A partial view of working class women’s fight for the vote
Suffragette tells the story of Maud Watts, a working class laundry woman in east London. Overworked and tired she is sent to the West End to deliver a package. Suddenly women start smashing the windows of shops on Oxford Street – it’s the first time Maud has seen suffragettes in action.
Assaulted and mistreated by her boss, she is politicised by her experiences of inequality. Working longer hours for less pay than her husband, she is swept into the suffrage movement. Maud’s politicisation replicates that of thousands of working women at that time.
In east London the match women’s strike had recently happened and was still having ramifications in the wave of ‘new unionism’ that followed it. Semi-skilled and casualised workers flooded into the trade union movement. And as well as building trade unions, working class women and men were organising politically against poverty and inequality.
At first Maud is reluctant to join the suffragettes or get involved, believing the fight is impossible to win. But after being arrested on her first protest by the police and when her husband reacts badly to her politics, she is spurred on.
The film tracks huge losses in Maud’s life because of her political beliefs, losses that many wealthier women didn’t experience.
This inequality between rich and poor women in the movement is exposed when an MP’s wife is bailed from prison leaving the other women from the protest to suffer at the hands of the police. In the end Maud loses everything for the cause, including her job, marriage, and her young son.
While it’s brilliant to see a working class perspective of the suffrage movement, there are still some big gaps in the film. It misses the political revolution that was happening in the East End. The other women in the laundry are presented as against Maud and her politics, shunning her inside and outside of the workplace. But many working class people were organising and resisting inequality and poverty.
Maud’s husband doesn’t support her politics and is derogatory about the suffragette movement. Many, even unionised men, would have held the same view. It took effort to shift the trade union movement towards support for equality for women in all areas.
For example, unions such as the National Union of Teachers didn’t officially support the demand for equal pay until 1919. Although, around the same time as the film is set the National Federation of Women Teachers was agitating for equal pay and to remove the marriage bar on women teachers.
All of this is missed in the film and the politicisation that Maud goes through is presented as very isolated. She meets up with a small group of mainly middle class suffragettes in secret. Through these women she is pulled away from her workplace and home and convinced of the individual direct action that the suffragettes are still remembered for now.
In reality working class women didn’t just follow behind the middle classes in these types of actions. Particularly in the cotton mills in the north of England, working women were organising collectively, including through strike action, for the right to vote.
Why the vote?
Selina Cooper, an activist in the movement in Lancashire, said that working class women like herself “do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men, to get better conditions…
“Every women in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms which are wanted.”
This would clearly have been the main motivation for women like Maude but the point isn’t brought out in Suffragette.
The film ends just after Emily Davidson is killed trying to raise the suffragettes’ banner in front of the king’s horse, showing that this was a pivotal moment for the movement.
It was only a year before this that Sylvia Pankhurst set up the east London federation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which was more democratic that other sections of the WSPU.
Pankhust, a socialist who visited Russia after the revolution, wanted to maintain the links between the suffrage movement and the labour movement, making it a political and industrial struggle. She saw that the vote was one part of the struggle that needed to be waged in the fight for equality for women.
One character comments in the film that “even Sylvia Pankhurst” is against her mother and sister’s advocacy of individual militancy. The suggestion is that Sylvia was more moderate or conservative, when actually the polar opposite was the case.
Pankhurst believed that more people needed to be pulled into the movement rather than individuals take more militant action.
The excuse in the film is that breaking windows got them media coverage and gave them an audience, while hunger strikes and being force fed got them sympathy.
Sylvia, being a socialist, looked beyond this media attention and sympathy to a mass working class movement that could have been built at that stage. Such a movement could have won not just the vote but a complete change of society to one free of inequality and poverty.
Suffragette goes part of the way to telling the real history of the fight for the vote and equality by working class women.
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By Jill Liddington
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