I watched the film The Suffragette for the third time last night. It’s a film that grows on you – and each time I’ve watched it, I’ve seen and learned something new. And it’s made me think – a lot!
So what was the vote for women campaign all about really? It’s probably a mistake to think it was only about giving women the right to vote, (important though that was).
In 1912 (when the film is set) only 60% of male homeowners aged over 21 had the right to vote. The means that ordinary men who did not own their own home (or own property) were also dis-enfranchised. In other words of a population of 41 million people only 7.7 million were entitled to vote in the election of 1912 (just prior to the first world war).
The film The Suffragette however gives some fascinating – and troubling – insights into the plight of women in particular. Merely a hundred years ago the husband (or father, uncle) – in both working and upper class families – was the absolute head of the household. Women had almost no rights. Clearly they had no right to vote – but additionally they had no right to a home; no rights to their own money, (this is demonstrated in the film both by the MP’s wife not being able to sign the cheque to bail out the other women from prison, and also by Maud handing over her wages in their entirety to her husband!); and they even had no right to say ‘no’ to intercourse with their husband and physical abuse – ‘wife beating’ and worse – was common in all echelons of society. Women even had no rights over husband in terms of access to their children, or making decisions on their behalf. It’s hard for us to understand just how dis-empowered all women were in 1912 – whatever their class – but as the film shows the plight of working class women was in many ways even worse.
The conditions for working men and women in the London of 1912 come into stark focus in the film. Conditions at work were abysmal for both men and women – but women worked 1/3 longer hours and in far worse conditions in the laundry in Bethnal Green for example, and were paid 1/2 of the men’s wage. This was in no way unusual. The sexual harassment of the women and girls by the laundry owner was also sadly typical of the times (and not unknown 100 years later!)
So then what was the Suffragettes’ aim.
Let’s hear from Maud Watts – the heroine of the film:
Dear Inspector Steed.
I thought about your offer, and I have to say no. You see, I am a suffragette after all. You told me no one listens to girls like me. Well I can’t have that anymore. All my life, I’ve been respectful, done what men told me. I know better now. I’m worth no more, no less than you. Mrs. Pankhurst said, “If it’s right for men to fight for their freedom, then it’s right for women to fight for theirs.” If the law says I can’t see my son, I will fight to change that law. We’re both foot soldiers, in our own way. Both fighting for our cause. I won’t betray mine. Will you betray yours? If you thought I would, you were wrong about me.
Yours sincerely, Maud Watts.
In other words women did not merely want the right to vote, they wanted to have a voice – they wanted to change the laws that were unfair and unjust and which were based on discrimination.
“We want to be law makers – not law breakers” – became their cry. ‘The Union’ as it’s called in the film is the WSPU – The Women’s Social and Political Union was a splinter group from the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and came about because of the lack of success in persuading politicians of the day to give women the vote.So why then did they begin to break the law – smash windows, commit arson, attack property, and go on hunger strike in prison?
Here’s Maud Watt’s explanation (emphasis mine) in the film
Maud Watts: We break windows, we burn things. Cause war’s the only thing men listen to! Cause you’ve beaten us and betrayed us and there’s nothing left!
Inspector Arthur Steed And there’s nothing left but to stop you.
Maud Watts What are you gonna do? Lock us all up? We’re in every home, we’re half the human race, you can’t stop us all.
Her cry was the cry of millions of women – who had been beaten and betrayed by their system, and yet still refused to give up. The leader of the Suffragettes, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, made a speech in the US in 1913. This is an exerpt
“We entirely prevented stockbrokers in London from telegraphing to stockbrokers in Glasgow and vice versa: for one whole day telegraphic communication was entirely stopped. I am not going to tell you how it was done. I am not going to tell you how the women got to the mains and cut the wires; but it was done. It was done, and it was proved to the authorities that weak women, suffrage women, as we are supposed to be, had enough ingenuity to create a situation of that kind. Now, I ask you, if women can do that, is there any limit to what we can do except the limit we put upon ourselves? (You can read the full speech here)
You can read about the real women who inspired the film here.
These women inspire me – and their fight goes on, not necessarily in terms of votes for women, but for rights for womenin all walks of life.