The story behind ‘Suffragette’

For International Women’s Day, Jaqueline Mulhallen writes on the inadequacies of the film Suffragette

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The film Suffragette comes out on DVD this week, in part to coincide with International Women’s Day. While the film has been praised for portraying the suffering, determination and sacrifice of women who were trying to get the vote, it tells only part of the story.

Set in the last couple of years of a campaign which the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had launched nine years earlier, the film focuses on the more violent and desperate phase of the campaign. It includes the hunger strikes and the force-feeding which many suffered, as well as the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby while she was attempting to attach the WSPU colours to the King’s horse, as well as documenting the women’s protests through window-breaking and arson. However, it ignores the origins of the organisation, which started amongst a number of women from the Labour movement in Manchester and the North West.

The Northern cotton mills employed by far the largest group of women workers in the country, and the trade union organisers Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth were encouraging the mill workers to demand the vote. At the large protest in Downing Street in 1905, these women from the cotton mills in their grey shawls and clogs formed a significant part of the crowd. Other early protests included women from East London waving red flags. Although the film shows a working class woman from East London, her experience is at odds with the real story of women in the East End which is much more exciting and dramatic than the story of the film.

Over time, the WSPU became increasingly by Unknown photographer, bromide print, mid 1900sundemocratic. One of the original figures of the movement Christabel Pankhurst (who does not feature in the film) wanted her ideas to prevail, and splits occurred. The first was in 1907 when a number of women left the organisation to form the Women’s Freedom League. Christabel was more attracted to wealthy women, who gave generously to the WSPU, and her politics became more and more orientated towards the Conservative Party of the time. She began to see working class women as irrelevant to the fight for the vote. The failing of this re-orientation was proven when she and her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst met Herbert Henry Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister in 1912. In typical fashion, he stood firmly against their demands for votes for women.

While the suffragettes’ initial window breaking protest was a response to violence suffered by women from the police was a success, the arson attacks which began in 1912 started to lose support among the general public. Soon, a warrant was issued for Christabel’s arrest, and she fled to Paris. She never suffered through a hunger strike and spent only a brief time in prison, and after her release was able to direct the WSPU campaign from abroad. Then came the second split with her supporters Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, which occurred due to their disagreements over the violent turn of the campaign.

It was then that Christabel’s younger sister, Sylvia, decided to give up her career as an artist SylviaP-001and become a leader of the WSPU. Sylvia Pankhurst believed that the vote could only be won by building a mass organisation of working-class women together with men. Sylvia had been a loyal member of the WSPU, selling the paper, writing for it, organising and speaking at meetings and going on hunger strike, but she had never openly criticised its policies, despite the fact she was a friend of Keir Hardie, and never gave up her commitment to socialist politics.

In 1912 Sylvia opened branch of the WSPU in Bow, London. This East London Federation of Suffragettes grew into a large organisation which included men. At the huge demonstrations and meetings held by the ELFS the police were rarely able to arrest Sylvia, who was protected by both men and women. This was the time of the Great Unrest, and many of the men in Bow worked in the docks, an area which was vulnerable to strikes.

Unlike Christabel, Sylvia had been so successful in her aim of building a strong organisation of working women, that in 1914 she was able to organise a deputation of six of these women to see the Prime Minister by threatening him with a hunger strike outside the House of Commons. The huge procession which accompanied this frail dying woman there consisted of both men and women whose presence so near Parliament must have alarmed the government who prevented the demonstration proceeding any further. However, Sylvia gave the police the slip and arrived in a taxi. The six women who saw Asquith finally convinced him of the justice of giving votes for women with their moving life stories.

Looking again at the film Suffragette, it is difficult to see how any working man or woman in 1912 could have been unaware of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, or find it necessary to go anywhere else in London to carry out activity, when there were so many meetings and demonstrations right there at home. Given the support men gave to the East London Federation it is also strange to see the men in the film so antagonistic towards the women. While Sylvia’s initial speeches had been greeted with rotten vegetables and fish heads, this phase did not last long and Sylvia herself was very popular. The husband in the film Suffragette separates from his wife because of her activity and gives their child up for adoption. This doesn’t accord with anything I have read about working-class communities at that time, nor does it ring true with my experience of living in East London for the last 20 years of the 20th century.

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Jacqueline Mulhallen wrote and performed in the plays ‘Sylvia’ and ‘Rebels and Friends’. Her ground-breaking book The Theatre of Shelley (Open Book Publishers, 2010) has been internationally acclaimed. She contributed a chapter on Shelley to The Oxford Handbook to Georgian Theatre (OUP, 2014) shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize 2015.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

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