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Film Review


It seem unimaginable that few women in any country were allowed to vote prior to the 20th Century. In England, most women did not get the right to vote until 1928 while in America it took the 19th Amendment, ratified by 36 states in 1920. Some states, especially in the west (then with progressive state governments) let women vote in state and local elections in the 1880's. But the fight for national suffrage required long bitter fought battles in both countries, beginning in 1840 in Seneca Falls, New York, at the first women's rights convention. Leaders like Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In England the battle for suffrage also began in the mid 19th Century and gathered momentum toward the end of the century. Af first peaceful means were used, such as marches, speeches and meetings with politicians, but by about 1900 it was becoming clear to the women's leadership that promises of the vote were not going to be honored and that those who had the power (men) were not likely to give it up easily. More forceful actions were needed, and it began with breaking windows and painting slogans on buildings. By 1910 this had escalated to bombing mail boxes and arson, always being careful to avoid hurting people. The police reacted badly, often beating women and jailing them under humiliating circumstances. If anything, the police violence outraged women who had not been involved. Some of the jailed women went on hunger strikes, and the panicky government, afraid some would die, began to force feed them. This was a brutal procedure which alienated much of the public and actually helped recruiting. And in 1913, at the Epsom Derby, Emily Davison deliberately walked onto the race track in an attempt to attach a banner to one of the King's horses. She was trampled and killed in front of thousands, but her sacrifice was immensely effective in rallying the uncommitted to the suffrage cause. A huge funeral procession in London with thousands suffragettes attracted tens of thousand of spectators. These suffragettes were brave, in every sense, defying physical danger and strong societal pressures. They were often victims of terrible police violence and many were jailed. I think it is very difficult for us today to fully appreciate their courage and sacrifices. Some suffragettes were wealthy or upper middle class, but most were working class women. Few had husband that were supportive of their struggles.

In 1914 the First World War began, and the various English suffragette groups realized that they must temporarily stop active campaigns and support the war effort. They did, and as more and more men were drafted into the Army, women began to fill many of their positions. Exactly the same thing happened in America. Many skeptical of women's suffrage could see that women could indeed handle jobs that had been off limits to them. Historians feel that this was one of the most important factors in both countries in securing the vote. England passed a partial suffrage bill in 1918, with the right to vote for all women granted in 1928, 8 years after American women were allowed to vote in national elections. Some historians feel that the violent acts actually hurt their cause, but it seemed necessary and most importantly, gave them publicity. The right to vote was critical, and opened other doors which helped fight unequal workplace pay, sexual harassment, inheritance rights, and other discriminatory practices. It opened those doors slowly, with many of these problems still with us, but it helped women greatly.

The history of women's struggle for the right to vote is riveting and important, yet strangely has rarely been the topic of narrative film makers. Surely women directors have wanted to do this story, but perhaps the subject did not seem bankable, especially to male producers. But now a British director, Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane), has just make a powerful film from a screenplay by Abi Morgan that shows this struggle through the eyes of a working class woman in London in 1912. Maude Watts, well played by Carey Mulligan, works in a large commercial laundry where her income is vital for the support of her husband and young son. She is completely non political, rushing home after work each day to make dinner and care for her son. The film opens with a dramatic scene of women working in the laundry, partially obscured by clouds of steam. The women work long hard days for very little pay. Their supervisor is a lecherous pig who can't keep his hands off his workers, who risk being fired if they object. One day Maude has to deliver some finished laundry to the West End, the upscale part of London. She is walking along, when all of a sudden, several well dressed women take rocks concealed in a baby stroller and throw them though some shop windows. Maude is shocked and runs away from the ensuing chaos. The next day she has a brief conversation with a co-worker, who suggests she attend a women's suffrage meeting. Maude is curious and goes to the meeting, and her life and her family's life change forever. She will pay dearly.

Suffragette, which shows only a small part of the suffrage struggle, is riveting and fast paced. Acting is uniformly outstanding, and likely that Mulligan will be a Oscar contender. Cinematography is accomplished with many of the scenes beautiful, sometimes in a terrible way. A view of women marching through the fog, silhouetted with their hats, is stunning. Helena Bonham Carter plays a pharmacist who is a militant's militant, making bombs in her shop, with the whole hearted support of her husband. Meryl Streep has a cameo as the great English suffrage activist, Emmeline Pankhurst, rallying her troops from a balcony as the police move in to arrest her. Pankhurst tells her audience, in a now well known phrase: "Better to be a rebel than a slave." The violence of the police toward these women is sickening, and if anything, sanitized for the camera, judging from contemporary accounts. A detective who has specialized in fighting these groups had developed a camera that can be used to take surreptitious pictures of the women for identification. He becomes a Javert. The film ends with a coda of early footage of an event in the film that is very powerful. I loved Suffragette, and was deeply moved by their struggle. Perhaps we will have a woman president soon (but only if women vote). Just opened at the Kabuki and the Century 9 (San Francisco) but is not yet screening elsewhere in the Bay Area. Screening time: 106 minutes.

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