Suffragette is not an easy movie to watch, and nor would you expect it to be: scenes of police brutality amidst peaceful protests, the gruelling life of London’s East End factory workers, force-feedings of imprisoned women…
The movie opens with a few lines of text, informing us that women have campaigned peacefully for the vote for decades, but they had been ignored and ridiculed. We see the suffrage movement through the eyes of one fictional woman, Maud Watts. She is reluctant to join the cause at first but is encouraged to take part by one of the women who works with her.
One of the strengths of Suffragette is its realistic portrayal of the class system in Britain at the time. Suffragettes came from varying backgrounds, but the lead character Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is a working-class East Ender who has worked in a laundry factory since the age of seven. It’s clear that she has a lot more to lose than the upper-class suffragettes, such as the MP’s wife (Romola Garai), whose luxurious house we briefly glimpse — in stark contrast with the dingy East End tenement blocks.
I was gripped by Mulligan’s stellar performance, but the movie isn’t without controversy. Although Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) barely appears for more than five minutes, she is held up as a figure to be admired. It’s easy to assume, from simply watching a movie, that these women were pro-equality on all counts and sympathetic to other causes.
However, Emmeline and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, were divided. Emmeline espoused the need for militant tactics, such as smashing windows and setting pillar boxes on fire, to make politicians sit up and listen to the voices of women.
In 1913, when the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) began supporting arson and the destruction of property, Sylvia and Adela left the organisation along with several other prominent figures. They supported the fight for equal suffrage but in their eyes, the methods used to protest were going too far. It is reported that their mother disapproved so much that she gave Adela some money and insisted she leave the country and emigrate to Australia. The family rift was never resolved, and after Adela left the country, she never saw her mother again.
A year later, when the First World War broke out, Emmeline and Christabel suspended the suffrage campaign and became supporters of the ‘White Feather’ movement, handing out white feathers as a symbol of cowardice to men who were not in military uniform, even to teenage boys.
A century after Emmeline Pankhurst’s time, her words are still drawing controversy. It’s clear that the real Emmeline Pankhurst wasn’t simply a heroine, and unfortunately the movie does not have the scope to explore the complexities of her character. She (Meryl Streep) appears on a balcony, gives a motivational speech, and then disappears in her carriage to escape the police.
The most striking cause of controversy, however, is not to do with the film itself but a publicity photo shoot for TimeOut London. Four cast members (Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai) were photographed in T-shirts with the slogan, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave”.
The slogan was taken from Emmeline Pankhurst’s statement:
“Know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”
According to many online critics, from an American perspective, the slogan is highly offensive because the wording is reminiscent of the Confederate States of America — the Confederate flag, a controversial symbol of Southern slavery and racism, is also known as the “rebel flag”.
However, the combination of “rebel” and “slave” doesn’t have the same meaning or connotations of black slavery in the UK, where TimeOut London is published, as it does in the US. The Confederate ‘Rebel’ soldiers in the American Civil War and the secessionist Southern states that upheld slavery are not part of British history. The slogan takes on an entirely different, and shocking, meaning when it is viewed through the lens of American national history. It’s notable that although the T-shirts were worn by four of the Suffragette actresses, Meryl Streep — the only American among them — is the one who has drawn the most criticism.
Although Emmeline Pankhurst can be criticised for many things, in context it seems clear that this quote is referring to the lack of female rights. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the principal definition of a “slave” is “a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them“, which is a fairly accurate description of the women that we see in Suffragette. They are subservient to their husbands and if they are unmarried, they must obey their fathers or brothers. They had no legal status of their own.
At the end of the movie, before the credits roll, a list of countries is displayed with the years in which women were given the vote. Some of them were truly surprising to see — Switzerland, for instance, didn’t have equal suffrage until 1971!
Ultimately, there is room for much more to be discussed and portrayed in movies like this, including the dynamics of the Pankhurst family; the multi-ethnic demographics within the suffragette movement; and an exploration of the militant suffragettes versus the peaceful suffragists — is violence of that kind ever justifiable in protest?
But this is one movie, focusing primarily on the story of one character, and there simply isn’t the scope to include all the diverse aspects of this complex period in British history.
While the movie accurately portrays part of the suffragette movement, it should also teach us a lesson: in history, there is always more to be discovered behind the scenes. Every story has different perspectives and multiple sides.
Have you seen Suffragette? What do you think of the T-shirt controversy: is it an insensitive slogan which demonstrates institutionalised racism, or has it been taken out of context? Do you think the quote shouldn’t have been used at all, even though it has a different meaning in the UK than it does in the US?