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The History Behind “Suffragette”

Suffragette (Via Focus Features)

Last week’s installment of Zoo Flicks, held by the Office of Student Involvement, was “Suffragette”. Released last September, “Suffragette”, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, follows the story of 24-year-old laundress Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who becomes increasingly involved in London’s suffragette movement of the early twentieth century.

One day while delivering a package, Maud finds herself in the midst of a riot. Suffragettes are smashing shop windows with rocks and proclaiming, “Votes for women!” In the chaos, she recognizes her coworker Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff).

Through the suffragettes’ working class status, the film highlights a newfound shift in class participation for women’s suffrage.

This class shift, as explained by BBC, is categorized into two branches of suffrage: suffragists and suffragettes. Reflective of its title, “Suffragette” focuses on the latter movement that stemmed from the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The NUWSS aimed to secure the vote namely for middle class women and valued lawful protest, believing respectability would earn women political participation.

NUWSS member Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) disagreed with the organization’s middle class exclusiveness and indirect methods. In 1903, she left the NUWSS to found the Women’s Social and Political Union, paving the way for the suffragette movement. Unlike suffragists, suffragettes were predominantly working class women who utilized illegal, violent methods.

Suffragette Edith New conveys this methodology in the film: “It’s not words that will get us the vote.”

Activist Alice Haughton later encourages Maud and her coworkers to testify in Parliament for women’s right to vote. Violet volunteers but arrives on the day of her testimony bruised by her abusive husband, forcing Maud to testify instead. Maud gets arrested and faces prison charges but receives an offer from Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson): her release in exchange for information. Reflecting the suffragettes’ motto “deeds not words”, Maud refuses.

“We break windows, be burn things, because war is the only thing men listen to,” she says.

Through her activism, Maud befriends other suffragettes: Edith New (Helena Bonham Carter), Edith’s husband Benedict (Samuel West), Violet Miller, and Emily Davidson (Natalie Press). All characters are fictitious except for New and Davidson, who are both renowned for their participation in the movement.

Released from prison, word spreads of Maud’s actions. Her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) demands that she break away from the movement. Defying him, Maud attends a secret rally to hear Pankhurst speak. Sonny throws his wife out of the house, prohibiting her from seeing her son.

Maud must decide what is more important to her: her reputation or her political freedom.

“Suffragette” reenacts London’s working class effort for women’s suffrage, reminding viewers of an important piece in the history of feminism.

2 Comments on The History Behind “Suffragette”

  1. Biographical movies are always fascinating. If it is not something worthy, the movie would have not taken up the shape. It was a very good movie, and a very important historical subject. It has been 100 years since and now the world we live-in is much different and better. I think after thousands of years, now the women got their freedom.

  2. I saw this film last year. Disappointing, with too much scenery and not enough depth. Character development was shallow. Yet, as you point out, women’s vote was an important victory. For some women the price was too high.

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The History Behind “Suffragette”