Film Review – Suffragette


Where is Sylvia, what is she?

Ask anybody what name they most associate with the suffragette movement and almost universally the answer will be Sylvia Pankhurst. This film for all its merits only once mentions her in passing, and then only to suggest that she didn’t really approve of what the suffragettes were doing. What explanation can there be for this distracting mystery? The answer lies in the bourgeois falsification of history, as we shall see.

In any class society the predominant culture is the culture of the ruling class. We live in an imperialist country and the ruling class is the imperialist bourgeoisie. Bourgeois culture predominates and all aspects of culture are called into action in support of the bourgeoisie and its continuing rule. Those statements may seem too obvious to need repeating, but one of the successes of the ruling class in our society is to convince the majority living in the UK today that culture and cultural values are both classless and timeless.

The film Suffragette was greeted with enthusiasm by the bourgeois media. On the one hand, The Telegraph review (Robbie Collin, 12/10/15) stated ” Sarah Gavron’s film technically qualifies as a period drama: its story takes place in 1912 & 1913 and its sets and costumes vividly and convincingly evoke a bygone age. But it’s written, shot and acted with a hot-blooded urgency that reminds you that the struggle it depicts is an on-going one and which shakes up this most well-behaved of genres with a surge of civil disobedience. … [It] has less in common with British prestige film-making – think The King’s Speech … – than women-under-pressure dramas like Erin Brockovich … and Silkwood.” The film was summed up as “…the untold story of the real foot-soldiers of the suffragettes movement“. On the other hand The Observer review (Mark Kermode, 11/10/15) stated that the film captures “a revolutionary moment in history … [showing that] the battle for voting rights [was] as hard fought as any struggle for independence.” This ridiculous hyperbole was followed by equally inaccurate statements: ” This polemical work provides a solidly researched and at times surprisingly grim primer on the years leading up to Emily Wilding Davidson’s still contested act of self-sacrifice in 1913. … This is an important story and Suffragette tells it without stylistic fuss or frills in a solidly down-the-line fashion“. Sheila O’Malley on rogereburt.com, a film review website, commented that the camera work gave the film “a real documentary feel, comparable, say, to the neo-realist style of The Battle of Algiers .

The clue to this enthusiasm can perhaps be found in the review on the US web-site BUSTLE (which proclaims itself as the place to go to for the latest news and views on all women’s issues) and the much-heralded interview by Jenni Murray with two of the film’s stars, Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, on our own BBC R4’s Woman’s Hour. On BUSTLE the reviewer (Olivia Truffant-Wong) wrote: “Suffragette is a huge Hollywood victory for women. Not only is the film about the suffragette movement in Britain that lobbied for women’s right to vote, it also features an all-star female cast including Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, and the film was written and directed by women – Abi Morgan and Sarah Gavron respectively. The menu … is unique – a film about women made by women. It would be easy to say that Suffragette aims at teaching a new generation about the history of feminism, but, contrary to popular belief, not all the characters in Suffragette are based on real people“. During the interview on Woman’s Hour, the same point was made about the film’s claim to be made about women, by women, for women (the new demographic of young women film-goers, which, along with Meryl Streep’s high-profile involvement, probably was what convinced the backers to finance the film). The conversation then turned to the current position of women in the film industry. Meryl Streep agreed that she was not paid as much as the leading male stars in Hollywood, notwithstanding her 3 Oscars and 18 Oscar nominations. The reason, she said, was simple: the all-action movies were still the biggest money-spinners for Hollywood, the stars of these all were men and money talks.

Opposition to women’s suffrage

The film deals with a very specific time: from March 1912, when the suffragettes broke the windows of the West End department stores, to June 1913, when Emily Wilding Davison died under the hooves of the king’s horse during the Derby at Epsom. This was a turbulent period of the suffragettes’ history and of the history of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation, led and run by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. There can be no objection to including fictional characters in a historical drama or to changing the order of some events in order to achieve dramatic effect and condense the narrative to a normal length for a play or film. But to present as historical a drama which fundamentally distorts the truth about the period and events depicted is wholly objectionable and in this case quite pernicious. Before one can understand what are the distortions of the truth in this film and then work out what lies behind them, it is necessary to understand something of the true history of the WSPU and the events leading up to and during the period March 1912 and June 1913.

