Suffragette is a compelling and moving portrayal of the courage of ordinary women who dared to challenge the power of the British state

The effects of this film were felt before almost anyone from the general public had had the chance to see it.  When activists from Sisters Uncut stormed the red carpet at the London Film Festival premiere to protest at the government cuts to domestic violence services they showed that the suffragettes’ defiant resistance of oppression is relevant and inspirational to the struggles we face today.

It is hardly a coincidence that the last serious and high-profile filmed adaptation of the suffragette movement, the TV series Shoulder to Shoulder, was produced in the early 1970s when mass movements were challenging establishment values and institutions.  The appearance of Suffragette, and the enthusiasm with which is has been received, is testament to the fact that today huge numbers of people are joining demonstrations, attending mass meetings and rejecting the mantra that protest does not work.

Suffragette is a refreshing and brilliant riposte to the insulting marginalisation and derision that the suffragette movement continued to face even after women won the vote.  Throughout much of the twentieth century the suffragette movement was not even taught in schools, while even today there are a wearingly depressing number of pundits poised to smugly proclaim at every anniversary that the campaign achieved nothing.  In recent TV dramas the suffragette movement has varyingly been treated with a derision that would not have seemed out of place in the Edwardian press, or as a sub-plot inserted to imply ‘depth’ to stuffy costume dramas.

In Suffragette we have a film which celebrates the courage and dignity of the suffragette movement.  It shows how greatly the British state feared the suffragettes, and the extreme lengths to which they resorted to crush it.  The women go on deputations to argue reasonably only to find their arguments patronised and rejected by the political class, they attend peaceful protests only to be faced with massive police violence in full view of the House of Commons.  The film also explores the state’s secret attempts to crush the suffragette movement, showing the sinister role of undercover police surveillance of campaigners.  The humiliating treatment in the prisons, where women were stripped, isolated in dark cells and eventually subjected to the brutality of forcible feeding for daring to demand the right to be treated as political prisoners, is starkly depicted. 

This is the horror of the violence the British state inflicted upon the suffragettes and this was why campaigners responded with militancy, civil disobedience and attacks on property. 

The suffragette movement is vibrantly realised as the film faithfully recreates the images from the archives of suffragette footage and photographs.  This is an impressive and dazzling tribute to the campaigners of the past which enables the viewer to imagine themselves alongside the characters in the heart of the movement.  It is a film that unashamedly takes the side of the rebels and demands the viewer does too.

Suffragette tells the story of a fictional character, Maud Watts, a mother and laundry worker in London’s East End, who becomes drawn into the heart of the suffragette movement at agonising personal cost.   The decision to focus on a working class, rank and file activist makes this historical drama stand out.  Through the story of one woman the film shows how people who consider themselves ordinary find the courage to do extraordinary things, how people who have always thought of themselves as powerless find the strength to stand up to the most powerful institutions in society – which itself is the inspirational, and too often untold, story of every mass movement. 

Suffragette becomes problematic when it attempts to artificially fuse together two distinct sides of the suffragette movement which in reality found themselves in angry confrontation.  In 1912, the year in which the film begins, Sylvia Pankhurst founded the East London Federation of the Women’s Social and Political Union to organise working women in the struggle for the vote.  This was a direct challenge to the political direction of the national Women’s Social and Political Union which, by this point, explicitly rejected the involvement of working-class women in the campaign. 

However, it is not the campaign that existed in her local community that Maud Watts joins.  Indeed, beyond a passing reference to Sylvia Pankhurst, who “disagrees”, there is no mention of the East London suffragettes in a film about an East London suffragette. 

The film sympathetically depicts the specific difficulties faced by working-class suffragettes, showing two suffragette laundry workers struggling to explain their absences from work (because they were in prison) and facing the loss of the meagre wages they survived on.  Their commitment to their cause is reinforced by their daily experience of oppression and every kind of exploitation both in the home and in the workplace. 

These were painful realities for working class suffragettes which are rightly recognised by the filmmakers.  The problem is that for all the film’s desire to present a grassroots perspective of the struggle, its refusal to acknowledge the vibrant grassroots politics of the East End at the time means that it can only provide individualistic solutions for its characters.  In the film they must either flee their local communities, or stay and deny themselves their freedom. 

The film justifies such a conclusion by depicting the East Londoners surrounding these two suffragette laundry workers as, at best, terrified by their radicalism and ashamed by their loss of respectability when the police become involved, or at worst, as reactionary, misognistic patriots.  This is a one-sided caricature of working class communities, and particularly so of the East End of London at this precise time.  There is no mention in the film of the fact that in 1912 the East End was in the midst of a huge revolt by the dockers who were no strangers to brutal police attacks, arrests and invasions of their communities.  Some of the earliest recruits to the East London suffragettes were the wives of dockers who had stood beside their husbands on the picket lines (one early recruit, the wife of striking transport worker, had even been imprisoned for punching a strike breaker who threatened her husband and joined the suffragettes after unashamedly flouting prison rules by playing football with suffragette prisoners!)

By 1913, when the characters in the film are depicted as experiencing the greatest social ostracisation by their community, women and men, including members of the dockers and gas workers unions, were marching alongside the local suffragettes and fighting back against the police attacks on suffragette demonstrations and raids of their homes. 

This is not to say that everyone in East London supported the suffragettes, far from it; of course relationships were broken as tensions mounted when old ways of doing things were challenged, suffragettes were sacked from their workplaces, suffragette meetings were disrupted and their speakers were assaulted.  But the East London suffragettes also reacted to this by holding more open air meetings, by supporting the strikes and by insisting that the fight for the vote was also a struggle against poverty, low pay and poor conditions they demonstrated whose side they were on.  They were never without allies in the East End.

Equally misleading is the decision to portray the two suffragettes as outcasts within their workplace.  Even before Maud Watts identifies with the movement we see little of her interraction with the other women she had worked alongside since her childhood.  Yet the stories of the women who became suffragettes in East London show that it was precisely their courageous willingness to stand up to injustice that often made them respected leaders among their workmates.  They were women like fifteen-year-old Rose Pengelly, a member of the Junior Suffragettes, who led her workmates out on strike, or teenage factory worker Elsie Taylor, a member of the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union who proudly pinned the suffragette colours next to her socialist red badge and was chosen by her workmates as the workplace rep.

Resistance to the exploitative and abusive laundry boss in Suffragette is entirely individualistic and, in the story of the girl ‘rescued’ by domestic service, more than somewhat ethically and historically dubious.  The collective resistance in Suffragette is confined to the suffrage struggle outside the workplace, but in the period in which the film is set Britain was experiencing mass revolts in workplaces across the country in a wave of industrial action, now known as the Great Unrest, which terrified the government.  The choice faced by the women in the film was in fact rejected by the East London suffragettes. They concluded that they did not have to leave or put up with it, instead they would stay and fight.   

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.