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The brutality experienced by the suffragettes

From the Listener Archives 2015: A cinematic portrayal of feminists’ struggle to win the vote is compelling, as is the newly revealed account of the brutality experienced by the suffragettes.

Emily Wilding Davison The scene after Emily Wilding Davison’s protest at the Epsom Downs Derby in 1913. Photo/Alamy

There is a moment in UK director Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette when Emily Wilding Davison, played by Natalie Press, pauses at the edge of the Epsom Downs racetrack. It is June 4, 1913. The Derby has started. Crowds are gathered. Newsreel cameras, a recent innovation, are tracking George V’s horse Anmer as it approaches Tattenham Corner. Davison glances back at her colleague Maud (Carey Mulligan), then ducks under the railing with her suffragette banner.

Images of the fallen horse, the thrown jockey, Davison’s trampled body (she dies four days later) are relayed around the world. Davison’s funeral, described as the last great ­suffragette march, makes front-page news, a telling and shocking account of the desperation and militancy of the suffrage movement.

The rest is disputed history. At the time, prominent suffragette and leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) Emmeline Pankhurst and daughter Christabel claimed Davison’s death as an act of extraordinary martyrdom. Recent digiti­sation of the original nitrate film stocks and the fact that Davison had a return rail ticket suggest it was a terrible miscalculation.

“I don’t think we can ever have an answer,” says Bafta-winning screenwriter Abi Morgan on the phone from her home in England. “But I don’t think she thought through the repercussions of what she was doing. She was passionate and defiant and she just had to get those colours on the horse. I see it as an act of reckless protest.”

Morgan, screenwriter of the BBC’s Birdsong and The Hour and, in tandem with Gavron, the films Brick Lane and The Iron Lady, was at first reluctant to take part in Gavron’s enthusiastic pursuit of a dramatised account of the suffragette movement. She knew little about the subject beyond “wide-brimmed hats and tambourines” and Winifred Banks’ cheerful Sister Suffragette ditty from Disney’s 1964 film Mary Poppins. But when she started wading through the documentation, including recently declassi­fied surveillance records from the time, “I thought, yes, this is a great story.”

“When you see the level of surveillance and the intimidation of these women, it is very sobering.”

Pankhurst Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst c1911. Photo/Getty Images


By 1912, when the film begins, half a ­century of campaigning for women’s right to vote had achieved little more than ridicule and indifference. That was about to change. Under the leadership of the charismatic Pankhurst, the new WSPU vowed to “wake up the nation” to women’s suffrage through “Deeds not Words”.

Groups of suffragettes (the word was coined as a derisive term by a British newspaper in 1906, then appropriated by the movement itself) smashed windows, vandalised artworks, interrupted telegraphic communications and blew up pillarboxes and unoccupied houses. They marched, they rallied, their distinctive white dresses and coloured sashes aimed at maximum publicity in the name of peaceful protest.

The police were not so restrained. They used secret surveillance to spy on suspected suffragettes. There were raids, threats, beatings and arrests. In jail, most notably the notorious Holloway Prison, women on hunger strike were held down and subjected to brutal episodes of force-feeding as doctors, determined the movement should not claim a martyr, used 12cm tubes to force a greasy mixture down throats or into nostrils, anuses, even vaginas in what UK gender historian Jane Purvis from the University of Portsmouth describes as a “kind of rape”. It was gratuitous, violent, degrading and, inflicted on already frail women, dangerous – the tubes were often unclean, and sharp steel gags were sometimes used to force the victim’s jaws open.

Pankhurst Pankhurst runs foul of the authorities c1914. Photo/Getty Images

Under the Prisoners’ Discharge (or “Cat and Mouse”) Act of 1913, the vicious cycle of hunger striking and forced feeding was ­prolonged as ailing prisoners were discharged then, once fit, rearrested to ­continue their sentence.

But the suffragette movement refused to weaken. As Pankhurst said on a US fund­raising tour in 1913, “There are women who are being carried from their sick beds on stretchers into [WSPU] meetings. They are too weak to speak, but they go amongst their fellow workers just to show … their spirit is alive, and they mean to go on as long as life lasts.”

“For me,” says Morgan, “the film was about trying to understand, what would have made me a suffragette. How far would I have had to be pushed? I was trying to show a nuanced journey of what would lead someone to an act of activism and what makes activism tip over into martyrdom.”

Against the cast of well-heeled and well-educated women, including Pankhurst (played by a steely-eyed Meryl Streep) and the fictitious character of Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, great grand-daughter of Prime Minister Lord Herbert Asquith, who opposed women’s suffrage), Suffragette tracks this increasing momentum through the growing radicalisation of Maud, a fictional laundry worker from London’s East End. Contending with the fury of her working-class husband (Ben Whishaw), the spy tactics of Irish policeman Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson), the beatings dished out to her co-workers and her painful experiences of intimidation and force-feeding, Maud becomes more determined, more desperate for a better future for Britain’s women and girls.

