Rights of Passage

Film-Lead-GT1545Women fight for the vote in illuminating ‘Suffragette’

The campaign of women to win the right to vote has had a long and volatile history. Once exclusively the privilege of the male ruling class—no slaves, servants, women, or other unreliables allowed—voting rights extended to women was considered a dangerously radical idea in the 1880s, when it was first introduced into the public dialogue in Britain. By the turn of the century, the campaign had become a polite, orderly, utterly futile movement called suffrage, or suffragism, based on the Biblical sense of the word “suffer,” as in “to allow.”

The women who defied social convention and risked family rupture, public ridicule, and physical violence to speak out for the cause were known by the vaguely demeaning name, “suffragette.” But women on the front lines of the struggle for equality considered themselves warriors, especially as their protests became more disruptive and the reaction of the authorities more brutal. The story of these women is told in the illuminating drama, Suffragette, a fictional story woven skillfully into the fabric of real-life history about the radicalization of an ordinary woman into the cause of justice.

Directed by Sarah Gavron, from a script by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady; The Invisible Woman), the film begins in 1909 in the steaming sweatshop of a commercial laundry in London’s East End. Maud (Carey Mulligan) was literally born in the workplace, to a laundress mother (father unknown) who died a few years later. She’s worked there all her life, and is married to one of the delivery men, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), with whom she lives in a cramped flat nearby with their little boy.

Maud is horrified one day to witness an act of rebellion—women heaving rocks through local shop windows in the name of equal rights—and the swift, violent retaliation by the police. But as she’s befriended by a new employee, Violet (Anne-Marie Duff), and neighborhood pharmacist, Edith (Helena Bonham Carter)—whose sympathetic husband has earned the degrees, allowing her to practice her calling behind the scenes—Maud is gradually drawn into the cause.

Rallied to ever more defiant public acts by their heroine, real-life feminist crusader Emmeline Pankhurst (a one-scene cameo by Meryl Streep), women are routinely beaten with billy clubs and arrested. (Movement organizers hand out badges of honor commemorating each woman’s number of arrests.) When prison inmates seek to publicize their cause by going on hunger strikes, they are violently force-fed by matrons. The police bring in a chief investigator (Brendan Gleeson), determined to “quash” the female rebellion. But as police methods become more draconian, the suffragist’s publicity campaign begins to pay off, and the press becomes more and more sympathetic to the cause of voting equality.

The film is very clear about personalizing what these women are fighting for. Male employees earn more pay for delivering the laundry around town than the women stuck in the inferno all day doing the work. Violet’s 12-year-old daughter, another laundress, attracts the unwanted attention of the laundry’s predatory foreman. Women have no rights over their own bodies, their property or income (if any), or their children—as Maud discovers when the indignant Sonny locks her out and forbids her access to their son.

There’s a bit of a flabby dramatic midsection as the outrages against the women accrue. But the filmmakers want us to understand how courageously these women fought for something so easy to take for granted now—the chance to have even a tiny political stake in their own destinies.

These days, politicians have to at least pay lip service to issues that concern women. Not all women vote alike, of course, but blatant sexism is now considered detrimental to a successful political platform. Women who appreciate the power of the vote, and what it cost our foremothers to secure it, can be an influential force for change. The only thing standing in our way is apathy.


*** (out of four)

With Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, and Anne-Marie Duff. Written by Abi Morgan. Directed by Sarah Gavron. A Focus Features release. Rated PG-13.106 minutes.

THE GOOD FIGHT Carey Mulligan is drawn into Britain’s fight for women’s right to vote in Sarah Gavron’s ‘Suffragette.’

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