For many of us, our first experience of the Suffragette movement left a lot to be desired.
Rather than a tub-thumping, heart-wrenching portrayal of sacrifice in the face of oppression, we got Mrs Banks, mother of two delightful children, stomping around the living room, leading chimney sweeps in a chorus of, ‘Votes for women, step in time’, as a Mary Poppins subplot. The suffrage movement is portrayed as a bit of a giggle; a nice distraction from the very important business of being a flying childminder. This is not the women’s rights movement of Suffragette.
Suffragette tells the story of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a fictional amalgam of key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), through whose eyes we see key moments of the movement: from David Lloyd George’s consultations with female workers in 1912 and the prime minister’s withdrawal of a key amendment on the suffrage bill, through to more direct, violent action and Emily Davison’s death at the feet of the king’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. We see Maud take a journey from sceptic to believer; from casual observer to the movement’s central figure.
Unlike Mary Poppins, this is a gritty retelling of the suffragette story. This wasn’t a series of nice, neat protests carried out by middle class women. As the film’s producer, Alison Owen, says, ‘These women were guerrillas, they weren’t just holding up placards calling “Votes for Women”, they were breaking windows and setting fires and engaging in civil disobedience.’
Many of the characters are real, and so are the consequences. What the film does brilliantly is explain why a wife, mother and worker would become part of such a movement. Her job comes with the threat or actuality of sexual assault. Her place in society is limited by her gender and her role as a mother is marginalised merely as a result of being one.
After being thrust in front of the chancellor and forced to share her story, Maud begins to question many of the accepted norms she has grown up with: her role in society, her lack of a vote and voice, and the way the men in her life treat her. As she says in her testimony: ‘I never thought we’d get the vote, so I didn’t think about what it would mean.’ But in that moment Maud imagines a better way; a future she had previously failed to imagine. It is that moment that changes everything. It is the vision of a new way, a new hope, that leads Maud forwards.
You need vision of a better future to stir up discontent
The flipside of this is the cost. As Maud’s involvement with the movement ratchets up, the cost increases exponentially. Her husband is ashamed by her early actions, and by the midpoint of the film he has kicked her out of the house and put their son up for adoption. She loses her home, her family and eventually her job, merely by being associated with the militant wing of the suffragettes. And as tough as this is, as the film progresses, Maud considers it to be worth it, straddling the line between the vision and the cost.
That tension, a better future at the cost of today, is the central question and challenge of the film. For Maud, we see the cost rip her family apart. For others, most notably Emily Davison, it costs their lives (history is not a spoiler). What starts as a way for Maud to protect herself and her family turns into something bigger than herself, bigger than her family and more worthwhile than she had initially realised.
The reality of Suffragette is that this 100-year-old struggle is still ongoing. The film poignantly ends by listing the dates female suffrage was achieved in other countries, ending with Saudi Arabia, where women are still denied equal voting rights.
Even in Western culture women aren’t always afforded the same rights: pay gaps and glass ceilings still exist. Women still face sexual pressure and misogynistic abuse. The story might be a century old, but the fight isn’t over. This is a story worth retelling, and one that resonates today. Owen said: ‘Audiences tell me they feel their grandmothers have finally been honoured. And if they’re not in tears during the movie itself, the closing credits will have them welling up.’
That’s the power of Suffragette: it inspires in you a sense of discomfort and action. For Maud Watts, Emily Davison and Emmeline Pankhurst that action was suffrage for women. For us it could be the rights of refugees, care for young people suffering with mental health issues, voting rights for 16-year-olds or countless other things.
Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP, once said, ‘My work has consisted of trying to stir up a divine discontent with wrong.’
Suffragette reminds us that discontent can be divine, but that you need vision of a better future to stir up discontent in people. Let us, as youth workers, be bringers of divine discontent: carriers of a better, more hopeful vision, no matter what the cost.