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Not just a question of militancy

Nearly 100 years ago, the first women in Britain were allowed to vote. A film about the courageous fight for the right to vote is therefore long overdue. That “Suffragette” highlights the oppression of working-class women is even more impressive. Nonetheless it only tells part of the story. By Phil Butland

Maud (Carey Mulligan) wird verhaftet und abgeführt

Maud (Carey Mulligan) works in a laundry, which is organized like a factory. She works longer hours than her male colleagues and still receives lower wages. She has little control over her private life. She does all the housework, and is unable to prevent her husband from putting their son up for adoption.

It is the beginning of the twentieth century, and middle class women also suffer. They are not allowed to vote, and are also controlled by their husbands. A scene from the film “Suffragette” shows how such women were oppressed, but also how they held certain privileges. After a demonstration for women’s suffrage, some participants are arrested.  The husband of one demonstrator comes to the police station and pays the bail money to release his wife. Yet he forbids her from bailing out her fellow demonstrators. They must spend the night in prison because their middle class comrade is not allowed to decide what she does with her own money.

Hunger strikes and militant actions

The state regularly arrested women to try to stem the growing protests for the right to vote. Peaceful demonstrators were beaten and imprisoned. In prison they went on hunger strike, demanding that they be recognised as political prisoners. As a result they were brutally force fed. Around this time, the government created a special police unit to fight against “Irish terrorists and suffragettes”.

Because peaceful protest was not producing results and state repression was getting worse, the suffragettes adopted more militant tactics. At first they had tried to interest MPs in their problems. The MPs listened sympathetically, but did nothing practical to improve the situation for women. Out of desperation, the activists began planting bombs in mail boxes and smashing windows with stones.

Ideological weakness

It is at this point that the film starts to become less powerful. It notes in passing – quite correctly – that the leader of the suffragette movement Emmeline Pankhurst had political disagreements with her daughter Sylvia. But ‘Suffragette’ gives the false impression that the main point of contention was Sylvia’s rejection of militant actions. In fact, Sylvia’s criticism was not of militancy but of terrorist attacks which by their nature could only be carried out by a small élite group. In contrast, Sylvia stood for mass agitation, particularly in the working-class areas of East London.

Because the film ends in 1913, we do not see the consequences of the two different strategies. The following year, Emmeline Pankhurst and her colleagues suspended all activities, in order to support the imperialist war. They accordingly renamed their newspaper ‘Britannia’.

Sylvia, on the other hand, continued agitating. She also renamed her newspaper – from ‘Women’s Dreadnought’ to ‘Workers’ Dreadnought’. Unlike the rest of her family, Sylvia supported the Russian revolution.

Sylvia pursued a very different strategy to her mother, which the makers of this film do not seem to be able to understand. They cannot conceive that working men and women can unite around their common class interests.

In a dramatic scene, Maud attacks her sexist foreman with a hot iron. Her husband Sonny is shocked and immediately takes the side of the foreman. This is historically legitimate – there were enough men like Sonny who valued their wives so little that they preferred to identify with their boss. Sonny has already outed himself as a patriot, and ensured that their son is named after King George.

But director Sarah Gavron has referred to Maud in interviews as a “composite character” – no Maud existed in history, instead she embodies the characteristics of several historical figures. This is equally legitimate, but it means that Sonny must also be understood as a “composite character”. In short, ‘Suffragette’ takes it as read that all or nearly all male workers preferred to stand in solidarity with their boss than with working-class women.

The film consistently portrays workers as sexist. Only one man is prepared to fight for women’s rights, and he is a pharmacist who inherited his business. And ultimately even he betrays his wife, because he believes that he knows what is good for her better than she does.

What is not shown

The reality was much more complicated. 1913, the year in which the film ends, saw the outbreak of the ‘Great Unrest’ – a mass movement of millions of workers. In workplaces like the laundry where Maud and Sonny work, male and female workers were forced to join together to fight against their bosses. Even men who were opposed to women’s rights fought together with their wives and other women workers.

As war broke out a year later, the ‘Great Unrest’ ended abruptly. Nevertheless, important reforms were won, helping to pave the way for women’s suffrage. In other countries, the movement carried on, not least in Russia, where (as acknowledged in the end credits), all women won the right to vote with the 1917 revolution. In contrast, the law passed in the UK in 1918 only granted voting rights to wealthy women aged 30 or above. Poorer and younger women hat to wait another decade for their rights.

Discussions about exactly how we have won our rights are important, and it is to ‘Suffragette’s’ credit, that it provokes such a debate. Ultimately the film is too weak politically to offer all the answers. But I would certainly recommend going to see the film, and then discussing it afterwards.

The film: “Suffragette”, director Sarah Gavron, UK 2015. Concorde Filmverleih, 106 minutes. In German cinemas from 4th February

The German version of this review can be found at

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