An intense drama that tracks the story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement
Suffragette is an intriguing and captivating women’s film that tracks the story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State.
Fighting for the right to vote, these women were not only from the genteel educated classes, there were working women among them who had seen peaceful protest achieve nothing.
Radicalised and turning to violence as the only route to change, they were willing to lose everything in their fight for equality – their jobs, their homes, their children and their lives.
Maud was one such foot soldier. The story of her fight for dignity is both heart-breaking and inspirational.
100 Years And Counting
Director Sarah Gavron had long cherished an ambition to make a film about the Suffragette movement: “The term “suffragette” was coined as a term of derision by the British press for activists in the movement for women’s suffrage. The term was then appropriated by the movement itself. The Suffragettes disrupted communications by cutting telegraph wires, blowing up post boxes and otherwise attacked property, they went to prison and on hunger strike to draw attention to their fight for equality against an increasingly brutal state. I was amazed that this extraordinary and powerful story had never been told. We were a team of women film-makers and were immediately drawn to the material.”
When Gavron made her much-admired feature debut Brick Lane in 2007, she found kindred spirits in that film’s producers – Alison Owen and Faye Ward – and in its writer, Abi Morgan.
Alison Owen says “I was talking with a friend about movies featuring women – and how few great lead roles there were, or even if there was a great lead, she was always surrounded by men. We wondered why no-one had ever made a movie about the Suffragettes. The Suffragette movement in the UK didn’t have the prissy image that it did in the US, where it was closely allied with the Temperance movement. Here it was much more kick-ass, more like a guerilla movement. That would be a subject to tackle!
Finding that Sarah Gavron, with whom I’d made Brick Lane, shared the passion for the subject was a gift from heaven. We moved forward to develop a script with the backing of Film4, Focus Features and BFI.”
“This hugely important yet largely untold part of our recent history, combined with Abi, Sarah, Faye and Alison’s ambition and passion for telling it, meant there was no hesitation in us coming on board. The story that evolved was urgent, moving and shocking in equal measure – and one that regrettably continues to have widespread resonance over 100 years on,” says Rose Garnett, Head of Creative at Film4.
Ben Roberts, Director of the BFI’s Film Fund says: “Once in a while a project like Suffragette comes to us, and all of the pieces fit together beautifully.
This is such an important story about social action and political change, but one that is never overwhelmed by the weight of its ‘issues’.
Instead Abi framed it in her script with a great deal of tension, emotion and a wealth of thrilling moments. Sarah, Faye and Alison’s ambition gave us the confidence that this could have the cinematic scale to be a major feature film, and the cast that they gathered is a testament to that. Suffragette is a great example of our ambition for supporting British film, to support talented filmmakers and diverse stories that will have a powerful impact on audiences, and sometimes be a real force for good.”
It took several years to find the core story of Suffragette, the script taking its final shape when Pathe came on board as financier and distributor in 2014, also introducing Ingenious as a co-investor. “What immediately attracted me to the project was its visceral urgency” says Cameron McCracken, Executive Producer and Managing Director of Pathe UK. “This is not a nostalgic period drama, quietly celebrating how far women have come, but a shocking reminder of the sacrifices made and how far women still have to go in their fight for equality”.
Gavron explains of the team’s creative aspirations “We were interested in telling the story of an ordinary working woman in 1912. We did extensive research – poring over unpublished diaries and memoirs, police records and academic texts.
We then created this composite, fictional character of Maud, who participates in real events as her path crosses with some of the key historic characters, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison and David Lloyd George.”
The idea of one woman walking through a particular moment in history appealed to Morgan who had just finished writing two films based on historical figures: The Iron Lady (a profile of Margaret Thatcher) and The Invisible Woman (a love story involving Charles Dickens).
“I really didn’t want to write a biopic of a public figure,” Morgan admits. “But I thought, how can you explore the Suffragette movement without having Emmeline and Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst at the heart of it? Then I decided that the most interesting approach would be to consider the movement through the eyes of an ordinary uncelebrated woman, to explore how injustice can radicalise, how people can be drawn towards fundamentalism and be willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of an ideal.”
But it took some time for Morgan to find Maud’s story.
“Most good filmmaking is about what you leave out and you do have to kill your darlings,” Morgan reveals, “particularly with a subject as vast as this. The research was fascinating and I was constantly doing detours. The first draft of the script was actually mostly about Alice, an upper class woman played by Romola Garai. Although she was a really fascinating character, it did feel removed from the real working women. It was Sarah who very cleverly steered me back and said, ‘actually I think the more interesting character is Maud’.”
Maud, a young, married woman who works long, grim, days in a Bethnal Green laundry under the lascivious eye of laundry owner Taylor (Geoff Bell), gave the filmmakers the ability to forge a compelling narrative arc that was not rigidly beholden to actual events.
