Suffragette movie sparks new claims of sexism

Votes for women: Director Sarah Gavron called Suffragette a ten-year ‘passion project’. © Pathé

For the first time, the story of the suffragettes is told in a feature length film with an all-star cast. It has reignited a century-old debate: direct action, or the art of persuasion?

‘Oh golly,’ said actor Helena Bonham-Carter as protesters swarmed the red carpet of her latest film premiere. But she went on signing posters and posing for photos undeterred. ‘I’m glad our film has done something’, she said later. ‘That’s exactly what it’s there for.’

The activists were protesting against cuts to services to help female victims of domestic violence. Before being removed by security, they lay on the ground chanting ‘dead women can’t vote’. They were fighting, they said, in the spirit of the women the film focused on: the suffragettes.

It has been over a century since feminists in Britain first united to campaign for the right to vote. They were led by the indomitable Pankhurst family, who founded the movement’s militant arm, the WSPU. The women drew attention to their cause by chaining themselves to railings of government buildings; setting fire to post boxes; defacing portraits in the National Gallery; and even planting bombs in Westminster Abbey. In 1913, Emily Davison was killed while trying to attach a WSPU banner to the king’s horse during the Epsom Derby.

The methods were controversial. They certainly brought more attention to the cause than the non-violent factions had ever achieved, and for those on hunger strike in prison, the horrors of forced feeding elicited sympathy. But others felt they had gone too far — this was no way, said some, to convince men that women were rational enough to be trusted with a vote.

The First World War put a stop to the campaign, and women across the country began taking on jobs previously done by men. When the war ended, women over 30 were finally granted the vote.

For decades, the story has barely been represented on film, but the makers of Suffragette say they are glad to right that injustice.

‘It’s a film to mark the achievement of what these women did and what they gave to us’, said the film’s main actor, Carey Mulligan. ‘But it also highlights where we are in the world. We still live in a society that’s sexist.’

Deeds not words

There is no longer a need for militant action, say some. Yes, women still face inequality, but legally they have been equal to men for some time. Angry voices and a disruptive attitude only put people off a serious issue. The time has come for a calmer, more collaborative approach to politics, which includes everyone in a rational debate.

But others disagree. Women have been asking for equal treatment for well over 100 years. But still they are paid less than men, still they disproportionately suffer violence at men’s hands. Loud protest and extreme demonstrations force people to stop ignoring the issue. It is the only way to effect real change.

You Decide

  1. Who is the most inspiring woman of 2015?
  2. Should women return to disruptive forms of protest in the fight for equal rights?


  1. Create a campaign poster inspired by the suffragettes about equal pay.
  2. Write a short story through the eyes of a woman in 1913.

Some People Say...

“Feminism should try harder to include men.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Haven’t things improved for women in Britain?
They have — laws now protect them from discrimination and harassment, and the availability of contraception and abortion allows them more control over their bodies. But the reality can be quite different. For example, there is still an overall pay gap of 10%.
Do feminists like the film?
Feminism is a broad, diverse movement, so there are always disagreements. Many have applauded its portrayal of a little-told fight for women’s rights. Others have criticised its all-white cast, particularly after actors were photographed in t-shirts reading ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’. The Emmeline Pankhurst quote was offensive to true victims of slavery, said some, especially as the suffrage movement had an uncomfortable history of racism.

Word Watch

Helena Bonham-Carter
The actor has a personal connection to the film: her great-grandfather, Herbert Henry Asquith, was prime minister in 1912 when it was set. ‘It was bizarre for me having this sort of posthumous conversation with my ancestors,’ she said.
The protesters said that the closure of 32 specialist domestic violence services since 2010 had disproportionately affected women from LGBT and non-white communities.
The Women’s Social and Political Union broke away from the non-violent suffrage group, the The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1903. Members of the NUWSS were known as ‘suffragists’.
National Gallery
The Rokeby Venus, a nude portrait of a woman, was slashed with a meat chopper by Mary Richardson in 1914. She said it was partly due to ‘the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.’
Hunger strike
By refusing food in prison, women were using their perceived passivity as a political weapon. The forced feeding procedure was brutal, and potentially life-threatening.
Women over 30
Women were given equal suffrage with men in 1928.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.