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Nine Things I Love About Suffragette (2015) and One Thing I Don't

SuffragetteThe protagonist of my novel Impossible Saints is not only a suffragette but a leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), so I’ve done extensive research on this organisation and more generally on the women’s movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Naturally, I was very interested to see the new film Suffragette, which seemed to take forever to get to a theatre near me. When it finally did arrive, I walked into the cinema with low expectations, as I always do when a movie deals with a subject I know a lot about.
I watched the film twice, with about ten days between viewings. The first time, I watched it with a critical eye, looking for historical inaccuracies and comparing what I saw to my sources. I was impressed, but I had a few quibbles. It turned out that most of my quibbles were based on gaps in my knowledge. (No matter how much of an expert I might think I am, there are always new things to learn.) The second viewing was a more emotional experience for me.
Nine Things I Love:
1. The term “suffragette” is used properly to refer to the British militant wing of the women’s movement, specifically the WSPU. There were many other organisations and groups who wanted to extend the vote to women, but they were called suffragists, not suffragettes. An excellent, concise explanation of the complex history of the term “suffragette” can be found here.
2. The historical events in the film were accurately and authentically portrayed. Given the limitations of creating a narrative arc for a two-hour feature film, director Sarah Gavron did an excellent job. I was worried the film would over-play or twist events that were already dramatic enough, but instead it provided a sober, clear-eyed view of these events.
3. Carey Mulligan. ‘Nuff said.
4. The marital relationships. While I would have loved to see these developed further (I’m a sucker for love stories) and they were not the focus of the film, the three main marital relationships, each from a different socioeconomic class, were subtly and believably portrayed. The husbands were minor characters, yet one could sympathise with them even when they behaved badly (except for the upper-class husband—there was no excuse for him).
5. The film’s focus was a working-class group of suffragettes (laundry workers), a group rarely discussed or portrayed in the media. In fact, suffragettes in general are rarely portrayed in the media, and when they are, the portrayal is often ridiculous. I’ve thrown a few historical novels across the room lately because of their supposedly suffragette characters. It’s as if the author is thinking, I have a female character and my novel is set in 1912. I’d better call her a suffragette but I won’t actually do any research on this term or the history of women’s suffrage. (Sorry, my pet peeve is showing!)
6. The way in which Mulligan’s character slowly begins to see the connections between her powerlessness in her work and domestic life and what the suffragettes are fighting for. The realities of these working-class women’s lives are heart-wrenching: low-paid, physically-demanding work in the laundry, being at the mercy of a predatory, cruel employer, and having absolutely no rights whatsoever over their own children.
7. The juxtaposition between suffragettes’ mandate not to harm others and the astounding brutality perpetuated against them. Suffragettes set fires and broke windows, but they did their best not to hurt any living creature. This is more than can be said of the way police and prison officials treated the suffragettes: this violence, encompassing everything from beatings and sexual assaults in the streets to force-feedings in prison, was actually under-played in the film.
8. Helena Bonham Carter, who portrayed a middle-class WSPU organiser, pharmacist and would-be doctor, was amazing as always. Interestingly, Bonham Carter is the great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, who was Prime Minister of the UK during the events depicted in the film and famously opposed to women’s suffrage. Here’s an interview with Bonham Carter about her role and personal stakes in the film.
Olympic-suffragettes-0129. The group protagonist. Maud Watts (Mulligan’s character) has been criticized for being two-dimensional and passive, and it’s true that her personality is not as distinct or vivid as several of the other female characters. But this film isn’t a biopic about one person. It’s about a community of women (and some men) who pulled together to fight for equality. Many scenes show women supporting each other and even joking together during some of their darkest moments (Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff laughing on a broken bed at a cheap rooming house is my favourite). This is the main triumph of the movie for me, that it gives a clear sense of that community of women despite class differences, personality differences, and even differences of opinion about militant methods.
One Thing I Don’t Love
I didn’t love the film’s portrayal of Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep). This cameo role made Pankhurst seem like a flighty drama queen who runs away from danger and lets the working-class suffragettes do her dirty work for her (similar to what the police inspector tells Maud). Though the events surrounding Pankhurst’s appearance really happened and Streep’s speech draws from Pankhurst’s own words, the brief glimpse doesn’t do her justice. But this is a minor problem in a film that, again, wasn’t meant to be a biopic.
I feel grateful that this important slice of women’s history is on the big screen and hope many people will see it!


  1. Evangeline Holland

    Number 5 is my pet peeve! Or, when the term suffragette is used indiscriminately for any woman in historicals, pre-1906, who declares herself for women’s suffrage.
    I quibble with the historical accuracy of Suffragette. The script compressed a lot of historicity to fit the narrative structure, and hand-waved some important stuff. The scene with Lloyd George comes to mind–it was powerful within the context of Maud’s story, but looking at it from a history angle, I was unmoved because it didn’t show what this event was. I also felt the link between the vote and employer exploitation was tenuous. Knowing the legal side of the Edwardian era, the trades unions and the birth of the Labour Party seemed a bit more relevant to Maud than the suffragettes–or there should have been an in-depth look at this intersection of sex and unions (which then makes Maud’s husband being a shuffling nonentity another way the script stuck to hackneyed story effects).
    I do agree with 7 and 9. The violence was visceral and explored the ways in which the privileged frequently behaves towards the underprivileged when they step up to declare their rights. The group dynamics were also a plus. I wish we’d gotten a larger glimpse of the WSPU office–the militancy wasn’t just irrational, irresponsible action. They ran the campaign like a business.

    • Clarissa Harwood

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Evangeline! I don’t mind authors taking liberties with history (I do it myself!) as long as there’s an author’s note at the end that explains the changes. I don’t like anachronisms, though.
      I think there should be a whole series of films about the intersection of sex and unions (and women’s suffrage societies) that you mentioned. This is such a rich period in history that one film can’t possibly do justice to it. But sadly, I suspect such films wouldn’t appeal to a wide audience (maybe you and I would be the only ones watching!).

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