“It meant we could make something we hoped would be very accessible to an audience,” says Gavron. “Here is a character going through emotions and experiences that we can all understand.”
“Abi reviewed a mountain of research from which she crafted an authentic portrait of a woman of her time whose political consciousness is woken.”
Maud, played by Carey Mulligan, is, at first a reluctant convert to the Suffragette cause. She is frightened of standing out from the crowd, of jeopardising her job and the peace of her home. But slowly and agonisingly she is moved to participate in the brave and dangerous struggle for the right to vote and for equality with men. For Maud, as for many of the Suffragettes, such participation came at a terrible personal price.
The sense that this is a time in history about which few stories have been told, least of all on film, and of which we know very little, galvanised the filmmakers.
“We were struck by how ahead of their time these women were,” says Gavron. “They were breaking all the taboos and conventions of that society. We realised how little of it is in the public consciousness. Somehow it’s been buried. I wasn’t taught about it at school and there seems to be not much awareness of the lengths to which the Suffragettes went: the bombing and attacks on property or the brutality of the police response, whether beating up women or force-feeding them. It felt very much like an untold story.”
Echoes Carey Mulligan: “It was a war that was fought on our behalf and we reap its rewards today but so few know about it.”
“It was imperative to us that our film would speak to a wide audience,” says Faye Ward, one of the film’s producers, “that its relevance to today should overcome any sense of it being a story locked in the past.”
Abi Morgan had worked with Mulligan on Shame, the 2012 drama also starring Michael Fassbender that was directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave). She knew what Mulligan was capable of: “She is one of a handful of actors who can convey absolute authenticity and truth in their performance no matter how little they have been given in terms of dialogue,” says Morgan.
The cast were brought in some weeks before filming began to involve them in the research process. “I found an autobiography called ‘The Hard Way Up’ by Hannah Mitchell who was a working class girl with a fortnight of formal education,” says Mulligan. “She ended up as a key figure in the Suffragette movement and in the Labour Party. Her discovery of the suffrage movement, through meeting women, middle class women and upper class women, was a lot like Maud in a way. Her eyes were opened to a lot of things and people inspired her. Ultimately she found her own voice. I kept the book on set with me.”
Working with casting director Fiona Weir, Gavron and Ward built the rest of the cast around Mulligan. “We had this rare opportunity to cast an ensemble of women,” says Gavron. “I was excited about finding an eclectic group of great British actresses for those central women: Maud, Violet and Edith.”
Helena Bonham Carter was cast as Edith, a middle-class chemist, forced to allow her much-loved, but less qualified husband to front their business. Her husband’s shop is also the place where the local group of Suffragettes covertly meet.
“I think the militancy came out of a fundamental necessity, out of a fury,” says Morgan. “The movement had found a leader in Emmeline Pankhurst, who was educated, articulate, well-connected and a great public speaker. She was somebody who could carry the iconography and the ethos of the movement. She was a charismatic leader who saw that the only way women’s rights were going to be recognised was if they engaged in the tactics of war and of men. The whole film challenges the audience to consider how far they would go to defend their rights.”
Emmeline Pankhurst is played by triple Academy Award®-winner Meryl Streep. The filmmakers wanted an icon to play an icon, to convey the power and importance of her leadership to women who might only ever come across her fleetingly in the pages of a newspaper or from a distance at some public event.
The Ongoing Struggle
“This film is about women. Wanting a voice, fighting for a voice, gaining a voice,” says producer Faye Ward. “But of course its relevance is to everyone – male and female – who has any interest in social justice and equality and the need for every human being to feel valued.”
“I think feminism became such a dirty word for a long time and had become so uncool, when it shouldn’t have,” comments Morgan. “I feel this film is really about embracing our inner feminism and our inner suffragette and pulling her to the forefront. For all the women involved in the making of the film, it re-connected us with the long, female lineage in our own families.”
For Morgan, one of the hardest things she found to express was the crushing sense of inequality for the women she portrayed.
“It made me realise how empowered my generation of women were and perhaps in many ways we were the first generation to be empowered,” she says, “but I am also aware that inequality and sexism is still present – less obvious in the Western world, but still there. And it is certainly there in other parts of the world such as Nigeria and Pakistan and the Middle East.
“In the UK, we also know there is a need for more women to engage with politics and to vote. That too became really pertinent when I was writing the movie.”
As Mulligan puts it: “Our film isn’t meant to be the story of a time that is no longer relevant to us. It’s not about a historic event, it’s about a general movement and one that is on-going.”
By 1900 women had been campaigning for the right to vote in parliamentary elections for over half a century. Fifty years of peaceful protest had, however, failed to arouse enough interest in the suffrage movement to provoke reform and women, along with prisoners, the insane and the poorest men continued to be excluded from the parliamentary process.