In their time, the militant suffragettes were seen as a threat to the continued rule of the bourgeoisie: any expansion of the suffrage was resisted as a possible opening of the floodgates to universal suffrage, i.e., to the inclusion among the voters of the whole of the working class, who would inevitably outnumber the ruling class and all of its faithful stooges and servants. There had been polite pressure for much of the last half of the 19th century for the expansion of the suffrage to include women of property on the same basis as men; that would only have applied to unmarried women or widows who held property in their own right, as a woman’s property automatically belonged to her husband after marriage. It was only after The Married Women’s Property Act was passed in 1882 that a married woman could own property in her own name. The aristocracy had got around the old law by establishing trusts (settlements) in favour of their daughters, so that their property would not be automatically swallowed up by their husbands upon marriage. But the new industrial bourgeoisie eventually changed the law once they had secured their place as the ruling class with appropriate parliamentary power after the Reform Acts had done away with the rotten boroughs (parliamentary seats in areas of little or no population which were in the gift of the local landowner, lord or duke) and obtained both representation for the new industrial cities and extension of the franchise to the newly wealthy.

Neither the old aristocracy nor the new industrial bourgeoisie had forgotten the events of 1848, however. In that year of revolutionary upheavals all over Europe, there had flourished in Britain the Chartist movement. The Chartists came from the most conscious and organised sections of the working class with support also from radicals among the other classes and the intelligentsia. The ruling class had managed to see off their demand for universal suffrage for all men irrespective of property, but only by extending the franchise (by lowering the property qualification for the vote) as a means of splitting the ranks of the Chartist supporters. In the 19th century the ruling class did not feel confident that the mass of the working class, if enfranchised, could be relied upon to exercise the right to vote ‘responsibly’, i.e., by voting for the bourgeois parties and not for a new, working class party with a radical agenda which might threaten the power and profits of the ruling class. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century such parties were forming all over Europe. The years before the outbreak of war in 1914 had been full of industrial unrest as well as political uncertainty at home and abroad. At home, the working and living conditions of most of the British working class were still abysmal (we would categorise them now as third world conditions) notwithstanding the great wealth generated by the British Empire. Abroad, Germany, newly united under Prussian leadership into a single country out of 26 princely states and dukedoms only in 1871, expanded its trade and production as a direct result of its newly enlarged home market and sought to get a place in the world – in particular in respect of the division of the world into colonies – commensurate with its new wealth and increasing industrial and military power.

The Pankhursts

Emmeline Goulden was a scion of the industrial bourgeoisie. Her father was a partner in a cotton printing and bleaching firm and a Liberal Councillor in Manchester, the first industrial city, a centre of industrial and scientific advances and a bastion of Liberalism. She married Richard Pankhurst, a barrister 20 years her senior and the son of a Liberal dissenting minister, in 1879. They both began as supporters of the Liberal Party until that party in office in 1880 abandoned its idealism and pursued repressive policies in Ireland and India. Richard then ran as an independent candidate in a by-election in 1883, criticising the Liberals. He lost the election and also became estranged from his father-in-law as well as boycotted professionally. The family moved to London then with their two eldest children, Christabel and Sylvia, still infants, and the parents joined the Fabian Society. The Pankhursts were leading members of the Women’s Franchise League, formed in 1889, which always rejected the idea that women’s suffrage could be separated from the wider struggle for women’s emancipation and proclaimed that the “modern movement…..seeks …in all…relations…principles of equal justice [and] has necessarily attacked the privileges and disabilities founded on colour, race, religion and class“. However, Richard and Emmeline joined the Independent Labour Party when it was founded in 1893 in opposition to the growing militancy of the working-class movement and revolutionary socialists such as Eleanor Marx, who were deeply involved in the ‘New Unionism’ of that period. Instead, the ILP advocated parliamentary reform as the sole means whereby to create an equal and just society.

The Pankhursts had moved back to Manchester in the early 1890s. They continued to be politically active. They had sacrificed family harmony and economic prosperity for their principles in 1883 and in 1896 Emmeline saw off the City Council’s Parks Committee in its attempt to ban all public meetings in Manchester’s Boggart Hole Clough, as the Committee could not bring themselves to prosecute or imprison a respectable middle-class woman for breach of the City by-laws; both of these being seminal experiences and providing lessons which would be borne in mind in the later campaigns. The breach between the Pankhursts and the ILP came after Richard’s death in 1898. In 1900 Emmeline left the Fabian Society in protest at their refusal to oppose the Boer War. Sylvia had won a free place at the Municipal School of Art in 1899 and she won a series of prizes in 1902, one of which enabled her to study abroad. After her return to Britain, in 1903 Sylvia was commissioned to decorate the Pankhurst Hall, built in honour of her father (a constant campaigner for women’s rights) but the family was appalled to learn that the completed Hall was to be used by a branch of the ILP that did not admit women. As a result, Emmeline invited local ILP women to her house where they formed the Women’s Social and Political Union.

