are on the run from re-arrest. Meanwhile Edith and Hugh Ellyn (played respectively by Helena Bonham Carter and Finbar Lynch) are a couple who run a pharmacy in the East End – secretly making explosives for those militants brave enough to use them.
Historians seeking ‘real life’ characters will find in the film Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) and Emily Wilding Davison (by Natalie Press). Streep brilliantly conveys the charisma, determination and vision of Mrs Pankhurst when, hounded by the police, she suddenly appears on a balcony to rally the rank-and-file with her powerful oratory. “Be militant in your own way,” she defiantly pleads. “I would rather be a rebel than a slave…. We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.” These are, in reality, sentences from speeches made on separate occasions, but hearing them in one fell swoop strengthens their impact.
Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette. (Image copyright Focus Features/MovieStillsDB.com)
The episode in Suffragette that covers the death of Emily Wilding Davison in June 1913, four days after she tried to grab the reins of the king’s horse at the Derby, is dramatically shot with the heavy thud of galloping hooves dominating. Original black-and-white footage of the funeral, rarely seen before, appears on the screen. These images will resonate with thousands of people who, in 2013, joined in the centennial commemoration of her passing.
Directed, scripted and produced by British women, Suffragette tells the story of an important episode in British women’s history – a time when thousands of women of all social classes fought valiantly for their democratic rights. It is hoped that it will be watched particularly by all those today who say “what’s the point of voting?” Suffragette tells you forcefully why it matters.
June Purvis is emeritus professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth and the author of Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (2002).
Suffragette goes on general release on 12 October. To find out more, click here.
You can watch the Suffragette trailer below: