Suffragettes and Hollywood

There is only a single place in the world where women do not have the right to vote.

That place is Vatican City, and women will never be equal there until they can become cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, and thus be able to vote in elections.

However, I am not writing to discuss Vatican City and their outdated traditions – I want to talk about the British Suffragette movement, arguably the most famous of the women’s rights movements in history.

I’m not saying at all that the other movements weren’t important, weren’t public, weren’t big and paid attention to – I’m saying that this is the movement I know about, this is the movement that affects me, and that this is the movement Hollywood enjoys making films about; and there’s a reason for that, which is due to the term “suffragette”.

A Suffragette was a member of a women’s organisation in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, advocating the right for women to vote in public elections. It particularly refers to the militants in the United Kingdom, such as members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – which I will talk about often in this article.

Hollywood enjoys the British Suffragette, because the British Suffragette was aggressive.

The WSPU was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903, aged forty-five. In 1999, she was named by Time as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. She was widely criticised for her militant tactics, including arson, riots where women threw stones at windows, and going on hunger strikes (as influenced by Russian protests) during her time being incarcerated, until she was force-fed. Pankhurst was imprisoned thirteen times between 1908 and 1914, and declared in 1913, regarding her militant action, “Militancy has brought woman suffrage where we want it, that is, to the forefront of practical politics. That’s the justification for it.”

The WSPU was then at the centre of the suffrage movement, with its motto “deeds, not words”.

However, I don’t want this to be a history lesson. I don’t want to just relay the facts to you, about women’s suffrage, about the force-feeding by police, about the strikes and the names of every woman that was ever arrested in Britain (which was around one-thousand of them, anyway).

I want you to understand.

I want you to feel for these women.

I want you to be excited – because these women created a revolution. These women took on the system and it may have taken over fifty years, but they got there. They got their rights, they took them and they cherished them, because for some inane reason, they’d never been handed them before.

There’s a woman that we know about due to this movement; a name that we all must have heard at one time or another. Emmeline Pankhurst may have founded the WSPU – but she isn’t the one that received the worldwide public attention in the end.

No, that was earned by Emily Wilding Davidson.

This woman is one of my heroes, and whilst there’s a lot I could talk about when it comes to her, I don’t want to cover her life from beginning to end. I want to talk about her activism, about her faith and determination when it came to her getting what she deserved – even if she didn’t live to see it.

Emily Wilding Davidson was known for her extreme tactics whilst being involved with women’s activism. During her nine times of being incarcerated, she protested with hunger strikes, and was force-fed forty-nine times by British penal authorities. She gained a reputation fairly quickly as a militant and violent campaigner, and without the approval of the WSPU, created a myriad of protests that involved disrupting meetings, stone throwing and arson.

On the 2nd of April, 1911, there was a census being taken. Davidson hid in a cupboard in the chapel of the Palace of Westminster, and stayed there throughout the census being taken, so she could legitimately list her place of residence as the “House of Commons” on the form. Census documents from that year state that she was found “hiding in the crypt” in the Houses of Parliament. (In 1999, a plaque was placed in the very same cupboard she hid in to commemorate the event.)

In June of 1912, near the end of a six-month prison sentence for arson, Davidson and dozens of other Suffragettes were being subjected to force-feeding, as they were all on a hunger strike. Emily Wilding Davidson – and I want you to remember this, so you can prove anyone wrong who says the phrase “Emily Wilding Davidson wasn’t hardcore” – threw herself down a ten-metre iron staircase.

She did that.

She literally did that.

Whilst this was a possibly indication of suicidal tendencies, Davidson described the event in a written account as an attempt to divert harm from her fellow Suffragettes. As a result of the act, she received severe head and spinal damage, which caused her discomfort for the remaining twelve months of her life.

Because, then she died.

Everyone dies eventually, I know – but this woman lived as if she would never; she fought like nothing could hurt her, and she protested because she was alive, and she deserved the rights of every other person who was breathing with her.