The Women’s Social and Political Union

The WSPU was originally closely bound up with the wider labour movement and its members saw the right to vote as bound up with wider social changes. Sylvia moved back to London to pursue her artistic studies. There she started the London branch of the WSPU. She presided over a campaign which organised working-class women in the East End, used militancy to obtain practical gains such as audiences with ministers and worked closely with the labour movement and the campaigns in which the East End women were involved. However, Sylvia was not left in charge in London for long. Once Christabel came to London and took over the national leadership, the WSPU rapidly began to break all links with the labour movement. This allowed the struggle for adult suffrage ” the true field of the Labour movement - [to be left] to those who were either hostile or indifferent to the inclusion of women” (Sylvia Pankhurst, writing in her book The Suffragette – A History of the Suffragette Movement 1905-1910 in 1911).

The new orientation of the WSPU led to it intervening in by-elections in support of any party opposing the Liberals – which in practice meant the Conservatives. Those women who saw the struggle for women’s suffrage as a part of the wider struggle were marginalised by Emmeline and Christabel and at the 1907 Conference of the WSPU Emmeline literally tore up the constitution which had provided a democratic framework for the organisation and replaced it with the autocratic rule of herself, Christabel, with two others including Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence, a wealthy benefactor, who stated that Christabel, as the architect of the new militant campaign “could not trust her mental offspring to the mercies of politically untrained minds“. The leadership saw working-class women as weak and not able to lead the struggle. Sylvia had resigned her post but remained a member, though she never signed the required pledge that members would never support any political party until after women won the vote. Sylvia’s art-work had created the public image of the WSPU, though her earlier depictions of strong working women in the vanguard gave way to the angel symbol, and she remained a member until she was finally expelled by Christabel for sharing a platform at a public meeting in 1914 with James Connolly. The final break between Sylvia and her mother and sister came with the outbreak of the first world war in 1914 when Emmeline and Christabel suspended their campaigning for the vote to become energetic campaigners in support if the war, while Sylvia opposed it.

In the meantime, Sylvia had been taking a back seat in the campaign: nursing her brother during his final illness, writing a history of the movement at her mother’s request (which largely followed the official line then) and then touring the US twice to promote the book. Those tours re-ignited her radical socialist views. Less than two months after Sylvia’s return to Britain in April 1911 from her first visit to the US there was a wave of strikes in the docks, which were later joined by dockers’ wives, all protesting against their appalling conditions of work. The WSPU opposed the strike, initially on the grounds that the men’s strike just increased the hardship for their wives and families, and preached in their journal Votes For Women that the solution to starvation wages ‘is the Parliamentary vote’, ignoring the more immediate solutions being put forward by the workers themselves. Sylvia, however, went to the East End and talked to (rather than at) ‘fully three hundred women’, asking them about their lives.

When Sylvia returned again from America in April 1912 she found a very different situation. The WSPU had refrained from militancy during the passage of the Conciliation Bill, which would have given a very limited group of women the vote. Early in 1912 the government suddenly introduced its own Reform Bill – to enfranchise more men – and women would only be included if a separate amendment was introduced and passed. Emmeline declared that ‘the argument of the broken pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics’. On 1st and 4th March suffragettes strolled down the fashionable West End streets before pulling hammers from their handbags and smashing the famous department stores’ windows. Emmeline Pankhurst, together with Emmeline and Frederick Pethwick-Lawrence were arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit damage to property. They were eventually given 9 month sentences. Christabel escaped in disguise to France. Although Sylvia also travelled incognito to France in order to consult her sister, she then ignored her instructions ‘to behave as though you were not in the country’ and instead proceeded to put forward her ideas within the London branch, helping to organise the biggest suffragette demonstrations since 1908: there were 12,000 at Wimbledon, 15,000 in Regents Park and 30,000 in Blackheath. Street corner meetings were organised to coincide with the workers’ dinner hours and the end of the working day. The suffragettes, who had largely ignored the Bermondsey strikers the year before, were sent there to agitate and found the women receptive to linking the struggles. Sylvia increasingly defined the women’s struggle in class terms. The campaign culminated in a huge Hyde Park demonstration on 14th July – Mrs Pankhurst’s birthday. Red banners (the colour of the first WSPU London banner in 1905) re-appeared and were flown together with together with the green, white and purple banners designed by Sylvia for the WSPU. Sylvia also added red caps of liberty to sit on top of the tricolour banners, in memory of the Peterloo battle of 1815 when the workers had been gunned down for demanding political rights.

