November 16, 2015
Family Film Blogging: Suffragette
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, I took my 16 year-old daughter and her friend to see Suffragette on Friday in Salt Lake City.  She had been studying women's suffrage in the U.S. recently, so I thought she would enjoy it or at least not roll her eyes too much.  We had lots to talk about on the way home, then she and her friend continued discussing the movie over late-night snacks, so I take that as a win.

Suffragette focuses on a fictional "rank-and-file" soldier, Maud, in the fight for women's right to vote in Britain in 1912.   Maud seems very happy at the beginning of the film, creating a peaceful and loving life for herself, her husband and her son, George, even though she and George have low-paying jobs at the laundry.  A new employee, Violet, begins agitating for women's right to vote outside the laundry, and Maud becomes attracted to the work, eventually testifying at parliament about her life at the laundry.  Then we learn that Maud's life may not be as idyllic as it seems:  she has worked at the laundry since she was 7 and has probably been abused and harassed off and on since that time by her boss, Mr. Taylor.  Her mother died at the laundry from unsafe working conditions, and a shot of Maud's mottled shoulder suggests that she may have been involved in the accident that killed her mother.

Maud's home life begins to fall apart when Maud's activities escalate and Maud is arrested and even jailed for several days.  Maud's loving husband seems more than rattled at her "shame" and warns Maud to give up her activities, which she does not.  One more escapade causes Maud's husband to lock her out of the house, separating her from George and forcing her into homelessness.  (Strangely, fortunately, sadly??) this only hardens Maud's resolve to fight for women's right to vote.  A link is suggested between the law giving the husband rights over children to Maud's recognition that a female voting constituency could change such unjust laws.  In addition, the right to vote might increase working women's wages and rights to healthy and safe working conditions.  So, Maud now has nothing to lose and is a fearsome fighter for the right to vote.

The (nonfictional) leaders of the suffragette movement take Maud in (though not in their homes) and together their activities escalate in violence and in effect.  There is prison and a force-feeding episode.  The movie ends on a dramatic, historical moment in the suffrage movement, more than a decade before the right to vote was won.

There are lots of great things to talk about in the movie, though the movie doesn't provide any great answers.  The suffrage movement became very violent, destroying property (including a residence) in the name of the movement.  (One historical character, Edith Ellyn, promotes "deeds, not words.")  Whether the movement required violence is not debated much in the movie.  The voice against the violence is not particularly trustworthy -- the Inspector in charge of surveillance and investigation of the women.  The Inspector only briefly mentions to Maud that (1) someone was nearly killed in the home-burning plot and (2) that Maud was targeted and recruited by the middle-class suffragettes (such as Meryl Streep, briefly, as Emmaline Pankhurst) in textbook ways to join their ranks.  Is this a noble movement that must resort to property crimes to be heard or is it a dangerous permutation that uses noble goals to recruit and radicalize ordinary women to make horrible sacrifices?  Maud briefly argues to the Inspector that violence is required to get the attention of the public, and the debate is over.

What seemed to be rushed in the movie was Maud's transformation from happy married working mom who defends her boss to other workers to a woman who is willing to give up her family, job and (most importantly) her beloved son to join the militant suffragette movement.  This happens very quickly and with little explanation.  Her traumas at the laundry seem to be old scars (she has been a forewoman for four years and her handsy boss has moved on to others), and no new tragedy sparks her to action.  (One possible explanation is that she notices her boss has moved on to the 12 year-old daughter of Violet, and perhaps she wants to stop the cycle of work harassment.)  One would think that the new event or new information would have to be quite compelling for her to endure being separated from her son.  Perhaps this is why I wouldn't make a good protester or martyr -- I'm pretty set on preserving my way of life and my children, but I think some explanation would help.  Reviews seem to focus on her reaction when Parliament refused to enact a voting bill after hearing her testimony with a sympathetic ear, but that seems strained.  Other reviews paint her homelife as bleak and impoverished (hinting that she had little to stay for), but her home scenes seemed blissful in the beginning to me.  (Matthew McConaughey had a harder time leaving his daughter to go be the only person who can save the Earth than Maud has her leaving her son to go fight with scores of others for the right to vote.)  Maud also accepts the escalating violence more readily than hardened veterans of the movement, and it's hard to understand why.  Though a composite character and a literary construct to help us understand the interior of the movement, she needs a little more time to evolve.

From a legal standpoint, there are also lots of interesting issues to discuss, including surveillance, the right to assemble, the right to petition, the right to hold meetings, etc.  The differences between being a disenfranchised group and being a constituency.  The difference between agitating for a cause when you have a wealthy or middle-class family or spouse and when you do not.  Bail.

All in all, a good teachable moment for a night out with the older kids!

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