Suffrage and the Bodies of Women

Posted by ap507 at Oct 13, 2015 09:50 AM |
Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans reviews the acclaimed film 'Suffragette' and how successfully it portrays feminism

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I found the film Suffragette utterly stirring. My reaction was something of a surprise to me. The recent voluminous press coverage has been unanimous: the film’s uniqueness lies in its hitherto unexplored focus on working class women’s struggle for the vote in contrast to other cinematic representations which have conventionally focused on bourgeois heroines. Whilst this historical approach is long overdue, in my view the film’s uniqueness extends far beyond this laudable achievement.

The film draws the viewer, men and women, into sympathetic identification with the protagonist Maud Watts – mother, wife and laundry worker – and her painful journey into critical consciousness. More importantly it also exposes the underbelly of a patriarchal culture which can respond with violence when its norms are challenged and resisted. In this sense Maud’s story of the emotional and psychological costs of politicisation is the story of Everywoman.


Politically bereft. Steffan Hill





We are introduced to Maud through intimate snapshots of her family and work life. The mutual respect between wife and husband Sonny is palpable as they share the parental chores and responsibilities of caring for their little boy in the one room where they eat, bathe, and sleep. They both carry out debilitating, back breaking work in a laundry, managed by an overseer who avails himself sexually of a young female labourer. We learn that Maud has worked in the factory since she herself was a young child and that she too had been a previous object of his sexual attention.  Political awareness and public engagement are as far removed from her life’s horizon as it is possible to imagine.

The numerous phases of Maud’s growing politicisation are set in the historical context of the activities and fortunes of The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), a member of which turns out to work in the laundry. The WPSU was the leading militant organizing campaign for women's suffrage in Great Britain. At the beginning suffragettes’ tactics included the disruption of meetings and staging of demonstrations; when these strategies proved futile they eventually graduated to violence in pursuit of their aims, including for example smashing windows, committing arson and fire-bombing unpopulated buildings.

But it was the bodies of the suffragettes, and the brutality and violence rained down upon them that exposed what a politically agitating woman brings to the surface of the patriarchal body politic.  Women were denied the vote because they were allegedly too emotionally fragile and intellectually frail for the rigours and responsibilities of citizenship, and moreover this frailty was deemed not only endearing and seemly but invoked the myth of manly chivalrous protection.  The scenes of male violence – suffragettes forcibly stripped in prison, of being force-fed, assaulted in public and their clothes torn, or of being marched to prison with blood streaming because mounted police had charged into them – caused a public scandal not so much about the women but the authorities.

The film recreates and reimagines these scenes as the backdrop to the story of Maud’s conversion to the militant cause. It shows the men in positions of authority wanting ‘to bring these bitches to their knees’; it shows the women as bold activists who, in defying prevailing and debilitating myths, and in taking their destiny into their own hands, expose the hypocrisies and violence embedded within patriarchal culture.

The idea that women were deserting their rightful place in the home was one of the most powerful smears against them.  We witness the slow disintegration of Maud’s marriage, her husband’s eventual total rejection of her, and the exercise of his legal right to take away her son and put him up for adoption.

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested in 1914. Wikimedia Commons

The ‘F’ Word

The story is both of its time and timeless, a history of struggle against patriarchal norms whose lessons, sadly, still need to be learned.  The battle for women’s suffrage wasn’t just a battle for the vote, but a revolutionary call for another way of life for women and men – for justice and sexual equality, including the end to prostitution and trafficking, to sweated labour and to the exploitation of children.  Although in most parts of the globe women can vote, righting the iniquity of the law has not been enough to achieve freedom.  Today it is still women’s bodies on which patriarchal systems are writ large: everyday sexism; domestic violence; so-called ‘honour’ killings; rape as a crime of war and peace; FGM; prostitution and pornography.

The film doesn’t cover all the complex historical aspects of the struggle for women’s suffrage. It isn’t an historical documentary but a cinematic vehicular narrative that stirs the blood about the failed attempt to tame women from all classes who dared to rise up in resistance to women’s plight.

The story of Suffragette is a passionate and inspiring film for a generation that has lived through alleged ‘post-feminism’ but which is beginning to re-assess the continuing need for feminist politics. The demands on feminists are still great:  almost a hundred years after women have been granted voting rights we are still struggling for equality; and we are currently witness to the kinds of onslaught which the feminist fight seems to provoke.  When even pointing out that sexual violence is a gendered issue incurs at best in some quarters the slur ‘feminazi’,  we need to be aware, in order to fight the good fight, that bringing injustices to women to the surface of public consciousness can incur wrath.



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