When a film like Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep's Suffragette hits theaters on October 23, the conversation surrounding women's rights will inevitably be furthered. In fact, it already has been. At the Los Angeles premiere of the film in Beverly Hills Tuesday night, the film's stars, director, and producers were eager to talk to the ways this film can progress the discourse surrounding women's rights. "It reminds us how important the vote was for women, and how important it is to use it — how precarious those rights are. You're coming up to an election," the British director, Sarah Gavron, says. "And if your people don't stand up and be counted, they won't be represented by government. When the suffragettes got their vote in 1918 and fully in 1928 in the UK, there was a whole lot of legislation that came in that transformed women's lives. They finally cared about women because they were voting."
According to Gavron, these rights included rights over children, rights over money women earned, the right to serve on juries — "all these things they had previously been denied," Gavron says. But things still need to get better for women in 2015. "Women are woefully unrepresented in government, in the labs. Women still experience horrible levels of sexual violence. And of course there's the gender pay gap. There are lots of issues we need to tackle."
Fortuitously, many of the actresses cast in the film have deep ties to the subject matter and its history. "We hired Helena Bonham Carter, and I don't know if you know, but Helena's great, great, grandfather is Lord Asquith, who actually was the prime minister at the time, and is our bad guy in the movie," producer Faye Ward says. "We shot the movie at the House of Parliament, and we were the first movie ever to shoot there. Which is a fantastic acknowledgment of a government force that never let women through those doors. And not only that, they had oppressed that moment in history we were conveying. On that day of shooting we had Helen Pankhurst, whose great grandmother is Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Meryl Streep, on set."
The film addresses a very specific moment in history. A narrative centering around a group of working women in 1912 who joined the suffragette movement and ultimately altered history forever. Producers Alison Owen and Ward spoke to the difficult task they had of getting big name male actors on board the film.
"We found it amusing that when we were casting the actresses we got every single first choice, we couldn't have been luckier," Owen says. "But when we started to cast the male actors it was a different story. We got agents calling us back saying, 'He loves the script, but the role's not really big enough. He's reacting to things the whole times, he's reacting to the world of women," And we were like, 'Well, welcome to the world of actresses.'"
The resistance of the male actors to sign on could be, according to the producers, a product of the resistance audiences have had for embracing this kind of story in the past. "People have been asking us why this movie hasn't been made, why it's been so many years, and I do think it is because women's history has been oppressed. We're taught history from a man's perspective, and we're just sick of seeing films where the woman is at home chopping carrots and the husband is saving the world," Ward says. "What we want to do is really make a difference and change that and the more people that come and see this movie the more financiers will realize women can chop carrots and save the world. The best feminists are often the men."
But the label feminist isn't one embraced by the masses as a whole. It is, however, slowly seeping into the public's awareness on a more regular basis, according to Gavron. "It used to be a dirty word," says the director. "What feminism means is that you want sexual equality, and who couldn't not want that, male or female. It's good for everybody."
Owen agrees, saying, "I am 100 percent feminist, and I've got no worries about using the word. Feminism isn't about hating men — we love men — a lot of the best feminists are men. It's about inclusion and equality. Feminism represents all of that, and there's no reason anyone should be scared of that label. I say, reclaim it!"
Images: Focus Features