It’s not often that representations of early 20th century English suffragettes, women agitating for the right to vote, make their way into pop culture. The most memorable may be Mrs. Winifred Banks, cheerfully oblivious mother of the five Banks children in Disney’s 1964 movie musical Mary Poppins. Tellingly, when Mrs. Banks joyfully sings “cast off the shackles of yesterday,” she does so to the group of servants who do the actual labor of housework and childcare in her upper class home.
The suffrage movement depicted in the movie Suffragette, opening in the Bay Area this Friday, is a far cry from Mrs. Banks’ fine hats and bloomer-wearing privilege. Set in London’s East End in 1912, the film, written by Abi Morgan (responsible for the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady) and directed by Sarah Gavron (who brought us Brick Lane, the story of an arranged marriage in post-9/11 London), focuses on the radicalization of working class mother Maud Watts, played by the eminently sympathetic Carey Mulligan.
Caught up in the “deeds, not words” of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), Watts’ sense of justice is awakened when given the opportunity to speak before a room of dark-suited Members of Parliament. When this honest testimony yields no political change, Watts tries out her pent-up voice of contempt, yelling, “Shame on you!”
Suffragette grittily documents the myriad inequalities Watts witnesses and endures on a daily basis: sexual harassment at work in an already-dangerous industrial laundry, abusive husbands, police brutality, her total lack of parental rights over her young son. In contrast to these bleak realities, we watch Watts slowly enter the sisterhood of suffragettes, who provide support and empathy even as their methods grow increasingly destructive -- both towards themselves and the symbols of a government that denies them the right to vote.
The question of whether the WSPU’s tactics in response to the suffragettes' treatment were warranted -- one scene of force-feeding in prison is particularly brutal -- is glossed over for the excitement of righteous rebellion. Under the leadership of Helena Bonham Carter's Edith Ellyn, Watts and her companions break shop windows, detonate mailboxes and even blast an MP’s unoccupied home to smithereens.
One-liners of pointed dialogue fly like bits of masonry throughout the film, most often directed by Watts at her foil, the grudgingly-admiring Inspector Steed (played by Brendan Gleeson.) “You want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable,” she says. Zing! “We're half the human race. You can't stop us all.” Zing! Zing!
Earnest and at times strident, Suffragette does best when focused on its working class everywoman. Mulligan makes Watts real, even though she’s an invention of narrative fiction, and of the class of women who didn't warrant mention in the annals of history to boot.
Yet the self-seriousness with which Suffragette represents its historical lessons doesn't detract from its relevance today -- not just for the women who will see too much of their own daily lives echoed in Watts’ struggles over 100 years ago.
Before the credits roll on Suffragette, a timeline appears, showing the years women were fully given the right to vote in countries around the world. (A few for taste: Italy in 1945, Egypt in 1956, Switzerland in 1990 and in Saudi Arabia, women will be allowed to vote and run in elections this year.)
The film throws into sharp relief the act of voting -- an amazing democratic principle that we too often take for granted. If the shock of seeing equal political voice denied to anyone, anywhere, doesn’t galvanize San Franciscans to visit the ballot boxes on Nov. 3, I don’t know what will.