I suppose my three daughters first learned of the Women's Suffrage Movement through the rather jolly medium of Glynis Johns singing Sister Suffragette! in Mary Poppins. There was Mrs Banks, cheerfully neglecting her children and marching for Votes for Women! because she was rich enough to afford a nanny, wearing a sash and telling us "our daughters' daughters will adore us." It was all good clean middle class fun.
Scroll forwards ten years to 1974 to the BBC TV series "Shoulder to Shoulder" (available on YouTube) and you saw the brutal reality of the Cat and Mouse Act and the force-feeding of imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike.
It was unwatchably horrible, just as is the one force-feeding scene in Sarah Gavron's new film, Suffragette. In reality it happened to many women and many times, causing major health problems in many, such as pneumonia when the feeding tube went into the trachea instead of the oesophagus. Gavron has said that she was influenced by "Shoulder to Shoulder" in making her film.
I knew it was coming and braced myself. The trolley being wheeled along the prison corridor, with its gruesome load of rubber tubing and enamel jug and the gang of people needed to hold each woman down makes the viewer feel sick before the scene starts.
The film takes a fresh perspective in concentrating on two (fictional) working class women who are drawn into the fight not just for votes but equal pay and conditions - a battle still being fought a hundred years later.
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) both work in a laundry in sweatshop conditions, made worse by the assaults of the lecherous boss, but have very different domestic situations. Maud is married with one child, George, who has a weak chest; Violet is with a violent husband who impregnates her almost as frequently as he beats her up.
It is Violet who draws Maud into what is now called direct action but then "civil disobedience," a development which lands her in prison and in trouble with her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) - and he is one of the more sympathetic men, at least at the beginning.
They are led locally by Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham-Carter), who wanted to be a doctor but ended up married to a pharmacist. She teaches the women "ju-jitsu" and is modelled on Edith Garrud, a real-life suffragette.
|Punch cartoon 1910 "The Suffragette who knew Ju-Jitsu."|
Maud's increasing frustration with her work (and the attentions of her boss to her and to Violet's young daughter) and her home lead her further and further into taking action to improve life for women then and in the future. It's an impressive, nuanced performance by Carey Mulligan and one that should win her an Oscar nomination.
But there is a historical mistake in the story of her family - one you find in countless novels too. Sonny, having thrown Maud out of the home, can't cope with working and looking after their son. It leads to a tragic scene, when Maud tries to visit on George's birthday and finds him being taken away by a couple to be adopted. The trouble is that the Adoption law was passed only in 1926 and this is 1912 or 1913 at the latest. At most he could have been fostered and that doesn't have the finality implied in this parting scene.
|Emmeline Pankhurst Public Domain|
Much has been made of Meryl Streep's "starring" in the film; in fact she has only one scene. She turns in one of her impressive impersonations as Emmeline Pankhurst, first addressing a crowd of women (including Maud) and then fleeing arrest. She was of course often arrested, under the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913, which allowed for the release of women prisoners after their health failed from hunger strikes, only for them to be re-arrested once they had recovered.
|Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested May 1914 (Public Domain)|
If the film has a weakness, it is in the portrayal of men. They are jeering, sneering lechers or patronising politicians or they are out to trap and neutralise the women. The only truly sympathetic male in the end is Edith's husband and even he locks her in a cupboard to stop her attending another demonstration. True, it is because of his concern for her failing health, but still ...
There's a rumour that many male actors turned down the opportunity to play parts in the film, written by Abi Morgan, because the roles weren't "meaty" enough. There is certainly no sign of a Keir Hardy or a Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, the latter co-editor of the Votes for Women magazine and himself imprisoned and force-fed when he went on hunger strike.
This is a film about women's struggle and it is put first and foremost, quite rightly. Still, it's a shame that the men were so stereotyped.
Maud finds herself mixing with women of all classes and background and it takes a while to realise that the "Emily" she encounters is in fact Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who through herself in front of the king's horse at the 1913 Derby.
That sequence is magnificently re-created with complete conviction in the direction, costuming and cinematography. If you want to read the story of that day, I recommend Celia Rees's "Return to Victoria" in the History Girls' first publication, Daughters of Time.
|Memorial edition copyright Lordprice collection|
Before the credits roll, we get a list of dates when women got the vote in various countries: in Britain it was 1918, but only for women over thirty (which Maud would have just been) but they had to be householders, so only 40% of women were eligible. Universal suffrage for over 21s came only in 1928. Yes, that's less than a hundred years ago.
It comes as a shock if you didn't know it. The same shock as I felt when reading in Jane Robinson's excellent 2009 book Bluestockings that the university I went to did not award degrees to women until 1948.
It it a serious and important film, not without flaws but reminding audiences of what it took to gain a right that many people now can't be bothered to exercise. It's certainly a rallying cry against that kind of apathy.
And if you want to encourage and inform your daughters with something a bit less frivolous than Mary Poppins, there is a splendid book by one of our own History Girls, Carol Drinkwater, in the My Story series of YA books published by Scholastic. Called simply Suffragette and re-issued this year, it tells the story of another working-class girl, Dollie, who also becomes involved with the movement. It too ends with Derby Day 1913, a date we should never forget.