When women were treated as second-class citizens

Suffragette (12A)

As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising, it might be salutary to compare the Irish War of Independence to the equally passionate fight of British suffragettes against their own nation around the same time. 

The aggression shown by British police towards the women campaigning for the vote was obviously in a totally different league to what Irish patriots experienced under John Bull’s jackboot, but the similarity of its injustice prompted me to think that oppressed British women of this era might have found something to empathise with in ‘the Irish Question’.

It would have been easy to make a biopic of Emmeline Pankhurst, the most high profile female activist of the time. (I grew up with the image of this lady chaining herself to the railings of governmental buildings to get her voice heard.) This would have been too predictable, though, and perhaps too dull as a result. 

What director Sarah Gavron has done instead is focus on an ordinary factory girl, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) who becomes radicalised by circumstance. This is effected first by a long-suffering co-worker, Violet (the wonderful Ann-Marie Duff) and later on by a militant pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter) and even Pankhurst herself (Meryl Streep in a blink-and-you-miss-her cameo role).

When her activities come to the attention of no-nonsense police inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) her unsympathertic husband (Ben Whishaw) grows frustrated with her and throws her out. She then loses access to her beloved son.

Her story is told with a thoroughly authentic evocation of the period. Mulligan also conveys just the right degree of anger and pain as she documents the burgeoning consciousness of a woman who’s been living in virtual denial of male injustice until a colleague asks her to speak on her behalf at a meeting with David Lloyd George.

Many women will tell you their fight for equality will never fully be won as they struggle against male chauvinism of various types in the home and workplace – and indeed the street. That’s a subject for another film. What Suffragette makes clear is that there was a time when to be a feminist was to be an undesirable citizen, a member of an underground movement. 

Women’s clamour for equality was met by stout resistance from men in stuffed shirts who’d had things their own way for as long as they could remember and were happy to use any means at their disposal to keep women down. 

At least until one of them stepped under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, thereby giving the Woman’s Movement its first martyr.

**** Excellent