The new movie Suffragette is under attack - but is that fair?

With the release of the film Suffragette there has been criticism of Emmeline Pankhurst, but while she may indeed have been flawed that doesn’t mean we should discount her role in winning women the vote, writes Jane Caro.

Emmeline Pankhurst was born Emmeline Goulden in 1858. She was born in Manchester to a politically radical family who were both active abolitionists (the term used to describe those who wanted to abolish slavery) and active suffragists (the term used to describe those who wanted to extend the vote to women).

Her birth date is important not just because it reminds us that she was a product of her time. It is also because only three years after her birth the American Civil War, triggered by a dispute over states rights and the abolition of slavery, began.

Her birthplace is important because Manchester was directly – and negatively – affected by the American Civil War even though slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire in 1838. (Interestingly, if Britain had won the War of Independence black Americans would have been freed almost three decades earlier than they were.)

Manchester was the centre of cotton manufacturing and when the south went to war with the north the mills lost one of their most important sources of supply. Many in Manchester were sympathetic to the south for that reason but not – to their credit – the Gouldens.

I admire Emmeline Pankhurst. Not all of her, but as a woman of her times and her class, she was remarkable.

Nevertheless, it was probably more radical in England in the latter half of the 19th century to be a suffragist than an abolitionist.

Emmeline married Richard Pankhurst in 1879. He was the lawyer who authored the Married Women's Property Act that allowed women to keep their earnings and property after marriage. The Pankhurst's had five children before Richard died in 1898.

In 1903 Emmeline formed the Women's Social and Political Union. Its members were nicknamed suffragettes and their audacity and courage eventually won women the vote.

Why do I give you this history lesson? Since the release of the film Suffragette there has been much criticism of the film and of Emmeline Pankhurst. The film has been accused of being too white and Emmeline has been dismissed as an imperialist and reactionary.

On the face of it, and according to the standards of 2015, the accusations are accurate. Emmeline Pankhurst did throw her influence behind the war effort during WWI and she later stood for election as a Conservative. She and her older daughter Christabel fell out with her younger daughter Sylvia who became a socialist, working with Keir Hardie in the slums. I do not doubt for a moment that Emmeline was an imperialist to her boot straps and a Tory.

But so what? She was a product of her class and her time, just as we all are. Who knows how any of us will be judged in 100 years? Who will history judge kindly and who harshly? It is impossible for us to know in advance.


Pankhurst set out to do whatever was necessary to win women in England the vote. She succeeded against brutal and terrifying opposition. Even her strategy of supporting the war effort helped her argument. Women filled the roles left vacant by men and their competence helped change prejudiced minds.

Watch the trailer for Suffragette below. Post continues after video. 

Video via Pathe

She wasn't perfect and many of her beliefs look terrible to modern eyes. But who is perfect and who among us can be sure we don't hold beliefs that the future will condemn? All heroes have feet of clay but that doesn't make their achievements any less heroic.

Martin Luther King cheated on his wife. JFK was addicted to drugs and turned cheating on his wife into an art form. Churchill was an alcoholic, an imperialist and opposed granting women the vote. He did love his wife, though.

I have a sneaking suspicion that just as we allow less room for women in general to be full, flawed human beings, so we allow even less room for female heroes. Pankhurst has to be perfect or we dismiss her out of hand. Frankly, I think that is sexist.

The suffragettes and the leader who inspired them achieved what they set out to achieve and they suffered persecution to do so. Pankhurst went to jail repeatedly and went on hunger strikes alongside her comrades.

I admire her. Not all of her, not everything she said, did or believed, but as a woman of her times and her class, she was remarkable.

If female heroes must be perfect before they can qualify it's no wonder we have so few.

Jane Caro is a writer, commentator and lecturer.

This post originally appeared on the ABC and was republished here with full permission. 
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