by Laura E. Cortner and Dr. Bob Hieronimus of 21st Century Radio®
Co-authors of The Secret Life of Lady Liberty: Goddess in the New World
November 6, 2015
We were very excited when we first heard that Meryl Streep was playing the role of British suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst in a new film released today entitled "Suffragette." We assumed the film would be about the powerhouse Pankhurst mother and daughters family who led British women to the vote at the turn of the 20th century, and also hugely impacted the movement in the United States to focus on "deeds, not words." The controversial militant approach advocated by the Pankhursts to use violent demonstrations, followed by hunger strikes when jailed, was effectively documented in the moving 2004 film "Iron Jawed Angels," the story of the American leaders, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who imported these tactics and slogans to American woman suffragists.
In researching our book The Secret Life of Lady Liberty: Goddess in the New World we focused on the symbolism and imagery used by the various groups fighting for women's rights over the long history of suffrage activism, much of which was originally conceived of by Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, two of Emmeline's daughters. From what we learned about this British family of extraordinary women and their highly dramatic life story, we knew a historical drama telling their personal struggles would be a good one, and the tag line on the movie poster is "Mothers. Daughters. Rebels." so you can see why we assumed that would be the plot of the movie.
Even the militant suffragists recognized the power of archetypal symbolism of the female divinity, and incorporated it into their literature as a means of appealing to both the status quo and those desiring change. This angel or "herald" mascot was designed by Sylvia Pankhurst and used as the logo of The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant suffrage organization of the Pankhurst family in the United Kingdom.
Alas, that is not what we found in the evocative film "Suffragette," starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and British BAFTA-winner Ann-Marie Duff. Yes, Meryl Streep appears as Emmeline Pankhurst, but it's a cameo role, and she's only on screen for one scene. There is no mention of her daughters Christabel, who directed the militant actions of the British movement from exile in France from 1912-1913, or of Sylvia or Adela, who were both active in the British movement until being ostracized from their family over their protest against WWI. That family drama is ripe for cinema, but it's a film we will have to wait for someone else to make.
From the United States suffrage imagery: A 1911 broadside showing the Herald symbolism of the suffrage movement published by Harriot Stanton Blatch's organization the Women’s Political Union. The WPU focused on the rights of working women and later merged with Alice Paul's group to become the National Woman's Party.
What we have in "Suffragette" directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan is a darkly beautiful film that dramatizes how grueling it was to be a working-class woman in 1912. The acting performances in the whole film are top-notch, especially the lead Mulligan, who carries the film. Some of the cinematic artsy touches were overdone to the point of distraction, but at the same time, they helped to alleviate the misery being portrayed as the audience realizes that less than 100 years ago a man had the complete legal right to rape and beat his wife, kick her out of their home, deny her the chance to see her child, and even to arrange for it to be adopted without her consent. Women who challenged the status quo and suggested change were shunned as an embarrassment to their family and neighborhood.
Watching Mulligan transform from a drudge to a socially-awakened activist is as encouraging as it is instructive, but we still left the theater wishing there had been more historical narrative and less drama. We applaud that the working-class women who joined the activist movement are getting their own film, and this film certainly does make it clear why the suffrage movement was mostly run by elite, upper-class white women. The working-class women had even less freedom and less control over their lives than the wealthy women did, and clinging even more tenaciously to the little scraps of happiness they could find in their lives, were even less likely to rock the boat and ask for change, much less demand change. By comparison, the film "Iron Jawed Angels" featured only one token character to represent the working-class women, as that film focused on the leaders of the movement who were mostly educated women from the privileged classes. This film "Suffragette" is the underprivileged woman's story, and within the first 10 minutes of the film it becomes clear why more working-class women did not join the fight to stand up for their own rights.
Joan of Arc was a popular national symbol in France, and when British suffragist Christabel Pankhurst fled to France to avoid arrest for her activism in London, she adopted Joan as a symbol of a strong woman challenging authority and standing for a righteous cause. The armored Joan of Arc was also used by the more militant branch of the U.S. suffragists, but later morphed into a generic Herald or an angel-like figure that appealed to a broader spectrum of women.
If you don't know your British suffrage movement history, the film ends with a shocker that alone makes the price of admission worthwhile. But any film that turns the spotlight on the issue of how fragile women's rights really are, how recently won, and why the battle was so hard and is still ongoing, is going to get five stars in our book.
Go see it, and take your daughters and nieces with you. Better still, take your sons and nephews as well.