Film Review: Suffragette

The 2015 film Suffragette gives the viewer a broad overview of the struggle of women in early 20th century Britain for the right to vote offering a glimpse into a world where the law was structured to favour the rights of men over women. Here women gave birth and were responsible for the raising of children, but those children like the woman herself, were deemed property of their man to do with as he liked. In fact one of the methods the police used to deal with non-complaint Panky’s (a colloquial term for the suffragettes derived from the name Emily Pankhurst, the movements leader) was to turn them over to their husbands for a good hiding, the sort of violent affair that might haul them into line. We learn that in the Laundry Factory where much of the film is set, that the female employees earn 7 shillings a week less than their male counterparts and for the privilege have to work 13 hours more. On top of this, the social pressure applied to the non-conforming women from men, the law and other women was, in a word, brutal.

Yes, by the standards of modern Western society it is all pretty damned awful and thoroughly unjust but the actuality of the situation is bought home in the film finest moment, right at the very end where the timeline of international voting rights for women scrolls up the screen. Beginning in 1893 with NZ (although women could not stand for Parliament until 1919) and followed by Australia in 1902, Latvia in 1905, France, Italy and Japan in 1945, Tonga 1960, Switzerland 1971 and Western Samoa 1990 to highlight but a few. In 2015 Saudi Arabia began the process of changing laws to allow women the right to participate in that communities political process demonstrating vividly that 122 years after New Zealand women become the first female participants in the democratic process the work of the much-derided feminist movement is still far from complete. I should say here that in this advanced age in a country otherwise considered the worlds most socially progressive, Kiwi women are still being paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.

While investigating the timeline of the Women’s Suffrage movement over the last 100 plus years I was interested to note that every country went through exactly the same arguments on the anti-side, stuff like “Women just don’t have the temperament or intellectual facility for voting.” The same nonsense over and over, not unlike the debates on Gay rights, Gender pay-equality, environmental causes, children’s rights and so on. All of this of course begs the question: why can’t we learn from the example of other societies, take their lessons and apply them to our own situation rather then rehashing tired old arguments that NZ disproved way back in 1893?

Note: Since its first election in 1853 New Zealand has been world leading in voting rights. All Māori men were able to vote from 1867 and all European men from 1879.  By comparison Australian Aboriginals did not get the right to vote until 1962, Canadian Natives in 1960.

As for the film itself it’s an unsophisticated narrative that wastes lots of grand opportunities, most notably in the body of the great Irish character actor Brendon Gleeson, whose role as the police detective charged with rooting out the leaders of the suffragette movement is a pitiful slight on his considerable talents. Nevertheless, Cary Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter act up a storm in the lead roles, doing a lot with what little the script offers.

2/5 for narrative, 5/5 for the inspiration and insight. Worthy and worth seeing.


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