March 8, 2016
In honour of International Women’s day (or as they call in here in Switzerland, International day of struggle for women), these are my musings about the movie Suffragette. There are going to be spoilers in here.
For those who don’t know, Suffragette covers parts of Britain’s history of women fighting for the vote. I say ‘parts’ of the history because, as many others have correctly pointed out, the story completely erases black women from the story. There is not a person of colour in the entire movie as far as I can remember.
From the little I know about the historical details, the global suffrage movement was complicated and looked very different around the world. In Aotearoa New Zealand all women (white and indigenous) were the first to get to vote in 1893. In Britain it was first only women over 30 in 1918. In the USA the suffragists were segregationist and closed ranks against black women in order to further their cause. So it is very important to point out that while this movie was a win because it shows (part of) the story of struggle, it was really just a win for white women. And in my opinion, that is just not good enough.
There is no good reason that I can think of that the movie couldn’t have included some important truths about how black women were deliberately excluded from the suffrage movement. The film would have been far richer and more honest if it had shown what really happened, instead of ignoring an important part of history. And it’s important that this part of history is not erased. When my daughters are old enough to watch this film, I shouldn’t have to sit them down first to explain what was missing.
The struggle for equality is real. The struggle was different for different women then and it still is different for us today. Let us please start acknowledging that more.
To be honest, I found the film horrfying to watch. I was in tears for at least half of it right from the early minutes. Don’t get me wrong, the film was well made but it was incredibly suspenseful. I use the word horrifying, not because of the violence, although yes, there was violence. Women were beaten by police during peaceful protests and gatherings.
In general there was a fair amount of violence in the film, but it wasn’t gratuitous. It was factual, unenhanced, yet slumbering underneath the surface all the time, creating suspense. The element of risk and danger was ominipresent and frankly incredibly draining and stressful to hold in your awareness all the time. I kept wondering if the next scene was going to be a husband beating his wife, or the boss abusing his underage workers. In one scene the police round up the women who had been listening to a leader speak and instead of taking them to jail, he just says: “let their husbands deal with them.”
I use the word horrfying because the outrage, the anger was just was so relatable. I could tap straight in to personal memories of experiences and people that resonated with those in the film. If you have ever been to protest an injustice or been close friends with someone who gives so much of themselves to a cause, then you too will be deeply moved by this film.
The anger bubbles up so easily. I am of course so lucky to live in a time and place where I have the rights that so many women fought for me to have. Yet my anger is fuelled by the knowledge that so many women are still fighting for rights all over the world. That we are still fighting for the world to take our needs seriously and to treat women and our concerns as equally important as those of men.
As the film drew to a close, a women in the audience yelled out the date of the next women’s march to commemorate what they call ‘international women’s day of struggle’. But the word for struggle in German is ‘kampf’ which also means to fight. To me, this is very fitting. According to Gerda Lehrner, one of the founders of the field of women’s history, women organised and fought for over 70 years to get the right vote. Here in Switzerland it took until 1971-ish until women could vote on a federal level. That was like, yesterday, in the scheme of things. Saudi Arabian women got to vote for the first time last year, for crying out loud.
So let us keep fighting. And let us keep supporting and caring for each other, especially across our differences. One of the elements in the film I enjoyed the most, was this commeraderie, this bond between sisters that was forged. The way they looked after each other is something I have only ever seen from women. But I am by no means letting men off the hook either. (Note to men: you need to step up and be a visible part of making the world a better place).
There is so much more to say, but I will end with saying that our battles are not yet over. This film may have been a ‘historical period drama’, but there is still work to be done.