‘Suffragette’ portrays limited view of women’s rights

November 11, 2015 by Wendy Suiyi Tang

The activists in Suffragette may transcend class, but the film remains within an exclusive Western narrative of women’s movements. Photo courtesy of ConsequenceofSound.net.

The activists in Suffragette may transcend class, but the film remains within an exclusive Western narrative of women’s movements. Photo courtesy of ConsequenceofSound.net.

Director Sarah Gavron’s newest film, Suffragette, intimately ties together the personal and the political. The film is a historic drama about one group of women’s involvement in the infamous Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a British militant suffrage organization headed by Emmeline Pankhurst. Following the fictionalized account of a coterie of working women and their process of political radicalization, Suffragette embraces the blurred lines between the macrocosmic and microcosmic. Resisting devolution into sentimentalism or cliché, the film tackles the issue of women’s suffrage with admirable chutzpah and draws a firm connection between political rights and broader social and economic ones.

Centering on the political transformation of fictionalized laundry worker Maude Watts, forcefully portrayed by Carey Mulligan, the film paints a rich portrait of the internal machinations and emotional world of the noble working woman. The conditions of political, sexual and economic exploitation in which Watts and her peers suffer are poignantly compounded; their struggle for the vote, weighted with emotional attachment, is as much a struggle for an autonomous self as for political equality. It is a fight that unites the women and drives them to escalating acts of strategic violence, which ignite change where words fail.

To that end, Watts and her fellow suffragettes – steely leader Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) trailed by a dedicated trio of Emily Davidson (Natalie Press), Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) and Alice Haughton (Romola Garai) – wage an honorable campaign for liberty, equality and sorority. Their dogged pursuit of this basic political right, highlighted by a trembling anger gradually set ablaze, is one that unites British women of all stripes, if not colors. The boundaries of class are blurred, these working women show, as they join forces with their bourgeois compatriots in an adeptly maneuvered revisionist history of class and gender struggle.

Although the women successfully transgress the rigid barriers of class set by a society in which they have no voice, their story fails to resound past its limitations as a fundamentally Western discourse of feminism. The fact that the liberation in question is predicated on women’s vote and a concept of equality and freedom that is culturally relative to Western European ideals excludes a host of non-democratic, non-European nations whose women were simultaneously waging their own cultural, political and social movements, albeit geographically and ideologically removed from their British counterparts.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if Suffragette acknowledged the limited context of its periodization and attempted to contain its historicization within the British narrative. But it fails to do so, instead drawing a confusing parallel between the WSPU’s militant activism and international movements for women’s rights. Accompanied by the soft, melancholic chords of what was meant to be a moving ballad, the film closes with a measly list of nations and the year in which women’s suffrage was introduced in them. With the exception of India, China and Pakistan, however, said list was composed solely of Western European nations. This clear failure to acknowledge the many strands of women’s movements within a broader international context is troubling, and points to the film’s tacit endorsement of a dominant Western narrative.

The framing of Suffragette as an origin story of suffrage, liberation and women’s rights reaffirms the concept of an exclusive feminism that is Western European in nature. Doing so ignores the implications of Western imperialism and the complex development and spread of ideologies surrounding women’s rights. Moreover, it conflates suffrage with liberation, imposing a unidirectional criterion of “progress” that operates under and reinforces a fundamentally European paradigm.

The greatest irony of Suffragette, however, is that the 1928 bill on women’s suffrage passed by the British House of Commons did not in fact grant full women’s suffrage. De facto and de jure discrimination kept many more British women (and other peoples) of color out of the voting booth. In truth, it wasn’t until 1981 that suffrage was extended to all Commonwealth citizens.

However adroitly the intersection of class and gender is executed and the ethos of radicalization explored, Suffragette’s ultimate documentation of women’s rights is limited and exclusionary in scope. Maybe there will come a day when dialogue and depiction of feminism will not revolve around an assumption that the movement is one intrinsically rooted within a Western discourse. Maybe then, the historic nuances of non-Western women’s movements, equally rich in social, cultural and political history as their Western sisters, will be brought to light. That day is not yet upon us, and until it is, Suffragette is worth a watch as an exercise in critical thinking.

A pre-release screening of Suffragette was hosted by the College and Images Cinema last Thursday night. The film was followed by a question-and-answer session with Professor of English Alison Case, Hans W. Gatzke ’38 Professor of Modern European History Chris Waters and Associate Professor of History and Chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Sara Dubow.

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