Suffragette is a snapshot of the women’s suffrage movement before the First World War. Its main focus is on its impact on the family life of Maud Watts, laundress, wife and mother. And, believe me, that impact is devastating.
It’s amazing that this film’s only just appeared. With the singular exception of the BBC’s 6-part TV drama Shoulder to Shoulder, the suffragettes have scarcely been given worthy treatment on film, ever. And the TV drama was screened 40 years ago and buried for decades. So it was a particular pleasure to watch Suffragette with its stunning sets and costumes and splendid performances by the cast, including Carey Mulligan as the protagonist Maud. The film makes it very clear indeed that the suffragettes weren’t just middle-class women chaining themselves to railings.
To convey the sheer scale of the women’s suffrage movement in a single, compelling story is no mean feat. Having set about to do just that myself in a graphic novel, I’ve a particular interest in the choices made for the film by writer Abbie Morgan and director Sarah Gavron. The similarities are striking, but not all that surprising. Like the film, Sally Heathcote Suffragette – the graphic novel I co-created with Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot – has a fictional protagonist who moves through history, alongside well documented, very real campaigners for women’s suffrage and wider rights. A lowly figure from the rank and file, she starts as an observer who’s sucked in as events unfold. We see her working conditions and the abuse she has to contend with. We live through her struggles. With a fictional character to explore the historical setting, I could range more freely than if I’d restricted myself to one historical figure and their biography. It made it easier to construct a compelling, focused story too.
Then there’s the hardcore civil disturbance. Needing a manageable story that’s neither too detailed nor too superficial, the film required careful decisions about what to include. So key scenes represent a wide range of repeated suffragette activities – some window smashing, a rousing rally, police brutality at a demonstration in Parliament Square, a traumatic force-feeding scene – just as they do in Sally Heathcote Suffragette. Film and book also share some iconic elements: the bombing of Lloyd George’s house, the tragic death and funeral of Emily Wilding Davison. In fact, the film movingly incorporates actual footage of the London funeral procession in June 1913.
That’s where the similarities end. Sally Heathcote Suffragette is no snapshot. As I was researching the women’s suffrage movement, what impressed me most was the sheer scale of it, how long it went on, the way it spanned across the country and across social classes. Like the Occupy and anti-austerity movements now, perhaps. I had no idea it was so vast, with so many different factions. Not just the Pankhursts. Not just the Women’s Social and Political Union. Not just London. I felt it was very important to get these things across.
Political activism, radicalization, direct action – these are highly relevant issues for us today. When I saw coverage of Sisters Uncut chanting “Dead women can’t vote!” at the premiere, I cheered them on from the sofa. A hundred years on from the suffragettes, women’s rights are still an issue. The protesters were highlighting domestic violence and the impact of the Government’s austerity cuts on support services.
Suffragette does a fine job of showing us what’s at stake for Maud as an activist. It does so by narrowing its focus closely on one ordinary working woman’s commitment to fighting for women’s rights and its consequences for her. What it doesn’t quite succeed in, for me, is presenting a slice of British social and political history. The fight for the vote was embedded in wider political struggle and the movement was rife with internal dissent. All of which is highly dramatic and engaging. Some inclusion of division and strife within the movement, some critical engagement with its charismatic leading figures would have made for a stronger film, at least for me.
The film is not only narrow in scope but also, for the most part, feels loose in its use of historical material. This is no doubt why I didn’t experience the same sense of shock that Shoulder to Shoulder generated. I only managed to source the TV drama after completing Sally Heathcote Suffragette. When I finally watched it for the first time, some scenes were startlingly similar. We’d used, closely and carefully, exactly the same source material. The most striking example was a scene of demonstration in Parliament Square in November 1910. This event was referred to afterwards as ‘Black Friday’. It was a police riot that lasted six hours; women suffered serious injury and some died from their wounds afterwards. Both TV and graphic-novel episode draw upon the same Times newspaper article, as chilling commentary: ‘Several of the police had their helmets knocked off in carrying out their duty, one was disabled by a kick on the ankle, one was cut on the face by a belt, and one had his hand cut. As a rule they kept their tempers very well, but their method of shoving back the raiders lacked nothing in vigour. They were at any rate kept warm by the exercise’. No mention of police brutality or the protesters’ injuries.
No, the suffragettes really weren’t just middle-class women chaining themselves to railings.