In the autumn of 1912 Sylvia persuaded the West London militants to campaign in the East End, choosing the area, as she had done in 1905, because it was ‘the greatest homogeneous working-class area accessible to the House of Commons by popular demonstrations’. More importantly, she wanted these women to be fighters on their own account, not mere objects of others’ campaigns, demanding ‘for themselves and their families a full share of civilisation and progress’. Then Christabel announced that ‘a woman’s war upon the Parliamentary Labour Party is inevitable’ unless Labour Party members voted against every measure put forward by the Liberals. She encouraged a Labour MP, George Lansbury, to resign his seat in East London and stand again on the sole question of women’s suffrage, this being done without any consultation with the grass roots organisations, including the local active suffragettes and the management of the election campaign being handed to another, not Sylvia, even though she was working in the area.

‘By 1913 the suffragettes were in the contradictory position of undertaking the greatest acts of sacrifice at the time they were making their least appeal to public support’ (Sylvia Pankhurst by Katherine Connelly 2013). The suffragettes justified their arson attacks on the post boxes by stating in an open letter to the British public on the front page of their paper Votes For Women : ” There are two ways of stirring you to action. One is to stir your emotions by means of some appalling tragedy…. The other is to make you uncomfortable …”. Along with the attacks on post boxes went arson attacks on empty buildings. Because these carried long prison sentences, they had to be carried out in secret, giving rise to the view that they were trying to get away with it. There was also the tragedy of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby in June 1913 – still disputed as to whether she just wanted to unfurl her ‘Votes for Women’ banner in order to catch the eye of the king and the press or whether she really was prepared to risk death (she had the return half of her railway ticket in her pocket). Sylvia opposed these secret acts of militancy. She argued that ‘open militancy’, where suffragettes gave themselves up for arrest, would complement the building of a mass movement. She called a demonstration in East London on 17th February 1913 when she smashed an undertaker’s window, gave herself up to the police and was imprisoned. She was imprisoned more than any other suffragette and also went further than any other by going on a thirst as well as a hunger strike.

Two lines in the movement for women’s suffrage

From this brief sketch of the history of the struggle for the woman’s right to vote at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries one can see that the period was characterised by the struggle between two lines relative to this issue as well as in the working-class movement as a whole. The history of Marxism and the working-class movement all over the world teaches us that is was ever thus and is still thus today. The essence of that struggle is the struggle between the revolutionary and opportunist wings of the movement: between the proletarian and bourgeois lines. When the women’s movement again came to prominence from 1969 until the mid seventies, it, too, was characterised by this same struggle between two lines. The greatest division was between those who saw the struggle for women’s emancipation as an integral part of the working-class struggle against capitalism (broadly described hereafter as the socialist wing of the movement) and those who saw the struggle as being against the dominance of men or Patriarchy and the patriarchal family (the bourgeois feminists). The socialist wing was divided between the revolutionary Marxists, who reasoned that only when the system of imperialism was overthrown and the proletarian state was established would it be possible for women to achieve full emancipation and equality with men, and the opportunists who saw reforms through a Labour government as the way forward (ignoring the warnings that reforms can be lost as well as won so long as imperialism continues, as we are now seeing). The bourgeois feminists, on the other hand, saw men as the enemy, rejecting any class basis for women’s oppression. The basis for the Marxist-Leninist view of the struggle for women’s emancipation as well as analyses of the various trends seen and organisations involved in the movement of the 1970s are set out in the articles written by our comrades involved in the women’s movement of the time and collected into the publication Marxism and the Emancipation of Women edited by Cde Ella Rule and published in 2000. In the present context you are recommended to read in particular the article on bourgeois feminism: Against reactionary feminism by our late comrade Iris Cremer (ibid. pp 131-162). The names of individuals and organisations may change, but the policies put forward remain in essence the same. After the efforts to create a united women’s movement failed, at the end of the seventies the various organisations went their separate ways. The bourgeois feminists, with the aid of the bourgeois media, monopolised and made their own, the terms Feminist and Feminism. In the popular estimation, therefore, feminists as a whole were and are seen as hostile to men and opposed to the working class struggle. The campaigns of the bourgeois feminists have largely ignored and been irrelevant to the lives and struggles of working-class women, notwithstanding the fact that the women’s movement of the 70s only arose at that time as a result if the Ford women machinists’ strike for equal pay in 1969 (see the review of Made in Dagenham, in Proletarian of February 2011). One of the organisations of bourgeois feminists which continued after the ’70s was Women in Media. The film Suffragette can be seen as an achievement of bourgeois feminism in general and of that organisation in particular; even if that organisation is no longer active, the film represents the apotheosis of its aspirations.

