Suffragette Made Me Realize I Don’t Know as Much About the Right to Vote as I Thought I Did

It’s not just a history lesson.
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Sophie Caldecott
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It’s not just a history lesson.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Suffragette for a while now, especially after reading Carey Mulligan’s interview with Elle UK. The film, which opens in U.S. theaters this weekend, is one of the few depictions ever made of this pivotal moment in history. The incredible story of the British women who fought for women’s right to vote has not been given enough time or attention, either in our classrooms or on our screens.

Suffragette tells the story of an early twentieth-century fictional working-class woman named Maud, played by Carey Mulligan. Maud works as a laundress in difficult and exploitative conditions in a factory in London’s impoverished East End during the height of the British women’s suffrage movement. It follows her journey from a curious observer to an increasingly militant member of the group, as her motivation and desire for the vote grows.

Prior to Suffragette, the most screen time these women have been given in a major film harks back to Mary Poppins from 1964 and as the backdrop for some story lines in Downton Abbey. When you think about it, it’s surprising that it has taken almost a century for a major film to be made of the suffragette story. For starters, there’s the dramatic tension of a group of women who have become disillusioned with peaceful protesting and have decided they must turn to acts of vandalism to further their cause. Ordinary women from all walks of life were willing to suffer imprisonment and go through hunger strikes, police intimidation, and brutal force-feeding while fighting for the vote. Some even died for the suffragette cause. If this story isn’t cinema-worthy, I don’t know what is.

Then again, perhaps this is just the right time to be telling this story. From Beyoncé’s feminist VMA performance to frequent front-page discussions over pay inequality, maternity leave, and sexual assault, feminism has been at the front of the cultural mind for the past several years. In many ways, the topics seem to mirror the suffragettes’ causes; the film’s screenwriter, Abi Morgan, mentioned in an interview how contemporary the story felt to her. As she discovered how the women’s concerns at the time were all about pay equality (women were paid significantly lower wages for working longer hours than men), rape and sexual harassment, childcare, and other issues we still struggle with as a culture today, the lasting relevance of this story became clear.

Even for all the political drama, at the heart of the story—surprisingly, as it isn’t shown much in the trailers—is a mother’s love for her child. The most joyful, tender moments of the film are the beautifully shot scenes of Maud playing with, kissing, and dressing her young son.

This love, it turns out, is what ultimately motivates an otherwise unassuming and respectable working-class woman to risk her life for the suffragette cause. It’s significant that she only decides to call herself a suffragette when her relationship with her son is threatened. It’s a simple but much-needed reminder that getting the vote wasn’t a self-interested campaign, a nice (but not important) optional extra for women. Not having the vote affected people’s lives and relationships every single day in a profound way. By the time women were given the vote, it was more a matter of survival than anything else. It’s hard to appreciate as a modern person that women’s practical needs were being consistently undermined and ignored by lawmakers, and that’s what Suffragette really succeeds at driving home.

It’s obvious that this is a film made, principally, by women. Suffragette doesn’t romanticize women or motherhood. You see blisters, disheveled hair, tired eyes, scarred skin, frailty, grief, and fear. But you also see incredible moments of strength and beauty, and the balance of the two reminds us that these things are inseparable; if only all representations of women could be both this realistic and uplifting.

And yet, the biggest weakness of the film is in “the strict dividing lines of all the female characters being good, and all male characters being bad,” as David Jenkins wrote in his review for Little White Lies. The filmmakers have reported that it was very difficult to get actors to sign up for the supporting male roles; apparently, men didn’t want to take roles with so little screen time. For me, this only highlights how unusual it is for a film to prioritize telling the stories of the female characters. And while it’s definitely worth celebrating the fact that women were front and center in this film on every level, I do think that the male characters could have been more nuanced and conflicted, which wouldn’t necessarily have required more screen time. Portraying men as one-dimensional won’t help women in the long run any more than reducing women to stereotypes does.

It’s natural that the story would get simplified in the telling, though, and one of the exciting things about Suffragette is that it opens up discussion, makes you think, and above all makes you crave more. We need more stories about the women who suffered without the vote and more stories about the men who supported and fought alongside them in many different ways. So many angles have yet to be explored, and Suffragette is, I hope, just the beginning.

Photo Credit: Focus Features