Friday, October 23, 2015

Carey Mulligan's Suffragette Movie : An "Insider's" Review

 WSPU's Barbara Wylie came to Canada in 1912 to stir up trouble. Her beauty and fashion sense was all the Press could talk about. She soon gave up on Canadians and went back to England to help Mrs. Pankhurst. Yes, suffragettes were often very pretty, so the movie Suffragette got it right on that count!

"Go for the story, not the history." 

That was the advice a top author of historical fiction for young adults gave me a few year ago, and it's good advice.

That's what 'Hollywood" tends to do, anyway, which annoys some purists, but not me. 

As long as a film captures the 'essence' of the truth about an event or historial personage, that's all that matters, I think.

History textbooks are there for the rest, and these texts are full of errors and mistruths and biases, anyway. 

Yesterday, I went to a preview showing of the movie Suffragette, not a Hollywood movie, per se, a British movie with top drawer Brit actors (indeed, all my favorite female actors including Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai) and an extended cameo with American Meryl Streep.

The screenplay is by Abi Morgan, who wrote the Iron Lady, a movie I really, really enjoyed (and which a lot of people hated for its take on history). Morgan also wrote The Hour, a series I really like.

Suffragette's storyline plays around with the historical record,all right,  but in a rather strange - almost inverted - way. 

The movie recasts working class women as the heroines of the British suffragette movement, while weaving them into all the well known (iconic) suffragette events.

Thus, all the cliches of class/gender oppression are thrust front and center in this movie, when the movement, even in Britain, was more about maintaining the social order by keeping people (poor people and rich men) from drinking too much, for one.

Yes, the British had a very wide and very deep suffrage movement, one that included working class women, but it was first and foremost a middle and upper class movement, and that goes for Pankhurst's militant suffragettes.

That's what scared the 'establishment' men: their own wives, sisters and, OY, even mothers,were the ones going out in their finest shirtwaist suits and big hats to smash windows...with hammers, I believe, not rocks, in the case of Oxford Street.

A resolution passed by the Montreal Suffrage Association condemning the force-feeding of British Suffragettes. The MSA was ambivalent about militancy. At their inauguration in 1913, they promised to be sweet and reasonable and a clergyman on their Board said it would be better if the suffragettes starved to death in jail.

Of course, this Pankhurst militancy is what got the most attention - and that was the purpose of it. There were plenty of Constitutional Suffragists in England at the time.

These upper and middle-class militants were the women who were angry at their men, angry for not being allowed to control their own money, or their children or their own destiny. Angry at their men's drinking and whoring ways, too, I imagine, as the double standard loomed large in their lives.

After all, Christabel Pankhurst wrote a pamphlet: Votes for Women: Chastity for Men.

And single middle class women just wanted to have more fun outside of their low-paying work and society wasn't into that. They were supposed to live piously and act respectably, even if they had no family responsibilities.

Working class women, I suspect, had more autonomy. They earned money, after all, and helped keep the wolf from the door. With their large families, they generally didn't have the time to engage in social activism, or the energy left over after a long, long LONG day at work.

But, now, what I liked about the movie Suffragette. 

The acting, for one. It is all A-plus and I'd give Anne-Marie Duff as Violet Miller an A - plus plus for her role as a feisty beleaguered older wife, one of the London laundry factory workers who are the focus of the film.

Carey Mulligan as Maude Watts gives a laudable, if low-key performance, in the lead role. Her main character,a laundress and  loving wife and mother who has been molested in the past by her boss, is both tough (she has to be) and vulnerable - and quite 'ordinary' in so many respects, which is refreshing. No Norma Rae, she.

Her slow converstion to the cause of suffrage comes to complete fruition when she is thrown out of the house by her otherwise caring husband and  brutally cut off from her young son, an act that seems to me to be more middle and upper class, but hey.

Sarah Gavron, the director, gives us lots of close-ups of Mulligan's face, showing that her beauty is much more than skin deep. None of these characters, rich or poor, can be seen to wear make-up. It's 1912/13 after all.

And although I worried Meryl Streep's 'cameo',where she plays Mrs. Pankhurst, would be hokey, it was not. It was touching, bordering on magical.
The Suffragettes were HUGE news in Canada; that was the problem for Constitutional Suffragists.

Pankhurst, famously, was a fabulous dresser. Most of the middle class suffragettes were careful to dress fashionably: after all, it is just too easy to diss - and dismiss- a woman on her appearance. 

