Liam Mac Uaid reviews Suffragette
The natural response to learning that Helena Bonham-Carter is playing a leading role in a film about the suffragettes is a momentary panic that it’s going to be a Downton Abbey version of women’s history, made to fit the Cameronian zeitgeist of this being a posh people’s world.
Instead, director Nicky Gavron and writer Abi Morgan have made their film Suffragette as an assertion of working class feminism. It sets out its stall in the opening scene in a Bethnal Green laundry in 1912. Girls began working in places like that from as young as seven and could expect to be physical wrecks by their mid-twenties due to accidents or illness caused by the conditions. That area of east London was a ferment of industrial action and political militancy at the time and much of the film was shot in streets very close to where the action happened.
Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts who has been working in the laundry since childhood where, in common with many of the other women, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the boss. On one level it’s the story of her personal radicalisation – she helps another woman avoid sexual harassment; she attends Suffragette events, but it’s the realisation that she has no legal rights when her husband gives their child away for adoption which is what really makes her understand that political change is necessary.
The official sanitised version of Suffragette history has seriously underplayed both the level of the state’s repression against them and their use of violence. Special Branch cops with experience of dealing with Irish revolutionaries kept tabs on them and used the same range of tactics. The Suffragettes cut phone and telegram wires and used incendiary devices to attack opponents’ homes. They even left a bomb at the Edinburgh observatory, while Theresa Garnett attacked Winston Churchill with a horse whip. In the years before World War One more than a thousand women appeared in court because of their activities in support of their fight for the vote. Some even went on hunger strike and were force fed.
Predictably enough, some contemporary socialists saw the demand for their right to vote as a distraction from the main struggle. They argued that the liberation of the oppressed has to be subordinated to the bigger fight: “Sex-equality cannot be the fruit of the Suffragette humbug, it can only come through economic equality—and economic equality is impossible except through Socialism.” Variants of this argument resurface every time an oppressed group starts acting on its own behalf.
A recurring theme in the film is the way the state could rely on the men in the women’s lives to police them on its behalf. An MP’s wife is bailed out by her husband, but he refuses to help the working class women avoid time in prison by writing a cheque that would see them released. It’s his way of disciplining and punishing his wife on the court’s behalf. Brendan Gleeson’s cop uses the same technique by sending women home to “let their husbands sort them out”. It really helps emphasise the film’s point that the winning of even the initial restricted franchise was the result of women fighting for it by themselves, with men as only occasional and marginal helpers.
It’s a shocking fact that this aspect of women’s history has never really been dealt with in film – if we discount the Suffragette Song in Mary Poppins. For east Londoners the imbalance in the film record between this history and the amount of screen time devoted to two third rate gangsters is shameful. Suffragette goes some way to righting this wrong. It’s a powerful, moving and inspirational film which should encourage everyone who sees it to have another look at the history of the movement it describes and to appreciate the value of the self-organisation of the oppressed.
Oh, and in one of those ironies of history, Bonham-Carter’s great-grandfather was the anti-suffragette Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. It’s that Cameronian zeitgeist again.