Since watching one of the trailers for Suffragette, which proclaimed ‘Before women had a voice…’ I’ve felt profoundly uneasy about this film, which threatened to simply reiterate the myth that the suffragettes were the founders of modern feminism and it was their militant activism alone that won women the vote. I’m afraid that the film itself did little to allay my fears. While it is noted at the beginning that suffrage campaigning has had a much longer history, the film is determined to tell us that peaceful arguments got women nowhere, in defiance of what I would say is a current historiographical consensus, most recently expressed by Martin Pugh, that suffrage was a slow-won victory via the efforts of a huge range of women’s organisations, not simply the WSPU. However, Helen McCarthy has already written a superb review of Suffragette that effectively summarises many of the historical issues with the film (I’d add only two complaints; firstly, adoption was not legal in Britain until 1926, and while informal adoption was practiced, a scene where a child is ‘adopted’ is profoundly misleading to a modern audience, given the lack of rights that ‘adoptive’ parents would have over a child in 1912. Secondly, Maud is shown paying somebody to look after her child, even though he seems to be of school age (5+) and eligible for free education). Therefore, I’m going to focus on the other side of this debate; does Suffragette work as a piece of historical fiction, despite its numerous inaccuracies? Is it a good film?
Maud Watts earns thirteen shillings a week as a forewoman in a laundry, supplementing the income of her husband who works in the same place. As we learn, despite a history of sexual abuse and the health risks posed by her work, she has never considered doing anything but what her mother had done before her. However, when she encounters a suffragette who asks her and her friend, Violet, to give their testimonies to a parliamentary committee, she realises for the first time that her experience might be worth something. Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George’s failure to put forward a suffrage amendment leaves Maud with a sense of personal betrayal; was she not listened to at all? As Maud moves toward greater militancy, tensions grow between her and her husband, who eventually kicks her out of the house after she is imprisoned for a second time, and bans her from seeing her son, George. The suffragettes themselves begin to lose heart as their efforts seem increasingly futile, but Maud becomes one of the most steadfast, proclaiming: ‘We will win.’
The lack of real conflict in this film was a fundamental problem for me; it poses few interesting questions, and seems uninterested in trying to empathise with positions that do not align with our modern instincts about votes for women. The female characters are allowed a certain complexity – I loved the moment when Violet drops out of the fight, exhausted by years of labour and childbearing – but this privilege is not extended to our antagonists. Despite the occasional moment when you feel that Maud’s husband, Sonny, portrayed sensitively by Ben Wishaw, may be about to become more human, the film shatters these hopes by ultimately making him a villain. How much more compelling would it have been had Sonny been a trade union activist, ready to question Maud’s priorities and to point out that a third of men in England and Wales still didn’t have the vote in this period? Helen McCarthy points out that this is a film about a working-class woman campaigner with the working-class politics taken out, and this would be an easy way to dramatise the conflict between ‘gender’ and ‘class’, as well as allowing Sonny to have his own story and his own voice. Structurally, the film drops the ball somewhat as well; this is clearly Maud’s story, but the climax is not about Maud.
I found Suffragette especially frustrating because it had potential. The decision to focus on a working-class woman was clearly the right one, and it pulled off a difficult trick by making Maud’s commitment to winning the vote seem plausible by linking it to her experience of workplace abuse and her lack of rights over her son. It’s been rightly praised for its attention to concrete historical detail – the use of archived footage at the end blends in perfectly with the feel of the film so far – and every so often, it will start to ask interesting questions that are immediately squashed by the filmmakers’ apparent desire to make this a simple story. Police violence towards the suffragettes outside Westminster parallels the suppression of present-day demonstrations, yet this thread is swiftly dismissed; Maud is asked to question the risk to life that her militant activities pose, yet she retaliates with seeming ease. In the end, I find this sort of historical fiction poor not because it is inaccurate or misleading – although these are problems – but because it encourages the dangerous myth that debates like this were much more clear-cut in the past. As Catherine Sloan pointed out on Twitter, rather than finishing with a statistic that emphasises how far feminist campaigns still have to go, like the percentage of female MPs, Suffragette tells us instead when various countries across the world granted women’s suffrage – ending inevitably with ‘Saudi Arabia (2015)’, a fact that encourages smug British self-satisfaction. If historical fiction is to justify its existence, it must make us think differently about the present, not simply teach us about the past.