A guest blog by Helen Antrobus, our Business Development Officer
I was terrified, sitting in that cinema, as the adverts rolled. The film had been promised to us for so long, and now, here I was, Votes for Women badge glinted on my lapel, waiting for Suffragette to begin.
Why was I so terrified? Because I didn’t know how they were going to get it right. This was the portrayal of a formidable, inspiring group of women, whose cause was just and true yet whose actions are those of controversy and dispute. The film focuses on the militancy of the suffragettes, and I just didn’t know how they would make it work.
I didn’t want to sit through a film that portrayed these women as terrorists, vandals, and nuisances. Indeed, a national newspaper reported of the film that the women in it were terrorists and, to paraphrase: ‘Should have listened to the good men around them’, accusing the women in the film of ruining their lives over the need to cause chaos.
Thankfully, Suffragette does not encourage this idea of the suffragette movement. The militancy of the suffragettes, who did indeed employ arson and vandalism, is shown with a brutal honesty. It doesn’t glorify these actions, but it does demonstrate the desperation and the lengths that the WSPU went to in order to get their voices heard. The acts were not mindless. Though extreme, they were the actions of people who were not free. I think the reason people condone the militant acts of the suffragettes is because the face of the movement – Emmeline Pankhurst – is perceived as an upper middle class conservative who had already made an impact on the government and on the country. I think it is easy to wonder why she encouraged her devoted followers to employ this sort of behaviour, when she had already made herself and the cause heard everywhere.
However, it is important to remember that not all suffragettes were Emmeline, Sylvia, or Christabel Pankhurst – those names we hear repeatedly when we think of the term ‘suffragette’. The film teaches us an important lesson in this – those women lower down in the class system did not have a voice – essentially, they were not free. The film is a moving portrayal of the working class women who joined the fight – though the protagonist, Maud Watts, is fictional, she represented the hoards of women who came out to fight for their equality and for their vote, and were not remembered in the same way that the famous Pankhurst women were. These were the women who sacrificed everything for the cause.
The collection of Suffragette material at the People’s History Museum is another reminder of this. The suffragette Hannah Mitchell, whose kitchen is replicated in our galleries, is a true example of how working class women gave up their entire lives for the struggle.
Hannah, who eventually became a councillor in Manchester, did not have the same social freedom as the higher class suffragettes. In her autobiography, she describes her arrest in 1906, and her subsequent release. She wrote: ‘I was not pleased to find my husband outside. He knew we did not wish for our fines to be paid…’ Though many men supported the campaign, the place of the working class woman was in the home- cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children – they refused to allow their wives to fight for their cause in jail, for they were lost without them at home.
These militant acts portrayed in the film and in the museum demonstrate the true struggle these women faced – not merely the right to have a go, and to cross a piece of paper, but the right to own their own lives, their own choices, and their own future.
You can find out more about the life of Hannah Mitchell by booking our Living History performance The Hard Way Up: A Suffragette’s Story for your group.