Any film which stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, and the universally appreciated Meryl Streep is going to be big news. Indeed, the general consensus is that the upcoming British drama Suffragette is going to do pretty well at the box office. Not only is this film in the process of promoting British filmmaking talent, it has also sparked interest in the best known female rights activist group of all time: the suffragettes. They are also known as the Women’s Social and Political Union or WSPU, were led by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, and campaigned to extend the right to vote to women. Associated with sit-ins, arson attacks and hunger strikes, the group graced the headlines of the day and have been kept alive in the collective consciousness of successive generations, capturing schoolchildren’s imagination during history lessons.
The upcoming film is bound to romanticise the group’s activities, so perhaps it is worth thinking a bit critically about the organisation before going to see it. While they certainly succeeded in raising the profile of the cause of votes for women, we might need to approach the suffragettes with a degree of moral scepticism. Is using scare tactics and violence in defence of a cause, any cause, actually justifiable? Do acts such as these just make you a terrorist? It is worth noting that the suffragettes were not the only group campaigning for women’s rights. The less militant faction were the suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, whose cup of tea was more letter and leaflet writing than chaining themselves to railings. In fact, historians argue that it was the suffragists more than the suffragettes who had the decisive influence in bringing about female enfranchisement. The suffragists, being well connected, worked the system from the inside and through peaceful but persistent campaigning brought backbencher MPs round to their way of thinking, helping to swing the vote in favour of their interests. While the suffragists helped promote an image of women as sedate and responsible, challenging Victorian assumptions about female character and thus undermining reasons extending the franchise to members of the “fairer sex”, the suffragettes’ passionate indignation may have actually fed the misogynistic assumptions of the day that women were too volatile and irrational to be trusted with the vote. However, the scandalous measures of the latter group seem to be what really brought the issue of female enfranchisement into the public sphere; they created debate about the issue and showed that women were capable of devoting themselves to a cause – and you know what they say, no publicity is bad publicity.
While the suffragettes were essentially just political extremists, their extremism is perhaps understandable if we plant ourselves in the socio-political environment of the time. The Victorian woman was essentially conditioned into inferiority: women were excluded from public roles and were deprived of an equal education to men. Furthermore, women were seen as relative beings, defined solely by their relationships to men: either as wives, mothers and caregivers, or daughters. In fact, they were not even legally seen as an individual upon marriage, all a woman’s personal wealth would go to her husband and she would assume his name as a sign that she was his property to control and use as he liked. The separate spheres ideology entailed that women were limited to the domestic sphere of matrimony and child-rearing whereas men were allowed entry into the public sphere of government, business and law. The effect of this was that women were in no position to challenge their subordinated position in society – it was not in politicians’ interests to listen to a group who were so powerless and most women were discouraged from having any opinions in the first place. So of course the suffragettes lashed out violently, their militancy was a clarion call against the sea of male voices that was telling them that they were too insignificant to merit equal treatment. Modern historians claim that the suffragettes actually delayed the granting of the vote to women by several years. However, that does not undermine the importance of the group and it is clearly understandable given the circumstances – any form of protest that is not permitted a proper outlet automatically becomes self-destructive.
So if it wasn’t the suffragettes who brought about female suffrage, who was it? The official party line seems to be that it had a lot to do with women’s effort during the First World War. Campaigning for the vote was suspended and women devoted themselves to filling the jobs which had been occupied by men during peace time in industry, the running of transport, and the like. This momentous shift in the responsibilities of women proved that gender did not come with a list of pre-decided tasks and duties; gender roles were not as rigid as they had previously thought and women were certainly more capable than they had once been considered to be. However, women were ousted from their war-time jobs as men returned from the front – clearly the newfound respect for women was not enough to unsettle the status quo.
Perhaps then, the reasons behind the granting of female suffrage can be seen as rooted in the political process itself. In the 1918 Representation of the People Act, women were given the vote – but only those over the age of 30 and who met the property requirements. This was basically pushed through by the Conservative party who, at the time, were vying to be put in power in the next election after forming part of a coalition government with the liberals – by extending the vote to such a select group of women over the age of 30, the party hoped to gain extra voters.
Essentially, even the victory of the votes for women campaign was completely shaped by men. And this is why the suffragettes, regardless of the actual effectiveness of their organisation, are so incredibly important. The suffragettes were engaged in a battle of the sexes: they were a group of women who took on the male privilege and the tradition of female oppression that left their gender powerless. Women had to choose between perpetuating their own oppression in a patriarchal regime by submitting to their limited role and teaching their daughters to do the same or railing against this system and putting themselves at risk of social exclusion and abuse. The participants in hunger strikes not only did so in the name of the WSPU but in the name of self-determination; these women took control of their bodies and rejected their roles as sexual objects and child-bearers at a time when they were barely considered humans in their own right. At the end of the day, every self-identifying feminist, in fact, every self-identifying woman, should take a moment to appreciate all that these political activists did in the name of liberating their daughters, granddaughters and so forth from the shackles of male oppression.