How the film distorts reality

Why do we characterise the film as putting forward the ideas and values of bourgeois feminism, which are inimical to the revolutionary struggle of the working class, men and women, for emancipation? A look at the ways in which the film falsifies history will provide the answer.

Facts: The WSPU leadership in 1912 did not regard working class women as potential members, preferring the educated and non-working women of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie as their activists; nor did they regard their struggle as linked in any way to the labour movement or the struggle to improve workers’ conditions; only Sylvia Pankhurst ever made that link after 1907 and only she actively campaigned in the East End on behalf of the WSPU in order to create a mass movement and in opposition to individual and secret acts of destruction.

Film: This shows what Helena Bonham Carter has described as “a terrorist cell” in the East End, totally isolated from the working women of the area, actively pursuing Emmeline and Christabel’s policy of this period of individual, secret acts of destruction. The fictional heroine of the film, Maud Watts, played by Carey Mulligan, is a young working-class woman in her twenties, married with a child, ill-educated and working in an East End laundry since she was a child herself. She is seen as being drawn into the movement by a series of accidental events, then losing home, job and child as a result of her involvement.

Facts: Sylvia Pankhurst was imprisoned more than any other member of the WSPU, suffered hunger strikes and force feeding and also was the only member to go on thirst as well as hunger strike.

Film: The only reference to Sylvia in the entire film is when one of the fictional members of the fictional East End ‘terrorist cell’ states that: ” The movement is divided. Even Sylvia Pankhurst is opposed to her mother and sister’s militant strategies“. This is a half-truth which amounts to a lie in the context of the false scenario created by the film-makers. The remark feels as though it is put in for the benefit of the viewers, rather than as a natural part of the conversation.

Facts: Sylvia was particularly active organising IN THE EAST END during the summer of 1912 (the central period covered by the film) when her mother was in prison and her sister was in France after and as a result of the arson attacks. Large demonstrations took place in all parts of London during that period.

Film: Not only is there no mention of Sylvia’s work among the women of the East End of London, there is no mention of these demonstrations, which were major events in 1912 and which would have received much attention in the press. Emmeline is seen just once, addressing a small crowd of supporters and encouraging them to further acts of individual militancy (the opportunity to bring in Meryl Streep, who otherwise is noticeable by her absence, notwithstanding her star billing for the film). Emmeline is seen eluding arrest by the police, but no mention is made of her arrest, trial and imprisonment for 9 months during this period, which also would have been a very significant event.

The result of all these falsifications of history is to skew this account of the struggle away from any reference to the even sporadic involvement of working-class women EN MASSE in the movement or to any link between the suffragettes’ struggle and that of the working-class as a whole. The focus is entirely on the individual women and, in the case of the working-class women characters, showing them as completely isolated from their families and fellow workers. The message is also repeated in many ways: men are the enemy. The director has confirmed that a colour palette was chosen deliberately which used ‘softer’ purple and green for the scenes where the women were in control, whilst shades of grey were used for scenes showing areas where men’s influence predominated (thus conveying this message subliminally). No opportunity was lost to insert the message into the dialogue and the story. The supposedly illiterate heroine says to the high-ranking police officer, whose brief it is to spy upon the organisation and who wants to recruit her as his informer: “War is the only language MEN listen to” (our emphasis); “We want to be law-makers not law-breakers“; ” If they want us to respect the law, they need to make the law respectable“; and “We are half the human race: you can’t stop us“. The government minister’s wife, arrested at the same time as the ‘cell’ members, is shown as having her bail paid by her husband, who then refuses her request to bail her fellow campaigners, the clear implication being that only he had access to money (wrong in both respects, as wealthy WSPU members consistently chose to go to prison rather than pay fines). There is a sub-story line of sexual harassment of his youngest female worker by the foreman at the laundry where the heroine works and we learn that she also suffered the same abuse at his hands in the past. There is more in the same vein which it becomes tedious to relate.

The conclusion is that this film is “an effective piece of agitprop” (Sheila O’Malley, ibid.) which uses all the tricks of the trade to put across the politics of bourgeois feminism. By all means see it but do not be beguiled by its art into accepting its message.