A historian’s view of the film Suffragette

Arrest of Dora Thewlis, 1907

The new film Suffragette tells the story of the fight for women’s votes in early twentieth-century Britain. It highlights the sacrifices that were made in this cause, and in particular does not hold back on its depiction of the violence that was meted out to female campaigners. The brutality of the police and the horrible practice of force feeding prisoners on hunger strike were really brought home by this powerful film.

As a cinemagoer, I was swept along by the film and felt that it fully justified the positive reviews. The film was dramatic and superbly acted, and Edwardian England was recreated very evocatively. As a historian, though, there were some aspects of the storytelling that I found concerning.

The film was pitched as an introduction to the story of the suffragettes. Much of the pre-release publicity dwelt upon how little the story is known today. Carey Mulligan, who plays the lead character, noted that ‘this enormous story happened in our history and no one has ever told it before’. The suffragettes are not entirely neglected by cinema, but probably the most famous big-screen example is Mrs Banks from Mary Poppins, who is privileged, a bit dotty and neglects her family. Perhaps to counter the Mrs Banks stereotype, the story is instead told by a fictional working-class suffragette. This offers a different perspective on a movement whose story is often dominated by the Pankhursts and other well-to-do leading figures.

It is clear why the film makers should have chosen to do this, since Carey Mulligan’s character is much more relatable to modern audiences than women of the Edwardian elite. She is a working mum, who experiences abuse and exploitation at work, and is denied access to her child and her home by her husband. (The meek Ben Wishaw’s transition from loving husband to hostile patriarch was one aspect of the film that didn’t ring true for me.) For her, the vote is not just an end in itself but the means to change her life: this was a period when people had faith in the power of politics to effect real change.

The handling of politics in the film seemed rather narrow, though. At the outset we are told that decades of peaceful political campaigning had been completely ineffective, and the film instead focuses on the militant tactics of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). By contrast, many historians now argue that the ‘constitutional’ tactics of other suffrage groups (and by the WSPU themselves) were much more effective than they are usually given credit for.

The portrayal of militancy in the film is vividly done, and the film shows an increasingly underground movement carrying out window breaking, sabotage and bombings. The goal of this is media coverage: Emily Wilding Davison eyes the rolling cine cameras before stepping in front of the King’s racehorse — this is the conclusion of the film, and the narrative suggests that her death is what finally clinched the vote. The suffragettes’ opponents are the state’s security services, using tactics such as covert photography, moles and prison brutality. At times the film felt like a critique of the current ‘war on terror’ — although that analogy puts the suffragettes themselves in a jarringly unsympathetic role.

For me, the most troubling aspect of the film was the use of a fictional character, Mulligan’s Maud Watts, to tell the story. Again, it is clear why this was done, since it gives the film a narrative coherence and an identifiable protagonist. But the real story is so compelling and so full of genuine heroines that it begs the question of why this was necessary. Does it do Emily Wilding Davison’s sacrifice a disservice to portray it via a made-up accomplice?

Some compromises have therefore been made in the interests of telling a compelling story. But arguably they were justified, since there is a political point to telling this story this way. The closing credits suggest that many battles remained to be won in the fight for gender equality — and remain the case to this day, since it is only in 2015 that women in Saudi Arabia are beginning to be given the vote. As well as being a film about politics, then, this is a political film — and it is all the more effective for being a powerful one.

Matthew McCormack — Associate Professor (History)