First, it’s the small details that creep up on you when watching “Suffragette”. You realize that you hardly ever see 1900s working class women with their wet, un-styled hair down in films (we’re so used to the trussed up women of Downton Abbey.) That a mother played the same games with her child as you do with yours today. That cups of tea were lined up for Suffragette meetings, fine bone china and all.
And then the gut-puncher realizations start. That your husband would have had sole ownership of your children in England until 1925. So, if he felt like it, your husband could decide to give them away for adoption without your consent. You could literally come home one day and your children would be gone - you would have no recourse. (A similar storyline featured in Netflix’s Peaky Blinders which, without context, could be dismissed as creative license — nope, that shit actually happened.)
That many Suffragettes didn’t start out as highly trained “militants”. Many began by tentatively going to a meeting, then another, then grew more committed as the movement picked up steam, and as they were increasingly bullied and betrayed by the men who controlled their destinies.
That some of the women prison workers holding down the Suffragettes for force feeding (Emily Davison — the woman who died under the King’s horse — was force fed more than 39 times) were probably just as terrified and repulsed as those with milk being shoved up their noses.
That Suffragettes were taught jiu-jitsu as a way to protect themselves against the street beatings from police. (And we think the word bad-ass is new).
And then, by the end of the film, you remember that these women were REAL. The period’s style of photography can make its subjects seem rigid, alien-like, all bulgy eyes and floppy up-dos. But clever editing reminds you that these women were just like us. Old. Young. Beautiful. Rugged. Scruffy. Prim. Raucous. Proud. Scared. All of it.
I come from a family of coal miners, so I would have been “these women” at this time. What would I have done in the same situation? If I had known I would lose my daughter forever, would I have got involved? Would I have willingly done a walk of shame down my street with my head held high? Would I have said no to the threatening policeman who wanted me to betray my friends? At what point would I have decided to resist the rules and authority I had been brought up to abide by?
“Suffragette” was criticized for “whitewashing” — not acknowledging that many non-white women were heavily involved and influential in the movement. Historians have debated this — some agreeing, some giving a little more slack to the historical context and limits of the story.
Despite that, as the film finishes, what remains is gratitude. What many of us have now is a DIRECT result of the actions of the Suffragettes.
I feel relief when I realize that I have my own money, legal protection for myself and my daughter, a vote, a career. That I can sue for discrimination, stand for political office, make my own decisions. I feel guilt that I take it all for granted.
I want to reach back into history to thank these women — for facing the shame, for sacrificing their lives, for being courageous enough even just to raise their voice and then, for rising above the barrage of abuse that came with that.
And then comes a feeling of work unfinished. That, for every dollar earned by a white man in America, a white woman earns 77 cents, a black woman earns 69 cents, and a Latina woman earns 57 cents. That the US has one of the most unfair damaging maternity leave policies in the world. That many women are still discriminated against at work and home, every minute, every day.
So, whether you call yourself a feminist or not, after this film you can’t help but ask yourself: what will I do to help those who follow in my footsteps have a better life?
And for that reminder alone, the film is invaluable.