High on my list of films to see is Suffragette, a movie that has been lauded and criticised for its depiction of women’s struggle to obtain the vote in the late eighteenth and early twentieth century. It is set in a period just before the First World War and focuses on the militant activities of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) in Britain.
Britain at this time was a class ridden society, and although some members of the WSPU were working class women, the majority came from the middle and upper classes, particularly those who followed Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel.
Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst who, unlike her mother and sisters, had a strong attachment to the Labour party, and was particularly close to Keir Hardie was the one who brought the suffragette struggle to the working classes. She disagreed with Christabel’s tactic of turning the WSPU towards upper and middle-class women, and due to her disagreements about the way the WSPU was conducting the struggle for votes, she broke away from them and set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). This organisation was more democratic with a greater focus on working women and even included men.
It must be remembered that the WSPU were not the only organisation fighting for women’s suffrage. The Women’s Freedom League (WFL), was also a militant organisation, but their militancy was non-violent. The WFL was formulated in 1907 by WSPU members who had become disenchanted with the WSPU due to the autocratic leadership of the Pankhursts, and the violent path on which they were embarking.
The film has attracted criticism and has been accused of having racist overtones, but it has to be remembered that in order to have a degree of accuracy, the historical attitudes of the time have to be replicated to provide a degree of authenticity. And Britain was a racial and class-ridden society at this time in history. Much of the criticism revolves round the wearing of tee-shirts with the slogan “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” which is actually a direct quote from a speech Emmeline Pankhurst gave in 1913. And Emmeline’s politics did veer to the hard right by this time, although earlier in her life she’d had socialist leanings. It is possible this slogan will not have the same adverse effect in Britain as it does in America, where slavery is a large part of their history. We could argue all day as to whether the producers of the film should have been more sensitive to this aspect, or whether they were right to portray historical accuracy, and at the end I doubt if there would be agreement. On the other hand, perhaps I am being cynical in thinking this is a publicity stunt which had the desired effect of stirring up controversy.
I have no view on whether the producers were right or wrong, all I know is I want to see the film.
NB: My historical crime novel set in 1919 features Dundee’s first policewoman who was a suffragette prior to the start of the First World War.