Suffragette is a powerful new film about the women's suffrage movement in Great Britain. While most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with the fight our own country's women suffered through before gaining the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, few are aware of the equally intense struggle that took place across the pond around the same time. In the film, out Oct. 23, Meryl Streep portrays one of these fighters, a larger-than-life leader of the movement with an almost folk hero-like quality to her. But is this portrayal based in reality, or is this yet another revisionist take on history from Hollywood? It's surprising and great to know that Meryl Streep's Suffragette character is based on a real person — and one you're going to want to know.
In the movie, Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, who was perhaps the most-influential person of the British women's suffrage movement (she was even named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century). Streep's performance is sure to be lauded (seriously, what performance of Streep's hasn't been?), and Pankhurst's great-granddaughter Helen even told The Telegraph that her famous ancestor probably would have loved Streep. But just who was Emmeline Pankhurst, and why does she have such a prominent role in Suffragette?
Simply put, women would most likely not have gained the right to vote in the U.K. when they did without Emmeline Pankhurst. The legend first became interested in women's suffrage at 14, and floated from organization to organization before founding the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 when she was 45. This group was committed to obtaining women's suffrage by virtually any means necessary, and perpetuated a slogan of "deeds, not words". Pankhurst encouraged her followers to break windows, assault police officers, and commit arson in order to get their point across, and Pankhurst was jailed repeatedly. In other words, the WSPU were not the most peaceful protestors.
But Pankhurst wasn't interested in violence for the sake of violence. She even suspended her party's militant activity during World War I, believing that Britain needed all of its citizens working together if it was going to survive the war against the Germans. She used extreme tactics because it was the only way to be heard, and while some debate the morality of Pankhurst's methods, few would argue against their effectiveness. In 1918, largely as a result of Pankhurst's influence, Britain passed the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which granted women over 30 the right to vote. Shortly before her victory, Pankhurst reformed the WSPU as a legitimate political party, the Women's Party, which devoted itself to causes such as equal pay for women and equal marriage laws. Sadly, these issues are still being fought for today in many countries (present company included).
Emmeline Pankhurst was a huge figure for women's rights, not only in Britain but throughout the world. The 20th century would have undoubtedly been a different place without her, and I'm glad her story is being told in Suffragette — and I'm equally happy to hear that she probably would have been cool with Meryl Streep playing her.
Images: Focus Features; giphy (3)