In 1903 the ‘votes for women’ campaign was energised by the creation of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters the WSPU aimed to ‘wake up the nation’ to the cause of women’s suffrage through ‘Deeds not Words’. The decision to relocate the headquarters of the WSPU to London in 1906 transformed the suffrage movement and, for the next eight years, the fight to win the vote became a highly public and, at times, violent struggle played out against the backdrop of Edwardian London.
The WSPU burst onto the streets of London at a time when women played little part in public life, their role in society being firmly centred on the home and family life. The Pankhursts stimulated in their supporters a ‘spirit of revolt’ that directly challenged this male dominated society by bringing women to the forefront of public life.
By taking their campaign to the streets the Suffragettes attracted maximum publicity for their cause. Identifiable by their purple white and green colour scheme they became a familiar sight in central London. Street processions were announced by brass bands playing Suffragette marching songs and meetings and events were publicised by poster parades and pavement chalking parties. The move to the political heart of the nation enabled the Suffragettes to maintain a constant presence in Whitehall, petitioning Downing Street, heckling MPs and chaining themselves to government buildings.
A London base also raised the international profile of the campaign and provided opportunities for staging visually spectacular set-piece demonstrations that aimed to convince the government this was a mass movement with mass support. Women’s Sunday, the first ‘monster meeting’ to be held by the WSPU, in June 1908 brought Suffragettes into the capital from all over the country to march in seven different processions through central London to Hyde Park. Demonstrators arrived on specially chartered trains from over seventy towns and, on reaching Hyde Park, were addressed by over eighty speakers. The highly choreographed demonstration attracted a crowd of up to 300,000 drawn by the colourful spectacle of the delegates dressed in the Suffragette tricolour and carrying over seven hundred embroidered banners. ‘Never’, reported the Daily Chronicle, has so vast a throng gathered in London to witness a parade of political forces’.
The Coronation of George V three years later inspired the WSPU to organise its own spectacular coronation pageant in an attempt to engage the support of the new King. The four-mile Suffragette Coronation Procession through central London culminated in a rally at the Royal Albert Hall and involved over 60,000 delegates from both regional and international suffrage groups dressed in national and historical costume.
The Suffragette campaign was masterminded from WSPU headquarters, initially established at 4 Clement’s Inn, The Strand and, from 1912, at Lincoln’s Inn, Kingsway. Both salaried and volunteer office staff organised fund-raising events, public meetings and demonstrations and produced the weekly newspaper Votes for Women which, by 1909, had a circulation of 22,000. The WSPU established ninety branches throughout the UK but London remained the chief area of support with a total of thirty-four local offices. Branch members held regular meetings, organised fund raising events and supported the work of the national headquarters by participating in demonstrations and processions.
In 1910 the publishing arm of the Union, The Woman’s Press, moved to 156 Charing Cross Road. The premises were chosen for their proximity to Oxford Street and included a shop selling a range of Suffragette merchandise including badges, books, postcards and stationery. The commercial success of the business led to the opening of nineteen similar shops in the London area from Chelsea and Kensington in the west to Streatham and Wandsworth in the south, Mile End and Limehouse in the east and Hampstead and Kilburn in the north.
The WSPU was a broad movement but its most active and militant members were young, single women with few domestic responsibilities. Such women had more time to dedicate to the campaign as well as the courage and spirit necessary to undertake actions that might lead to arrest. Over one thousand Suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela received prison sentences for their militancy. Many were sent to Holloway jail in north London where they protested against prison conditions by enduring hunger strike and force feeding.
From 1912 the WSPU shifted the focus of their campaign to attacks on property and the disruption of London’s public life. An organised window-smashing campaign by 150 Suffragettes in May 1912 devastated London’s shopping district and caused Emmeline Pankhurst to remark that the hour long protest ‘will long be remembered in London’. Suffragette attacks on works of art, including the slashing of the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery, resulted in the closure of many London art galleries and museums to female visitors. Militancy often provoked confrontation with the police and members of the public resulting in undignified street fights and scuffles.
For many opposed to the campaign Suffragette militancy was regarded as a threat to the balanced social and sexual order where men and women inhabited separate spheres.
Suffragettes were often condemned as shrieking, hysterical females responsible for actually physically distorting the face and shape of the ideal, pure and feminine woman as mother. Captured in the national press being arrested, shouting, chaining themselves to railings and delivering political, rousing speeches in public they were also satirised in popular culture as ugly harridans wearing masculine clothing.
The outbreak of the First World War brought an immediate suspension of militant action as the Suffragettes threw themselves into supporting the war effort. By taking their fight to the streets and making London the focus of their campaign, the Pankhursts had invigorated the suffrage movement and inspired, in their supporters, a confidence and independence that enabled them to challenge the male dominated society in which they lived. Their work eased the way for women to take a more active and public role in society during the war. Their contribution to the war effort proved women were vital not only to victory but also to the long term economic success of the country – this value acknowledged with the granting of the parliamentary vote to propertied women over the age of thirty in 1918.