There are a fair amount women in the United States who are excited over the release of this movie this fall. I’ve read comments about mothers wanting to take their daughters to watch the film. I get it. We see Meryl. We see female empowerment. We hear English accents. We hear Meryl with an English accent. We think, “Hell, yeah! This is a movie for us!”
But the U.K. suffragette movement is not really taught over here in our history classes for understandable reasons, so a lot of us won’t really understand the context under which the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) radicalized. And seeing the words “Inspired by Real Events” makes me leery over how the history will be portrayed. After all, it is a movie, a piece of art designed to project the director’s point of view.
What we do know is the story of Emily Wilding Davison who was jailed nine times, force-fed 49 times, and ran out into the path of King George V’s horse, Anmer at Ascot. Analysis from the reel concluded that she was just trying to attach a scarf to the bridle, but fate had other sad plans for her. She embodied the passion and devotion behind the cause.
But most American women do not know nor understand just how many times the female chartists banged their heads against the Parliamentary wall to get the vote through conventional means. In the United States, the Territory of Wyoming had female suffrage in 1869, with Utah Territory in 1870, and Washington Territory in 1883. When Wyoming became a state in 1889, women’s suffrage was written right into its state constitution, so we had the legal precedence right there to make it national. We had to slog through 31 more years with smaller victories along the way until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. The U.K. female chartists just had one channel to go through, and to keep having the door shut for decades, I can only imagine, took its toll. It was a different battle entirely.
But the WSPU did more than just set off a few bombs in post boxes and break a few windows. A great example I can give was in 1912, four female militant supporters of the voting cause attempted to set fire to the Theatre Royale in Dublin where Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was attending a packed matinee. Earlier that same day, one of the would-be arsonists, Mary Leigh, threw a hatchet at Asquith and cut the ear of Irish Nationalist leader, John Redmond. That is an assassination attempt. (On an interesting note, Asquith is the great-grandfather of Helena Bonham-Carter who plays a suffragette named Edith New in the movie.) Fortunately, their efforts didn’t pay off. We can say their campaign did reach Real IRA levels without the death tolls, if you want to read a little bit more about it. It wasn’t until the WSPU ceased with the campaign and disbanded in 1917 that Parliament was willing to deal with the moderates like the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Suffrage was given to women age 30 and over who owned a minimum amount of property in 1918, but universal female suffrage was given to women 21 and over regardless of property ownership in 1928.
Meanwhile, historians are conflicted over how positive the WSPU’s impact really was on the U.K. women’s voting movement really was. Were they freedom fighters, or were they terrorists? No doubt, the WSPU were wonderful at keeping publicity for the cause in the papers and the public eye and, as a by-product, forced the moderates to better organize themselves. But did their radicalism help or hurt their cause in the long run? Are we being more lenient on them because they were women and had no proper political voice whatsoever?
I don’t have the answers, but I can say the following: Suffragette could turn out to be a war movie for women, which would be a switch. Or it could sanitize the whole thing. I could walk out of the theater annoyed as hell.
But most of us were not born into aristocracy, and our ancestors, male and female, had to fight for our rights to vote in some way. So if the movie reminds us to be grateful for what we have, even if the story is ugly.
Suffragette is set to be released on October 23, 2015 in the United States and October 30, 2015 in the United Kingdom.