Suffragette
(M) Directed by Sarah Gavron
Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep

by Mark Hadley

They attacked the homes of politicians, assaulted police officers, and claimed responsibility for London bombings. They held illegal meetings that advocated violence and radicalised others to destroy public property. If the word ‘terrorist’ had been in common use, it would almost certainly have been applied – to the women activists who strove to gain their gender the vote.

The new film Suffragette highlights their inspiring struggle, while at the same time raising questions about the part violence plays in social change.

Carey Mulligan (Drive, Far From The Madding Crowd) leads an all-star cast as Maud Watts, an early 20th century factory worker and housewife who finds herself drawn into the struggle to see women enfranchised. Meryl Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, a leading suffragette who encourages her audience and Maud to see themselves as social revolutionaries:

“We’re fighting for a time when every little girl born into the world will have an equal chance with her brothers. Never underestimate the power we women have to define our own destinies. We do not want to be lawbreakers. We want to be law makers!”

However, Emmeline’s catch-phrase is, “It’s deeds, not words that will get us the vote,” and her tactics increasingly turn on the sort of drastic actions guaranteed to gain the attention of the press. The authorities, personified by Brendon Gleeson’s Inspector Arthur Steed, react with arrests, imprisonment, and public shaming. But these tactics only go to show just how unequal their struggle is. For Maud, it becomes increasingly an issue of justice rather than equality:

Steed: “Violence doesn’t discern! It takes the innocent and the guilty! What gives you the right to put that woman’s life at risk?

Maud: “What gave you the right to stand in the middle of a riot and watch women beaten and do nothing?!”

Their stand-off highlights the tension seething through every moment of Suffragette. Maud slowly sacrifices everything she has to the cause – her public standing, her job, her husband and finally her son.

Modern audiences will have no trouble identifying the justice of her cause, but the approach she is adopting is just as clearly hardening hearts rather than softening them. Is her path as worthy as her purpose?

Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband Sonny, a man who cannot bear to see the transformation taking place in her:

Sonny: “You’re a mother Maud. You’re a wife. My wife. That’s what you’re meant to be.”

Watching, I was reminded of the similar rejection many believers go through as those close to them realise their religion is not some passing fad. However, the leader of the Christianity revolution - Jesus - offers a path radically different to Ms. Pankhurst.

Jesus’ call-to-arms involves suffering, but the sort that derails violence rather than perpetuates it:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” 1

‘Love your enemies’ was no easy platitude. Jesus offered it to people in far more desperate circumstances than Maud’s contemporaries. But it points to the world-changing truth that God’s peace is far more powerful than our most persistent protests.

Suffragette reminds us that we should involve ourselves in the social struggles of the day, fighting to see that all are treated with the love and respect that characterises the Kingdom of God.

But, never forget: human efforts can only compel change. It is the Spirit that transforms hearts.

 

Notes

  • “We’re fighting for a time when every little girl born into the world will have an equal chance with her brothers. Never underestimate the power we women have to define our own destinies. We do not want to be law breakers. We want to be law makers!” - MS

  • “I consider myself more of a soldier … it’s deeds, not words that will get us the vote.” – HBC

  • “You’re a mother Maud. You’re a wife. My wife. That’s what you’re meant to be.” (BW) / “I’m not just that any more.” CM.

1 Matthew 5:38-39, NIV

This review was originally published in Anglican Messenger's December 2015 edition. Click here to check it out.

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