Suffragette Shows Harsh Realities of Social Change

Watching the film Suffragette (screenplay by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron) was a similar experience for me to reading Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, a book written in 1906 about the horrific working conditions in the early 20th century American meatpacking industry. It was a book we had at our house, and I must have picked it up and read it as a very young teen, maybe 13. The unfairness of treating a group of people (in this case, immigrants in the U.S.) shocked my youthful sense of right and wrong. The immigrant workers had no power against those who exploited them. Suffragette gave me those same feelings of frustration and indignation.

Suffragette, a British drama set in 1912, depicts a moment in time in the long battle for women’s right to vote. The story centers around Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker whose husband, Sonny, (Ben Whishaw) also works at the laundry. Together, they have a young son, George. Maud is an unlikely heroine: uneducated, lower class, sexually abused by her supervisor (Geoff Bell), and essentially hopeless that her life can ever be anything else. At first, Maud seems resigned to her lower-class lot in life, but anger and frustration simmer just below the surface. When she sees the young daughter of her co-worker, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), being sexually exploited by the supervisor who had exploited her, Maud is ripe for recruitment. Violet’s daughter, barely a teenager, works at the laundry, as Violet does, as Maud does, as Maud’s mother did. Maud doesn’t know how to change her life or the lives of other women, but the suffrage movement offers a slight glimmer of hope.

Maud gradually is drawn into the movement through Violet and Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) who is holding clandestine meetings in the back room of the pharmacy that she runs with her husband. While Maud doesn’t seek out her activist role, over time, she slowly commits completely to it.

Women will certainly feel the extreme frustration of the characters. The film isn’t simplistic. Suffragettes are depicted from every class, and the women reflect the personal difficulties that compromise any person’s ability to remain “pure” to a cause. The men in the film run the gambit in their feelings about suffragist activities. Maud’s husband is ridiculed at work and in the neighborhood; Edith’s husband is sympathetic, yet worried about how one more imprisonment might destroy her health; men in power struggle to maintain it; and children, the express responsibility of women at the time, get in the way of the movement. Ambiguity over losing her standing in society causes the wife of the chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, to back off of her support of the movement once she realizes that her husband isn’t serious about changing the law to extend voting rights to women. The lies of those in power force some to back off and others to become more radicalized.

The women who are willing to make the sacrifices, like Maud, lose much that can never be regained.

Those of you who are Meryl Streep fans should know that she only makes a brief appearance as Emmeline Pankhurst, a suffragette leader. But you won’t miss her. Mulligan is excellent in her depiction of Maud as she goes from hopeless and ambivalent laundress to committed activist. Bonham Carter is perfect as the laser-focused, intelligent and sometimes reckless leader. Perhaps the most poignant character is Anne-Marie Duff’s character, Violet, a fearless and powerless mother trying to push social change for the sake of her daughter.

Suffragette is an important reminder of those who have laid the difficult groundwork for gender equality. While some women of the higher classes were given the vote earlier, all women were not granted the right to vote until 1928. Women in the United States still do not make equal pay with men, and, despite positive changes, still take primary responsibility for children. Women who are single mothers are much more likely to live in poverty than single fathers. Many facets of gender inequality still exist throughout the world.

The film opens on Friday, November 13 at Circle Cinema. I recommend this film to everyone except children. Suffragette is rated PG-13. It is intense and has some violent scenes. The police beating women in the streets may be particularly difficult to watch, as well as the scenes of jailers force-feeding women prisoners. While difficult, these things did happen, and it shows how the push against those in power to effect social change can often turn violent and ugly.

Here are some discussion questions for your teens:

  1. Why did the suffragettes feel that they had to turn to violence?
  2. Why do you think the men in power were so against giving women the right to vote?
  3. Were you surprised by anything you saw?
  4. Do you think you could do what the Maud Watts did? Why or why not?
  5. Can you think of any similar social changes that people are fighting for today?
  6. Why do you think most of Maud’s friends and neighbors turned against her?
  7. Why do you think her husband took the action he did regarding George?
  8. Do you think the violent acts the women did were justified?
  9. How did the film make you feel? Have you ever been treated unfairly and not believed or listened to?
  10. What did you think of the race track scene?

Categories: Editor’s Blog