“Why is this history not taught in schools? Why don’t I know this story?”
They were the two questions my husband asked me before the credits were even rolling, having just sat through the film Suffragette.
It tells the story of a group of women who risked everything to campaign for the vote at the turn of the last century.
It is captivating, inspiring, heartbreaking and harrowing. And it needs to be seen by every man and woman in Australia.
By every person who has ever wondered – quietly or aloud – why women’s rights matter. By anyone who has ever wondered why women, and men, who believe in equality are increasingly frustrated. By anyone who has ever wondered if and why feminism is important.
It’s almost impossible to believe that this tale isn’t etched into our minds and the history books. That it isn’t widely known. The fact it isn’t is almost as powerful as the film itself.
It is a fictional drama that takes place in Britain in the early 20th century and follows a diverse group who were inspired by political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep, on their campaign.
Ostensibly they are fighting for the vote, but in reality they are fighting for far more. They are fighting to be recognised as citizens of some value. To be able to vote, to have a say about their working conditions, to have legal rights, to seek education. To be counted.
To watch Suffragatte is to understand how utterly disenfranchised women were. To appreciate the lengths they were prepared to go to change that. To grasp the sacrifices they made.
The experience of Maud Watts, played by Carey Mulligan, a working wife and mother, exemplifies this. Her boss, her husband and the social and political realities of the day rendered her powerless. To challenge that, like she does, is tantamount to personal destruction. She loses her job, her child, her home and any skerrick of agency she had because of it.
What led women like Maud to risk everything that they did, is the story the film’s director, Sarah Gavron, wanted to tell.
“What drives people to that point? When you are powerless and voiceless you turn to extremes because there’s no other way to make an impact,” Gavron told Mamamia. “Peaceful protests had only created endless broken promises. We focused on the women who resorted to civil disobedience. They didn’t turn to it lightly, it had huge consequences for them.”
They committed arson, attacked property, endured police violence, imprisonment, went on hunger strike and were repeatedly forcibly fed. They went to extreme lengths for their cause and were punished accordingly.
What led these previously peaceful women – wives, mothers, workers — to this? Desperation.
They wanted to be heard. They weren’t willing to accept their campaign being ignored and dismissed any longer. They agreed that it was time for “deeds not words”.
The film is dotted with moments where it’s impossible not to flinch. At the brutality these women are subjected to. At their bravery and courage. At their determination. Their unity.
In some respects the scenes from London in 1912 feel completely foreign, but in other ways it feels disarmingly familiar. It’s a story from a different time, but its relevance explains its potency.
There is a sequence in the film where men voice their concerns about women wanting the vote. They are both far-fetched and familiar at once.
Watch the official trailer for Suffragette… Post continues after video.
“What will they want next? Positions in parliament? Equal pay? Legal rights? Tertiary education? Total independence?”
As a matter of fact, yes. And, as a sobering matter of fact, in that regard, we are still fighting.
The film ends by listing the year in which women won the vote in several countries. The last nation listed can now be updated because a few weeks ago Saudi Arabian women were granted the vote.
In 2015. More than a century on from the Suffragette’s campaign.
It is arresting to consider. A reminder that the Suffragette’s battle is far from won. The vote, yes, has mostly been achieved. But there is not a single country on earth where women are entirely equal with men.
The fact this film was made at all, is promising. It was a passion project of Sarah Gavron for years before it came into fruition.
“I had wanted to make a film like this for years. The struggle for women’s enfranchisement in the United Kingdom hadn’t been told in cinema in 100 years? Why? When other social movements have been covered? It’s because women’s history has been marginalised. I wasn’t taught it at school. It’s taken a long time.”
It’s not a coincidence that 2015 was the year it came to life.
“There’s a real appetite for female-made and led films but there is also a resurgence in women challenging oppression,” Gavron says. “In the UK people are owning feminism in a way I can’t remember them doing in my adult life.”
It has meant there was a receptive audience, but also receptive commerial partners.
Finding the best way to tell this side of the Suffragettes story was another component that took time. When the film’s writer Abi Morgan discovered the testimony delivered by working women in parliament in 1910, which formed the basis of Maud’s character, they found their way in.
“The right prism through which to tell this story was unlocked when Abi found the working women’s testimony. It felt like a revelation, it was so contemporary.”
The film’s success to date has exceeded all of Gavron’s expectations “in the most brilliant way”.
The film has been widely criticised for its lack of women of colour, a point Gavron is happy to discuss.
She says the film didn’t erase women of colour, rather in this particular story women of colour weren’t there.
“The film is very specific in its telling of a tiny story that took place within a 2.5 mile radius in London over a 16-month period,” Gavron says.
In the early 1900s the UK, unlike the US, had an immigration pattern that meant there were “a tiny tiny number of women in London from Africa and the movement depicted in the film reflects that”.
“My first two films didn’t have a single white person in them, so I don’t think I am the right director to be targeted for misunderstanding intersectionality.”
Her ambition for Suffragette was to make a film that could contribute positively to a discussion about equality. In that regard her film is peerless.