Manchester was the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement so it was fitting that, on International Women’s Day, in the centenary of the first women to be given the vote (but only those over 30, mind, and if they owned property), the Pankhurst Trust held a special showing of the 2015 film Suffragette.
The screening took place at Whitworth Art Gallery, just 350 yards from the Pankhurst Centre, the former home of Emmeline Pankhurst. Bex Shindler, fundraising director of the Pankhurst Trust, introduced the film and put it in a historical context. The Trust raises money for Manchester Women’s Aid, and all ticket sales and bucket collections from the night are going to this vital service.
The film stars Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a composite everywoman – a fictitious laundress who was typical of the kind of working class woman who joined the suffragettes in the 1910s. She is the lens through which we see the development of the Suffragist movement from decades of peaceful protest to action. “Deeds, not words,” as Emmeline Pankhurst said. The action is set in London – Mrs Pankhurst appears in the film only briefly, in a cameo by Meryl Streep. Manchester is very much not in this film, frustratingly.
Somehow it doesn’t matter too much. This film is about much more than votes for women. In the launderette, Maud witnesses a young girl being raped by the foreman, something that happened to her at the same age. When she is asked to speak to Lloyd George’s committee in Parliament, which is considering a change in the law, he asks about her background and she reveals that she earns 13 shillings a week and that men earn 19 shillings – for the same hours. After she is arrested a second time, Maud is thrown out by her husband, Sonny, and prevented from seeing their young son. As Sonny tells her, she has no rights over George and he later puts the boy up for adoption, which she is powerless to prevent. This was the brutal reality of many women’s lives – sexual violence, less pay and treated as mere chattel. How far we have come in a century.
Also brutal was the reality of what happened to those brave, pioneering women who fought on the streets for universal suffrage. It’s one thing to read about it in the history books, another to view the dramatised scenes of women being beaten to the ground by police truncheons on a demonstration, then repeatedly kicked before being dragged off by the hair to the cells are a punch to the guts. We also see the ugly violence in prison as Maud is force-fed when she goes on hunger strike – held down by half a dozen warders and made to swallow a rubber tube. Watching these scenes was incredibly emotional for me.
The film’s closing scenes show Maud and Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom derby, as they hope to hold up their banners to George V. When they cannot get near him, Emily steps onto the race track and is killed. The action then switches to archived Pathé footage of Davison’s funeral procession, the route lined with thousands of people. Before the credits roll, various dates when women were given the vote in different countries scroll up, ending with Saudi Arabia in 2015 – when the Government promised women the vote but have yet to do anything about it. Deeds please, not words. We still have a long way to go.
Next year – 2019 – marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, when working class men and women protested peacefully to be enfranchised and were violently charged by soldiers in return. Hundreds were injured, and 17 people lost their lives. Manchester has been at the epicentre of the fight for the right to vote, and we should never forget the sacrifices of those who paved the way to the law being changed for the better.
By Louise Bolotin
You can donate to the Pankhurst Trust here.