My grandmother was born in 1899 so in 1912, when Suffragette, is set she would have been 13. Like women all over the country she was working her fingers raw, not in a laundry in London like Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) in the film, but in equally squalid conditions in a Lancashire cotton mill. Paid significantly less than men, she was by law under the total control of her future husband with no rights to their property or children.
Suffragette shows for me, harrowingly, the fight women had in order to gain the vote during the time when my grandmother was a young woman. Using actual events and the fictional story of uneducated Maud, aged 24, who is married to Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and has one child, George (Adam Michael Dodd), the experiences of working women are used to encapsulate the important events of 1912-13. Real and distressingly uncomfortable to watch, Maud is stripped of her son when her husband throws her out for her support of Suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Shamed and shunned by the neighbourhood, Maud loses her job at the London laundry where she branded her employer (Geoff Bell) with a flat iron after he made sexual suggestions towards her, and throws herself into subversive and dangerous Suffragette work alongside Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), a febrile pharmacist who cooks up homemade bombs, and Violet Miller (Anne–Marie Duff) a co-worker at the laundry.
In the film, we see first-hand the high level scheming of politicians to break this movement and the methods used by police: separating women from their families, then sending them home to their husbands in front of the whole street, repeated imprisonment and force-feeding. And throughout all this, the tender care of the sisterhood for each other in these dreadful times showed the world a back which could not be broken.
Irish police inspector Steen (Brendan Gleeson) is drafted in to bring down the Suffragettes and tries to blackmail Maud into betraying her fellow activists, saying: ’You are nothing but cannon fodder.’ Avuncular, red faced with ginger whiskers, he is not unsympathetic to the cause and you at times almost believe his concern for Maud - but he is powerless to help, as women on protest marches are knocked face down in the mud with a constable’s foot between their shoulders, truncheons bludgeoning their heads.
Exquisitely shot, the thunder of hooves at the 1913 Derby where Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) sacrificed herself in front of the King to gain attention for the cause and died four days later, is masterly. Together with the scene where Maud, screaming, is prised from her son as her husband drags him off to his new adoptive parents these many images are seared into my consciousness. This is not a film you can observe and walk away from; you cannot but feel it in every nerve ending as it charges through so much distress, anger, agony and determination. There is no escape either as you tumble out into the bright light. Women did die, thousands of women were imprisoned and hundreds forcibly fed, all in the lifetime of my own and maybe your grandparents too.
The film ends with a series of startling statistics on how long it took many countries to grant women the right to vote. It shocking that the UK, head of the Commonwealth and home of the Empire, champion of democracy was so far behind. In 1881 the Manx Election Act gave women property owners the right to vote in the Isle of Man. In 1893, New Zealand, then a self-governing British colony, granted adult women the right to vote and the self-governing colony of South Australia, now an Australian state, did the same in 1894 and women could stand for office. In 1901 several British colonies became the Federal Commonwealth of Australia and women acquired the right to vote and stand in federal elections from 1902.
Back here in the north of England in 1918, my grandmother still at the cotton mill, missed out as she was only 19 and only women over 30 years old received the vote - if they were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency. None of these categories would have fit working class women.
So she, alongside all working women, had to wait for the vote until she was 29 when The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the voting franchise in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to all women over the age of 21, granting women the vote on the same terms as men. In the 2015 election 191 women MPs were elected at the 2015 General Election, 29% of all MPs and a record high. 194 women, 25%, are Members of the House of Lords. That, for me, says it all.
Suffragette is now showing at FACT. Click here to book tickets.