Suffragette: The struggle for women’s rights

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• Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, 2015, 106 mins

Working-class women resisting insufferable working conditions and stifling home lives is a welcome sight on the big-screen. Suffragette offers us glimpses of this in powerful and moving scenes. However, the film ultimately seeks to gloss over the very questions this focus begins to raise. Infuriating, yes – but it is difficult not to be inspired by the will of women who must and do resist, by any means necessary.

‘I can’t take that any more’

The film’s focus on Maud, a fictionalised laundry worker, promises a welcome departure from the usual starched dresses and purple and green sashes associated with the Suffragettes. Instead, we see the appalling conditions of the laundry – the back-breaking, dangerous work that women perform for longer hours and less pay than male workers. They return home to cramped, damp, one-up-one-down housing to face housework, cooking and caring for the children. There is little in the way of support, family planning and childcare. We see women’s lack of legal rights over the care of their children. Sexual violence is commonplace. The solidarity and opposition that grows and strengthens throughout the film is a much-needed example of the necessary resistance beyond the ballot box.

Maud, inspired by the actions of fellow worker Violet, moves towards the Suffragette movement recognising that change is necessary – and perhaps possible. The insistence by the police, politicians and her husband that she remains in her place only serves to strengthen her will.

The film offers a powerful and sometimes distressing portrayal of how everyday existence and resistance was deeply intertwined for working-class women. The women’s experiences will strike a nerve for many viewers. It is a shame, then, that resistance is positioned firmly within the dominant politics of the wealthier sections of the Suffragette movement, where the film really chooses to ally itself.

A simplified and individualised presentation

Maud and Violet remain isolated figures to a certain extent, organised within a small group of Suffragettes led by middle-class women. Radical, important women, no doubt, who played invaluable roles – but their dominance allows for the specific interests of Maud and Violet to be eroded. Concerns beyond the vote become increasingly marginalised. This leaves a simplified representation of a small group of women organising individualised, dramatic action, which is too often taken out of context. Emmeline Pankhurst appears briefly to give instructions from a balcony. The scale and dynamism of the movement is somewhat lost.

The Sylvia problem

The film avoids the issues created by class differences in the movement. Its opening text mentions that initially only propertied women gained the vote, and working-class women and men did not – but this is ignored by the rest of the film. It brushes over divisions; one of the characters offers the throwaway comment, ‘the movement is divided. Even Sylvia Pankhurst is opposed to her mother’s and sister’s militant strategy.’ In reality Sylvia, a communist organising in East London, argued for ‘not more serious militancy by the few but a stronger appeal to the great masses to join in the struggle’. Whilst Emmeline and other middle-class Suffragettes fought determinedly for the vote for all women, they had little concern for the lives of working-class women beyond this, or for suffrage for working-class men. Sylvia and sections of working-class women were already organising in their communities. Strikes, meetings and direct actions demanded the vote but also argued for serious organisation against the capitalist system.

As German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg identified, the ruling class feared the more radical material demands of a much bigger section of women and men: ‘if it were a matter of bourgeois ladies voting, the capitalist state could expect nothing but effective support for the reaction. Most of those bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against “male prerogatives” would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage.’ This is exactly what happened at the outbreak of the First World War. The film has also been criticised for its omission of black Suffragettes and of references to the first imperialist war. Crucially, the film omits the activists and discussions, alive and well within the movement, that exposed the relationships between race, class, imperialist war and resistance, in another dismissal of more revolutionary trends.

Repression and resistance

An increasingly worried and repressive state used spies, infiltration, bribery and force to try to stop the women taking action. Maud’s brutal treatment in prison – held down in her cell by guards, her jaw wrenched open and a tube pushed down her nose to forcibly break her hunger-strike – is difficult to watch. Maud and other working-class women face devastating personal losses due to joining the movement that middle-class Suffragettes do not; what little they have they stand to lose. The resistance inspired by police repression and criminalisation – from martial arts training and acts of solidarity, to hunger-strikes – gives snapshots of the organisation of some of the Suffragettes who organised for self-defence and in defence of the movement.

‘We will win’

Maud’s defiance is inspiring: ‘we will win’. For some women, and the film’s suggested narrative, winning meant gaining the vote. The film’s ending text tells the audience when this was achieved for women around the world. For a woman in Maud’s position, this could never have been only about the vote. For most women, then and now, winning means far more radical change. We know that the major political parties do not represent the interests of working-class women. Sisters Uncut disrupted the film’s premiere to raise awareness of cuts to domestic violence services with placards stating ‘dead women can’t vote’.

Maud’s phrase has been criticised by some reviewers as idealistic and naïve. But to anyone involved in struggle today these words are important, the same words being shouted on megaphones when we fight for social housing and against cuts, because we know we have no choice but to win. They have been the words said by revolutionaries around the world. Because despite the political criticisms of the film, we can and must take inspiration and learn from the history of struggle before us. And most importantly, we must use that knowledge – for the fight for the liberation of working-class women is far from over.

Get inspired – get organised!

Rachel Francis

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 248 December 2015/January 2016