First, there is a justified viral campaign to protest the complete—and I mean complete—absence of persons of color in the film. In 1913, Britain was coming out of their heyday of global colonization, and, as a result, there were entire communities of color in London. There was an especially large Indian community, including the Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who fought not only for women’s suffrage but for the liberation of Indian women. It is interesting to note that three decades earlier, a suffragist named Catherine Impey founded Anti-Caste, which has been described as Britain’s first anti-racist journal. In its pages, the editor attempted to speak “with” rather than “about” people of colour, a dynamic with which white political leaders are still struggling more than a century later.
So there is that.
And then, of course, the perennial absence/closeting of the lesbians. Not surprisingly, there were many lesbians in the Suffrage Movement in both England and the US. One of Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughters, Christabel, was the subject of many suffragist crushes, and had lengthy relationships with Annie Kenney and with Grace Roe. The composer Ethel Smyth dedicated two years of her life to the movement. She wrote openly about her passion for women and had a crush on Emmeline Pankhurst. (See my blog on Ethel Symth.)
For me, the most exciting part of the film is the coming to consciousness of the central character. We see her waking up from a deep sleep. We see her beginning to see what could be possible. We see her excitement in bonding with other women and in executing acts of civil disobediance—most notably blowing up the Prime Minister’s summer home.
The dramatic climax of the film is the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragist who ran onto the race track at the Epsom Derby and attempted to attach a “Votes for Women” banner to the King’s horse. She was trampled to death.
But here's my biggest concern: The film absolutely implies that the women’s activism, and especially their tactical move to destruction of property, resulted in the granting of suffrage.
Finally, at the end of the war, Parliament passed an act that would enfranchise women over the age of thirty who met minimum property qualifications. This was specifically in recognition of the fact that women had been pressured into filling men’s industrial jobs during the war and, after that, it would have been ludicrous to maintain the fiction that they were too frail or feeble-minded to be entrusted with suffrage. It was their reward for doing as they were told.
My point is that women’s movements do not follow the same trajectories as men’s movements. If there were no gay men, and the entire queer movement had been composed solely of lesbian and bisexual women, I do not believe that we would have ANY of the legal gains that we have today. In fact, I believe that the movement, as with the Suffrage Movement in both England and the US, would have resulted in increased marginalization and suffering. Today we are seeing our hard-won abortion rights being eroded by cat-and-mouse games. Today, poor women in some areas have great difficulty in arranging for abortions, because of laws about waiting periods, restrictions on where abortion clinics can operate, and the expenses that these new laws entail.
And, much as the movement recognized the significance of having a martyr, Emily Wilding Davison died with a ticket in her pocket to a women’s dance that night. She did not plan to martyr herself, but to celebrate her victory in the company of women. That is the movement I want to commemorate.