When I saw the trailer for Suffragette I wondered, why focus on the story of a working class woman? After all, one of the common criticisms of first wave feminists was that they were primarily white, middle class women with blind spots on race and class. Was it trying to make the Suffragettes more noble than they actually were?
Indeed, one reviewer suggested that this was the reason for telling the story through Maud Watts’ eyes, because as a ‘composite’ character, she can be cleaned up and made more sympathetic than the complexities of the historical Suffragettes might allow. Having now seen the film, I think there’s some validity in that suggestion. This film wants you to have some major feels, and to be allied with its main characters.
Suffragette is an activist film. Its aim is not to examine or expose the shortcomings of first wave feminists. It’s a story of their valour, and the importance of their struggle. Maud goes from being fairly ambivalent about the Suffragette cause to being a committed activist; the film wants you to make the same movement. Concluding with historical footage of Emily Davison’s funeral march, and then a scrolling list of when women’s suffrage was won in various places around the world, the message is clear: this work is ongoing.
So it’s definitely going for pulling on heart strings, and there are a few too many emotive speeches and one-liners, but the film shows remarkable maturity in other areas. One of those emotive speeches is actually a quote from the Bible, reflecting the Christian convictions and hopes of many of the first wave feminists, a little-known aspect of the movement, and one which many a mainstream film would overlook. There are also several men on view, ranging from outright enemies of the Suffragettes to sympathisers, so this film can’t be accused of man-hating. However, at no point does the film become about the men’s journeys. We are spared the notion that men will be the saviours of feminism or that feminism’s energy should be directed towards co-opting them.
We have so few films that tell stories of feminist movements. This film told one, and the opening titles acknowledge that it is the story of just one group of Suffragette women. There are questions to be asked of the film and its telling, so let us not make the mistake of treating this film as the authoritative story of the Suffragettes. In fact, I think Suffragette invites us to do that: Maud is portrayed as something of an outsider to this movement, and Meryl Streep’s cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst drips with wealth and privilege.
We need more films that can flesh out the period and the movement. Let’s also have a biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst, or one of lesser known Indian princess and Suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh, or one that takes more of an ensemble cast approach. The story of the Suffragettes is not yet told, and recognising that and creating room in our cultural imagining for more depth and breadth allows us to take this film on its own terms. I, for one, appreciated what was there.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.