Suffragettes: The Original Feminist Warriors

It’s 8.30 and my Uber is waiting outside. I grab my clutch and throw my leather jacket over my shoulders as I dash out the front door. In the backseat of a sparkling new Toyota Prius, I watch Hollywood’s lights splash past me, while receiving texts from my manager to say they’ve saved me a seat—what’s my ETA? Finally I’m delivered to the valet entrance of the industry elite club, The Soho House. I check in with the spunky girls downstairs and take the elevator up.

The Soho House screening room ain’t your run-of-the-mill theater. To begin with, there’s a barman down the front toward the screen providing wine and cocktail service, and the seating is lavish, armchair-like, each person getting their own little side table with a lamp and a footrest. I find my managers (both female), post-work drinks, cuddled up under a rug—courtesy of the Soho House—and sipping wine. The lights begin to dim and one of them squeezes my hand, “SO excited!”

The opening text of Suffragette sets the historic tone of the film: in the late 19th and early 20th century, the women of the suffrage movement fought for the right to vote.

It is in a London laundry factory that we first meet the protagonist of the movie, Maud Watts, played impeccably by Carey Mulligan. Downtrodden, overworked, and grossly underpaid, Watts is increasingly awakened to the early feminist movement by a ballsy co-worker Violet Miller (Ann-Marie Duff). Despite the disapproval of her husband (Ben Whishaw), her boss, and neighbors, Watts can no longer ignore the injustice of inequality and soon becomes not only ignited by but a pioneer of the suffrage movement.

To say that Suffragette is a powerful film would be an understatement. While authentically portraying the working-class grind of women like Watts and Miller, in the face of increasingly violent state oppression, director Sarah Gavron so successfully gets to the guts of the drive, bravery, and determination of the female freedom fighters of the time.

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Carey Mulligan as Maude Watts in “Suffragette”

It is the spirit of self-sacrifice in the name of freedom, or in this case, more pointedly, legal acknowledgement and rights, that Garvon and writer Abi Morgan (also female!) draw parallels to terrorists today. The suffragettes left their families, organized themselves in a militant manner, smashed windows, set fire to garbage bins, faced repeated incarcerations, went on hunger strikes, and even sacrificed their own lives in the name of their cause. It is reinforced throughout the film that since women were being blatantly ignored by lawmakers and society as a whole, vandalism, a strategy to demand attention, was a necessity.

Meryl Streep makes a single but powerful appearance midway through the film as Emmeline Pankhurst, an activist and highly respected leader of the women’s suffrage movement. While it would have been refreshing to have seen Helena Bonham Carter explore a different side of her acting repertoire (instead we’re delivered a familiar potty, quirky, Brit) as Edith Ellyn, based on the suffrage organizer and educator, Edith New, Bonham Carter plays an instrumental role as mentor to the younger suffragettes. And in the face of growing illness, she portrays the great personal risk these women took to win the right to vote.

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Carey Mulligan and Adam Michael Dodd in “Suffragette”

The soul of the film resides in Mulligan, her intimate political awakening, and what she sacrifices in discovering and pursuing her ultimate mission. The moments with her son, George (Adam Michael Dodd), are particularly beautiful and delicately played. It is when her husband responds to Watts’ question about their son, “What would his life be like if he were a girl?” with “Just like yours,” that Milligan knows she can never give up the fight.

Suffragette ends with a poignant list that details when women won the right to vote in every country in the world. We learn that in 1918 in the UK, women over 30 were awarded the vote, and then in 1921, all adult women could vote. And that just this year, yes in 2015, women in Saudi Arabia finally got the vote. This list and the plight of the women in the film itself bring into sharp focus our current battle to achieve wage equality. With public statistics such as women earning on average 23% less than men for doing the same job, and Academy Award-winning actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette speaking out about the wage gape even in their A-list field, Suffragette couldn’t have come at a better time.

Written, directed, predominantly produced by, and starring many great women, Suffragette is more than an important historical drama—it’s a statistics changer-in action. As we walked out of the theater and waited on Sunset Blvd for our Uber home, my managers and I wiped our running mascara, hugged it out, and reflected on the courage of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Yep, it’s time to take over Hollywood, we said.

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1 Comment

  • Beth says:

    This article, while good, makes a factual error near to the end. It was not until 1928, not 1921 as this article states, that all women over the age of 21 were granted the vote on equal terms with men. Additionally, it was not all women over 30, as in 1918 there were property qualifications for women that existed alongside this age restriction.

    If this error could be rectified, then this article would be much better.

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