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Suffragette

Wednesday 11 November 2015, by Abena Clarke

This isn’t ’the story’ of how women got the vote. Nor is it a tale of how activists shocked the nation with their efforts to obtain suffrage for women. This is a snippet view of one (fictional) woman’s experience in a militant cell of white suffrage activists, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union. But you’d be forgiven for leaving the cinema without realising that these women are members of an organised grouping, not just Mrs Pankhurst’s fanatical private army. This partly stems from the film’s peculiar approach to the concept of ‘community’: Despite living in a community so close-knit laundry is literally aired in public, our protagonist Maud apparently has neither friends, nor siblings, nor extended family, nor in-laws in the area where she has lived and worked her entire life, just like her mother before her. Yet the smallest of public slights, directed at a woman she barely knows, generates a mutual loyalty that will last for the rest of the film. This is a nonsensical plot device.

In another questionable move, the activists, fanatical as they may be, are surprisingly passionless about the need for women’s suffrage. Rather than rousing speeches arguing their case, their physical suffering and frequent prison stays speaks for them (even as they fight to have a voice) as does their action: the exploding house with three women, arms interlinked, running away as it burns brightly behind them and against the night sky. In contrast, the passion of their opposition is clear - the fearful state campaign against them, and the blood-stained ’Votes for Women’ banners after police officers turn on protesting women.

More troubling than an absence of passion is the absence of any people of colour, despite well-known politically-active black and Jewish communities during the period; some of whom had long-term working relationships with Sylvia Pankhurst. The setting is the East End of London, renowned by contemporaries for being home to London’s working class, multicultural communities so the anomaly is not simply an obvious gripe of the film’s ideological attachment to ’first wave’ as opposed to contemporary intersectional feminism. This is the same part of London in which, two decades later, the Battle of Cable Street would occur, when multi-ethnic locals and anti-fascists united and successfully fought pitched battles with the British Union of Fascists. In fact, the Fascists targeted this area because it was cosmopolitan. Historians suggest it was the site of the largest anti-fascist demonstration for a generation, with some claiming 250,000 people were involved. Instead of presenting these demographic realities, Suffragette casts one identifiably Irish person; a man, and a ’baddie’.

Still, Suffragette does prompt us to imagine the daily indignities white British women encountered in the years before they had the vote: The wealthy woman who is unable to bail out her suffragette sisters after a protest because, although she has her own money, she cannot legally do so as a woman and her unsympathetic husband refuses; a woman can have her child taken away and legally adopted because she has no parental rights; the reliance on charity before the creation of the welfare state, because a woman’s husband cannot bear the social stigma of his wife’s political activities and kicks her out. The same society’s disapproval of women who rebel is contrasted with the matter-of-fact attitude towards domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace and grossly unequal pay.

To conclude, if erasure racism doesn’t bother you, it’s fairly easy to enjoy this simple story, and the child acting is notably excellent.

Dir., Sarah Gavron, 2015

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