Emily Wilding Davidson died whilst protesting – and it’s her most famous moment of protest at that.

On the 4th of June, 1913, Davidson attended the Epsom Derby, where King George V was attending the horse race. Her supposed plan was to step out where the King would see, pin a “Votes for Women” sash to the bridle of the King’s horse, Anmer, and it would then be seen on the King’s horse as it crossed the finish line. This image would be cemented in the mind of the public and almost force the hand of the government to bring in women’s voting rights.

However, as she stepped in front of the horse, she and Anmer collided and the injuries Davidson suffered proved fatal, as she died four days later. (The jockey, Herbert Jones, was fine and racing again no less than two weeks later.) The sash that was allegedly found at the scene immediately after the collision was purchased by author Barbara Gorna and now hangs in the Houses of Parliament.

However, whilst some may argue that Davidson was actually attempting to commit suicide, or there was some other plan in action that day, her death was a climactic moment for the Suffragettes. The movement was then receiving worldwide attention and approximately six thousand women turned out for her funeral, which was filmed and broadcasted across the globe.

As I said earlier, Hollywood takes an interest in the British Suffragette movement. As we progress into a slowly more intersectional society, where people are beginning to care about women and their rights, let alone other races and genders, Hollywood is profiting off of this.

It’s capitalism 101: demand controls the supply.

And we, as a society, are beginning to demand a larger supply of female-centred media. We see it in the 2016 remake of Ghostbusters, we see it in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, where the lead women are no longer focusing on finding a husband, but instead being kickass, and we see it in Suffragette.

The latter of these titles is the 2015 film that inspired me to write this article.

Starring Carey Mulligan, Suffragette details only a few years of the events of the movement, from 1912 – 1913, all from the eyes of a working-class woman who’s pulled into the WSPU almost by accident. Maud Watts, the main character, was never a real woman, unlike some of the other characters featured heavily in the film (such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davidson) – but she was based off a woman named Hannah Mitchell, who was quoted in her book The Hard Way Up saying, “Most of us who were married found that “Votes for Women” were of less interest to our husbands than their own dinners. They simply could not understand why we made such a fuss about it.”

I could talk a lot about this film. I genuinely could. The acting, the writing, the story – it’s beautifully done. (I would, however, complain about the fact that I saw not a single person who wasn’t white in the entirety of the movie, as if other races weren’t invented until long after World War One.) Suffragette made me cry, and it taught me a lot about the movement; about the passion that these women had – unflinching in their violent actions because as long as they were being heard, they had justification.

I’m not saying we should do that. I’m not at all saying that if we want to be heard in this day and age, we should be committing arson. I’m just saying that what they did was inspiring – it showed a whole other level of dedication to the rights of women, to showing that we’re worth exactly the same as men – whether they’re CEOs, law enforcement or delivery boys.

This is the content that we’re getting to see now, and I love it. This is the content that teaches us of our own movements; of the past that we weren’t around for, but affected how we live today.

Another film that was inspiring for me was called Made in Dagenham – which is a dramatisation of the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant in England, where female workers walked out in protest against sexual discrimination. If you want to see our feminist history, that is absolutely another place to look.

You know where else? How about the upcoming Pitch television series, based around the true story of Ginny Baker, the young pitcher who became the first woman to play in Major League Baseball.

And where else? The movie Hidden Figures, about the black female scientists working at NASA during the time of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.

Demand controls supply, and we are demanding our supply of intersectional feminist media.

British women over thirty were given the right to vote in 1918. In 1925, British mothers were given rights over their children. Finally, in 1928, women and men were granted equal voting rights in the United Kingdom.

1893: New Zealand

1902: Australia

1913: Norway

1917: Russia

1918: Austria, Germany, Poland

1920: all of the USA

1932: Brazil

1934: Turkey

1944: France

1945: Italy

1949: China, India

1953: Mexico

1971: Switzerland

1974: Jordan

1976: Nigeria

2003: Qatar

2015: Saudi Arabia


You can find out more about Bethany on her author page.

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