Sunday 1 November 2015

Well done, Sister Suffragette! by Mary Hoffman

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)
You can't blame the film-makers for bigging up Streep's role; this all-women production needed a big name and must have been thrilled to get her but don't go expecting a great deal.

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
Emily's death, clearly unexpected by the other suffragettes, and her funeral lead to Maud's rescuing Violet's daughter from the clutches of the laundry boss and getting her a job in private service. It's still drudgery and it's not a given that all female servants were free from sexual assault by men, but in the context of the film it is a small victory.

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.


Susan Price said...

Great post, Mary. Thank you.

I have always raged against people who don't use the vote that was so hard won - but now find myself not using mine. Who do I vote for? I can't and won't vote Tory, not even the lite variety. And certainly not for the far right posing as working-class heroes.

The party whose manifesto is the closest match to my views is the Greens (not that the manifesto is much indication of what a party will actually do once in power.) I can only vote Green if one stands in my constituency.

Our system of voting - with its constituency borders and gerrymandering was set up in a time before fast communication. It needs to be thoroughly overhauled to make it truly representative - so that people can see that voting will make a difference. Look at how involved people became in Scotland recently, whether or not you approve of Scottish Independence. People there saw that their vote counted for something, and suddenly people of all ages were talking politics, campaigning and voting.

But the way things are suit the major parties very well - and the vested interests of Big Business. - 'However you vote, you get Tory.' So there won't be any reforms.

Sorry to bore on - I did enjoy your post very much, and it got me thinking!

Clare Mulley said...

I took my two elder daughters to this, and they were riveted. A wonderful introduction - though in fact they have read the Wilding story in Daughters in Time, which had already got them asking questions. Both film and book thoroughly recommended.

Intercostal Clavicle said...

I highly recommend My Story: Suffragette; it (as well as Mary Poppins!) was perhaps my first introduction to the history of women's rights.

Mary Hoffman said...

In Switzerland it was 1971, Carol! Unbelievable, isn't it?

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh and the mention of your book is a clickable link.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I loved the film. I came out wanting to punch someone (preferably male) and full of readiness to fight. Sadly, I suspect there will be plenty to fight for in the coming years, one way and another.
I suspect the lack of supportive men in the film was deliberate. They could so easily have taken centre stage and looked as though they were doing the job and were representative of the general population - which they weren't. I thought Edith's husband was very supportive, all things considered, and really enjoyed a film (for once) almost entirely about women.
Probably the men who turned down the roles are used to being stars and felt this was beneath them, shame on them. Certainly from the trailers before Spectre in the cinema last night, you'd think films were an all-male province.
Sue, I hope you get a Green candidate in your area next election. They are also my choice and I would struggle to vote for any of the four right-wing parties. I'd like to think Corbyn might be different, but he has yet to show us he gets feminism. And my goodness, yes, we need a fairer voting system.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Mary, I had no idea that Switzerland was so late. That is really shocking. Your link goes to an out of date print of the book, but I expect it can still be purchased from there!
I applaud films that give the lion's share of the roles to women. There are far too few opportunities for actresses particularly once past bikini body.

Mary Hoffman said...

Carol, I have changed the link to yours. Oddly the first one I used was the first that came up on Amazon.

Odette said...

Thank you Mary for a very interesting article. I was shocked about the 'adoption' and thanks for pointing out the error.

Kathryn Evans said...

I bought that My Story book for my daughter - she was defiantly not a feminist through her teens - experience in life has changed that. Shoulder to shoulder x

Unknown said...

Fascinating post, Mary - not least about the historical mistake. The male characters in the film may not have been very attractive, (though the pharmacist was on the whole a good sort and I thought the secret policeman type secretly had a bit of a heart too) - but my husband, who saw it with me, came out enthusiastically yodelling, "Votes for Women!"

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting review, Mary; I do look forward to the film, but I agree with you it's a pity if supportive men aren't included. I thought we'd moved forward from that kind of attitude. I suppose the film-makers wanted to knock on the head the idea that women would have got the vote anyway, if they'd only sat down and been good. Sue - I so agree about our voting system. It is clunky and old and undemocratic. In Germany you have one vote for a constituency MP (transferable, ie if your first choice doesn't get clear majority you can send your vote to your second choice) and one for the party. I like that system. As it is, our governments often get in on a system that more resembles a board game than representation. Now I am banging on. Perhaps, though, those of us who feel disenfranchised in our constituencies should be raging like the suffragettes. Incidentally, check that you're on the electoral register, if you want to vote, as the system has changed and individuals must register instead of by household. It needs to be done this month!
I think it was only one canton of Switzerland, Appenzell (as in cheese) where women only got the vote in 1971. I can remember it happening. I am old...
This is a very live issue, isn't it, and so good to see it blogged about!

Liz Fremantle said...

Wonderful stuff.