Why 'Suffragette' Should've Been Made Long Ago

As the clock struck 6 p.m. on the Night of the Broken Panes, women across 1912 London picked up bricks and stones and flung them through shop windows. 40 years of peaceful protests in the U.K., during which time the pacifistic suffragettes argued for equal voting rights, had yielded no results; a press blockade meant their efforts weren't even publicized. So the suffragettes turned to civil disobedience: harder to suppress, impossible to ignore. And in the Oct. 23 release movie Suffragette , directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, these women — and their fights — finally get their due.

"We sold it as a kick-ass movie," Morgan says, sitting down with Bustle. "Kind of action movie."

The film, starring Carey Mulligan as Maud, a working-class laundress, alongside Meryl Streep as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and Helena Bonham Carter as activist Edith Ellyn, tells the story of these ferocious women for the first time on the big screen. Some of them, like Pankhurst, have been immortalized in books and other media; others are unnamed in the annals of history, and are just now getting their on-screen due. Yet no matter their fame, Gavron and Morgan worked to let each woman's story take front-and-center.

"I write women, in all their complexity," says Gavron, who sat down with Bustle in a separate conversation. "And hopefully, as women, we make films in all their complexity."

Still, the director adds that she wonders if the movie's 10 million pound budget might have been even more generous if the cast had featured male actors, and had been billed in the same manner. This double-standard in the industry is something she's noted previously, during her career as a writer. "People often say to me, 'So you write strong women,'" the director says. "And I always find that really laughable because, you know, no male writers get asked that question — 'So you write strong men?'"

It's a statement that echoes that of her star, Mulligan, who recently told Elle UK that she's against the term "strong women," saying that "the idea that women are inherently weak -- and we’ve identified the few strong ones to tell stories about -- is mad."

In Suffragette, Mulligan's Maud is, without question, the type of character someone would give that label. She's a composite character, constructed out of historical accounts from the era. Though initial drafts of the script had focused on the character of Pankhurst, Gavron explains that an emphasis on the leadership might have produced a film that was "an examination of power," so instead, she decided to focus the movie on the suffragettes fighting from the working-class.

"What we were really interested in was how people fight inequality from the ground," Gavron says, "and the woman with no platform and no sense of entitlement." She and screenwriter Morgan honed in on a repeated motif they found in the course of their research — the idea of a "footsoldier" in the movement. It's a term that gets at the very heart of Suffragette: The women at the roots of suffrage efforts were in some ways its action heroes.

But Mulligan's Maud doesn't start the film as a militant suffragette. In fact, when called to testify on behalf of a friend in front of politician David Lloyd George, she's unable to really say what obtaining the vote would mean to her. At this point, it's so entirely beyond her realm of experience that the possibility has not ever entered her worldview. Similar stories from working women across England led Morgan, when writing the film, to consider, "What would motivate somebody who was inherently not a militant person?"

So to find out, she and Gavron looked closely at accounts of working conditions for women at the time. Among the nauseating outcomes were illnesses and accidents: blisters from boiling water and noxious gases, reduced lung capability from the oppressive dampness. There were surveillance photos, too, taken without their knowledge, showing the reality of their labor. But amid these accounts were pristine images of the women in their starched white uniforms — the posed set-pieces that swipe the actual circumstances under the rug.

"We forensically looked through photos of the women at this time, and there were two dialogues going on," says Morgan. "When we started to look at the surveillance of these women taken when the women didn’t know they were being photographed — it reminded me about how much of our history has been created."

She gestures midway down her torso, and explains the surveillance images depicted women with their shirts unbuttoned halfway because of the oppressive heat; others showed women covertly smoking cigarettes, or workers in the heat of an argument.

During the more active phases of the suffrage movement, these women were also subjected to terrible conditions during their incarceration. Many undertook hunger strikes; prison officials force-fed them using tubes inserted up their nostrils. Emily Wilding Davison was force-fed 49 times, Morgan says, a procedure that risks suffocation and lung puncture.

So it's no shock that, as Suffragette depicts, many of these women resorted to force and extreme measures in order to make their voices heard. The movie is a conversation-starter, about why it has taken so long to tell this story — any story — of the suffragette movements. As the film's credits roll, a screen cycles past detailing each of the dates when women received equal voting rights around the world. After a flurry of suffrage movements in the first half of the 20th century, the landmarks came fewer and farther between. Perhaps most shockingly, Swiss women did not receive suffrage equal to male citizens until 1971.

According to Gavron, the story has taken so long to come to film in part because it has taken so long to even be folded into the academic narrative. She says she never learned about women's suffrage in school.

"Women’s history has been marginalized, because women have been marginalized. Our stories have been marginalized," says the director, adding that this is also a symptom of the lack of female filmmakers.

Yet Suffragette is an attempt to reclaim that narrative, and to tell it from the rarely seen perspective of the working-class women fighting for change. Says Morgan, "It was... a desire to give voice to the voiceless." Now, finally, they're being heard.

Images: Focus Features (2)