“What are you going to do? Lock us all up? We’re in every home. We’re half the human race. You can’t stop us all.” It seems almost unnecessary that these words would ever need to be uttered, that anyone would need to be reminded of the logic, the self-evident truth that half of humanity is made up of women. And yet, but a hundred years ago, a young working-class woman in Britain had need to yell these words at a police officer who arrested her for taking part in the campaign for women to be able to vote. The lead character in the historical drama, Suffragette, Maud Watts, is fictional, but her story is made up of the real ones of millions of women during 1920s Edwardian England.
One of the first scenes in the film shows 24-year old laundress, Maud (Carey Mulligan), walking through a high street in London on her way to deliver a package. While looking at a shop window, she notices some women around her behaving oddly. Suddenly she is caught up in a riot, as various women smash windows, hurl rocks, and chant slogans. A frightened and astonished Maud recognises one of her co-workers, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), and later hears that the violence is part of the suffrage campaign. Maud is interested but wary. Being an activist carries with it great stigma, and the suffragettes are often shunned by their families and communities.
Curious, Maud agrees to provide moral support for Violet, who has been chosen to testify in parliament to motivate why women should be allowed to vote. But, after being violently and horrifically beaten by her husband, Violet is unable to do so, and Maud is suddenly urged to take her place, and is thrust headlong into the movement. The soft spoken Maud seems like an unlikely champion, but it’s this artlessness that grabs the attention of the prime minister, as Maud explains the conditions under which she, and other women, has to work. Many young girls start working long hours at physically demanding jobs at places like commercial laundries. They are unable to earn as much as their male counterparts, or to be promoted. And often, they are physically and sexually abused by their bosses.
When parliament decides women don’t deserve the vote (after all, their fathers, brothers, and husbands can surely represent their causes on their behalf), a massive riot breaks out. Police beat and arrest hundreds of women, including Maud. In prison they are stripped naked and hosed down. The women suffer the indignity of being force fed if they embark on hunger strikes. They are questioned and harassed by police. They’re not allowed to contact their families. They are urged to turn on one another and become informants.
After a week behind bars and despite the disapproval of her husband, Sonny (who uses their son as emotional blackmail), Maud joins the activist group. Under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), the suffragettes are urged to turn away from peaceful protest and become more militant.
Suffragette hits hard. It became impossible to swallow my tears, and after struggling with this for some time, they flowed freely. I wept not because I was sad, though I was, but because a bitter anger burned inside me like poison. Because, even though women in most countries in the world can vote, it means so little when not all jobs are open to women, when there is a gender wage gap, when gender violence is so high, when genital mutilation is enacted in many countries.
This is not a film for women. It’s not even a film about women. It’s a film about people, about half the human race, and should be seen by men and women alike. It’s a story about so many injustices, not just the right to vote. It’s about the right not to be raped by your boss. The right to be believed if you complain. The right not to have your children torn away from you should your marriage fall apart. The right not to be spoken to with contempt or ridicule. The right to autonomy. The right to decide your own future.
Carey Mulligan is, as always, a tour de force. Her presence on screen is magnetic. She pulls you in, drives a nail into your heart, and breaks it. Helena Bonham Carter also has an interesting turn as Edith Ellyn, a pharmacist willing to use her body as a primary site of resistance, despite major health implications. Fans of Streep, be advised, this is not a Meryl film – her screen time amounts to mere minutes.
Suffragette’s biggest failure must be that it misses a glaring opportunity to speak for another disenfranchised group: the twice-othered black woman. While there is little available evidence about black women who participated in the British suffrage movement, several women of Indian origin were known to have taken part. Perhaps black women wouldn’t have been welcomed. Perhaps, they were simply too poor to be able to take time off from jobs to campaign and plant explosives. But, director Abi Morgan, could surely have tried harder, at the very least to point to this invisibility, and to understand why this might have been so.
Otherwise, for all it’s imperfections, Suffragette is a hard-hitting and haunting film, and is worth watching for Carey Mulligan alone.
Director: Abi Morgan
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter, Meryl Streep
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5
SA release date: 15 January 2016