But my husband may have nailed the problem when I asked him, in the car driving home, how he liked the movie.

"It was fine," he said. "Although I thought it was going to turn into a labour rights movie, so I was surprised. I thought the lead woman was going to jump up on a table screaming STRIKE!"

"There were plenty of strikes and stuff in the era," I explained to him, "but not associated with the suffragettes. And all led by men. 

(As far as I know.)

The summer of 1911 had record heat and that provoked many union strikes, if I remember right. (A few years ago I read Juliet Nicholson's The Perfect Summer 1911.)

Sylvia Pankhurst, famously, started a movement in the East End of London, but if I recall my Shoulder-to-Shoulder, Emmeline wasn't into it.

And Sylvia split from Emmeline because she didn't want to be militant.

(I just lately wrote a post here about a Sylvia Pankhurst rally, in August, 1913, recorded by the Canadian Suffragist, Flora Macdonald Denison for her Toronto World column. 

 That same morning,  Denison had attended a rally where Emmeline Pankhurst showed up and provoked police action. 

Denison's column reveals that the British Suffragettes behaved as wildly as portrayed in the Suffragette movie - and then some.

 And Denison stated something else interesting, the meeting in the East End, where a very weak Sylvia turned up disguised in a fancy costume like a rich woman and then peeled off her clothes to reveal a plain khaki dress, was mostly attended by MEN. 

That makes sense, doesn't it? Working class men didn't have any use for the Status Quo.)

Now, there was, indeed, a working class woman high up in Pankhurst's militant movie, Annie Kenney, Pankhurst's First Lieutenant. Kenney was a former Lancashire mill worker (and union activist). But, Kenney's autobiography reveals hers was a quirky upbringing. She read Emerson in the nursery. You can read a period biographical article of Kenney here, from the Montreal Mirror.)

(Kenney's sister, Nell moved to Montreal in 1909, with her lover, a journalist who saved her from the police at a suffragette rally. Read about it here. Her sister Caroline tried to start a militant movement in Montreal, but to no avail.)

BTW, Absolutely NO working class women were allowed into the Canadian Suffrage Movement.

My husband, a news editor, also thought the Suffragette movie was too grainy.That didn't bother me at all.  I feel the soft diffuse cinematography contrasted nicely with what was, essentially, a film about violence and strife in a very dirty time, even if we like to romaticize the Edwardian Era these days.

Most people then were poor, sick and living in filth, in London and in Montreal. (Montreal was worse, apparently.)

I missed the big hats, though.

 1912 was the year hats reached ridiculous heights, but working class women couldn't afford such finery.  Feathers for hats could cost in Canada from 1 dollar to 100 dollars, about 2 months salary for a teacher! Thus big hats were about status.

(It peeved middle class people when Italian factory workers in the US used their talent with cheap remants to dress up 'too high'.)

Sarah Gavron's slow almost sleepy directing pleased both of us.

One aspect of the Suffragette film surprised me. It was claimed that the English Powers That Be kept tried to quash news items about Pankhurst in the London Press, lest they inspire more women to militancy.

There were plenty of suffragette headlines in the Montreal Press, often squeezed between the fashion and entertainment columns.  (And the Montreal Gazette and the New York Times shared a newsfeed.)

Mrs. Pankhurst's autobiography, My Own Story, written in 1913! is available on

You can watch Shoulder to Shoulder on YouTube, with about a 1000 other videos about the suffragettes, including mine, about How Canadian Women Won the Vote. (It wasn't pretty either, but no rock-throwing.)

At the end of the Suffragette movie, there's a scroll revealing when various countries won the Vote. ( New Zealand first, Saudia Arabia, soon, apparently.)

The Montreal Saturday Mirror, a short lived tabloid from 1913 aimed at Upper Crust Women in Montreal, showcased Mrs. Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, her working class 'First Lieutentant.'

Canada is not on the list.. Maybe they couldn't figure out when we got the vote. In 1917, 18 or 20?

Answer: In 1917, when women with men at the Front got to vote. In 1918, most women except those unpatriotic types, ie, non-whites,etc.

In 1920, when every woman got the right to vote

My husband's great grandmother, suffragist Margaret Nicholson, got to vote for the first time in 1921 and she was simply THRILLED. 'How I love this country," she wrote in a letter to her daughter.

But many of her middle class neighbours didn't even bother to vote, her letter reveals.