The Unfinished Business of “Suffragette”

My earliest memory of suffragettes comes from the whimsical film of my youth, Mary Poppins.  In that movie, affluent women march around the parlor of Mrs. Winifred Banks’ luxurious London home at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane lamenting that “Missus Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!”  The wealth of these women is substantial.  Should they be arrested, they won’t be spending much time in irons.  Remember, they have the means to hire someone like Mary Poppins to care for their children! 

However, the new film, Suffragette, strips away the veneer of the genteel activist and gives us insight into the heroic, and too often sacrificial, acts of average women lobbying for the vote.  When the film begins, we observe their deep frustration.  The inaction of a patriarchal government prompts the movement to adopt the slogan, “Deeds not Words.”  Windows are broken, mailboxes blasted, and even the vacant vacation home of Lloyd George is detonated.  As the women’s desperation grows, the London police force appoints a special task force to end the mayhem.  When Missus Pankhurst shows up in this rendition of the suffragette story, her message is clear: “We don’t want to be law breakers.  We want to be law makers.”

Woven into the story are the experiences of women working at 68% of men’s pay, enduring sexual harassment and assault, losing their homes, husbands and children, and suffering the verbal onslaught and mockery not only of men, but of fellow women.  Issues of women’s bodies and health play out as activists are forced out of the movement due to pregnancy and physical exhaustion.  The complexity of family and marital dynamics stand starkly against a backdrop of gender role struggle.

We see all of this through the fictional character or Maude Watts, whose leadership in the movement is thrust upon her in a most unlikely way.  None of her associates can prepare Maude for the emotional loss, conflict, and grief, or physical exertion and torment she will have to endure.  Yet, she persists.

Suffragette does not give us the satisfaction of closure.  That would be too neat and tidy.  Instead, the film retells the story of the suffragette movement in an effort to encourage the ongoing struggle for gender justice.  The filmmakers’ intention is to remind us that ours is the inheritance of these heroic female figures.  They call women to be leaders, encouraging each of us to influence change that results in real progress toward a fair and equitable world.

Moreover, Suffragette reminds us that women’s justice is not just a parlor game for wealthy people like Mrs. Banks.  It holds sway over the economic, physical and social wellbeing of all women, particularly the poor and their children.  Issues including equal pay, safe working and living conditions, control over our bodies, adequate health care, and basic human value and respect are concerns of international import.  Women and men must work together to change the inadequate social and economic equilibrium worldwide and create societies where all people are held in equal esteem.

Rev. Leigh Goodrich was previously the Senior Director of Education and Leadership for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

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