by Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr.
What I really liked about the new British movie “Suffragette” is that it takes women’s drive for the vote seriously. It’s an excellent representation of the times and trials women faced both in England and the U.S. The film captures some of the raw emotion and idealism that drove these crusaders.
I have seen many war movies that present the context and the human impact of past battles. They show the bonds that unite a “band of brothers” and the lengths they go to preserve their honor while pursing an ideal. “Suffragette,” finally, treats women who fought for freedom with the same respect. It both communicates the plight of women in the early 20th century and shows the logic of concentrating on the right to vote to better control their own destinies.
WOMEN ARE AT THE CENTER IN “SUFFRAGETTE” FILM
Grounded in history, the film offers characters that reflect the lives of working class women, particularly those who spoke out to demand their rights. The film conveys both the official rationale of state repression (with little concern for justice), and the price the women paid with their livelihoods, health, neighbors’ scorn, and family breakups.
We might not want to admit that countries repress those who seek to change them, but history shows otherwise. This time, though, women are at the center. Consider when you have seen a movie last where this was the case. Women are rarely the topic, the centerpiece, or the point of a film –British or American. They have never been honored with an understanding record of their struggle for their own civil rights. The film reminds us how recent this revolutionary change has been. The shocking conditions and brave rebellions portrayed were part of life just 100 years ago.
I hope the film helps people remember that American women did not win the right to vote until 1920. Rejecting bombings and violent actions, American suffragists nonetheless grappled with the government for decades in the streets, in the legislatures, and in the courts. In 1917, a militant wing of the national suffrage association, inspired by the British suffragettes, picketed the White House. The Wilson administration’s reaction mimicked that of the British government. Women were arbitrarily and unlawfully arrested, harassed, beaten and jailed in disgusting conditions after their demonstrations were violently broken up. Moreover, this was before imprisoned suffragists initiated hunger strikes, which resulted in forcible feedings, for being denied the status of political prisoners. The history of repressing women in Great Britain and the United States played out in very similar ways.
Until the American story comes to the screen, we welcome “Suffragette,” which makes a major contribution to telling the story of the brave women who put their lives on the line to win civil rights for all women.
“SUFFRAGETTE” FILM OPENS THE DOOR TO DISCUSSION OF LINK BETWEEN THE PAST & PRESENT
But don’t wait for another film. Read some of the books that American suffragists wrote or that were written about them. Some suggestions are listed on the InezMilhollandCentennial.com website. Inez Milholland was an American suffragist, strongly influenced by the British, who condemned the Wilson administration’s inaction and died in 1916 campaigning for the 19th Amendment. She is America’s suffrage martyr.
“Suffragette” offers a welcome opportunity for discussions and actions that recognize the importance of this part of our country’s history. It will make you want to honor suffragists’ sacrifices here and abroad, and to join the celebration of the U.S. suffrage centennial in 2020.
Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr. is an author and the cochair of the 2016 Inez Milholland centennial observance with Marguerite Kearns, a project of the National Women’s History Project. For more information: InezMilhollandCentennial.com
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