Morgan: “Until the suffragettes, upper- and middle-class women had largely dominated the suffrage movement, but they realised they needed to mobilise women in society at large. They needed ‘foot soldiers’ – I kept hearing that phrase – regardless of social standing or education and they brought together so many different women. Many were illiterate, they were tied to their jobs, they weren’t women of means. So, when they were arrested or incarcerated, they lost their jobs. They couldn’t even pay bail. [The film] is trying to show that it is circumstance that can lead to activism. You are not born a hero, it is ordinary people who change history.”

That change was slow to come. With the onset of World War I, the suffragist movement in England was put on hold, although the British Government was quick to ask the WSPU for assistance in drumming up ­support for the war – certainly the responsibility carried by women during the war years gave extra weight to their cause.

It was not until 1918 that female property owners over the age of 30 were allowed to vote. It took another 10 years for the vote to be extended to all women over 21.

Kate Sheppard Kiwi women’s rights campaigner Kate Sheppard. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/PUBL-0089-1914-001


By then, New Zealand women had been voting for 35 years. Inspired by the early women’s suffrage movements in England and the US, the battle here was less militant, the language less strident and, compared with the home countries, the social structure less rigid as women, all women, had little choice but to work alongside their husbands or fathers.

“There was a lot more freedom and equality for women arriving, living [within the] colonialist situation,” says historian Margaret Lovell-Smith. “And many settlers were resolved to make this a better place than England.”

Many churches were supportive of women’s suffrage, particularly the non-conformist churches, and several politicians were at least not averse to the idea. As Nelson supporter Mary Ann Müller wrote under the pseudonym “Fémmina” in 1869, “This change is coming, but why is New Zealand only to follow? Why not take the initiative? She has but to inaugurate this new position, all will applaud.”

Six years later, female ratepayers were given the right to vote in local body elections. From 1877, they were allowed to stand for school committees. In 1876, Canterbury College (later the University of Canterbury) became the first Australasian university to admit women to degree classes on an equal basis with men.

“One of the arguments used against ­suffrage was that women’s brains were smaller than men’s,” says Lovell-Smith, “but if women were going to university and ­getting degrees, it demolished a lot of those arguments.”

In 1887, Kate Sheppard was appointed head of the franchise department of the recently formed Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). As she wrote in her column in the Prohibitionist, “Is it right that your mother, your sister, your wife, or your daughter should be classed with criminals and lunatics, or treated as aliens from a foreign country? … Is it right that while the loafer, the gambler, the drunkard, and even the wife-beater has a vote, earnest, educated and refined women are denied it?”

Sheppard befriended Sir John Hall, former New Zealand premier, politician and ­adherent of English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, who had long advocated gender equality.

From his Hororata homestead of Terrace Station, Hall threw his support behind the suffrage movement. As he said in a speech to Parliament in 1881, “Women have quite as much brains as and, in many cases, more than men have, and they have quite as much interest in the colony.”

“He was an unassuming man,” says Hall’s great-grand-daughter, Kate Foster. “A small man, a workaholic. He didn’t have the mana of [Prime Minister] Richard Seddon, but as he told Parliament, the fact that it was a conservative middle-aged man pushing this showed it was not such a dramatic step.”

Hall urged Sheppard to gather signatures to impress on Parliament that women really did want universal suffrage. An active league of women around the country took up the challenge. Hall’s wife, Rose, and daughter Mildred collected signatures in Hororata. In Christchurch, Lovell-Smith’s great grandmother, Jennie Smith, drove around Yaldhurst in a buggy collecting names. Her husband, printer William Sidney Smith, supported the movement by printing leaflets – following Jennie’s death in 1924, he married the then-widowed Kate Sheppard.

There was resistance. In the Terrace ­Station library, Foster points to a poster printed for shop windows: “Epicene Women: ­Electioneering Women Are Requested Not to Call Here.”

Henry Fish, Dunedin mayor and politician, warned citizens of the “shrieking sisterhood”. Bringing women into contact with politics, he wrote, would destroy “that refinement, that delicacy of character, which has been her greatest charm ­hitherto”. Extending the franchise to married women in particular, he argued, would be “disastrous to their physical frame”.

He also said higher education was dele­terious to women’s brains and riding bicycles deleterious to their health and reproductive ability.

Despite this, the first petition attracted more than 9000 signatures, the second more than 19,000. Both passed by the House of Representatives; both rejected by the Legis­lative Council. A third petition, supported by the growing network of WCTU branches, resulted in a petition of close to 32,000 names, unrolled by Hall down the central aisle of the debating chamber in 1893.

A month later, on September 19, women’s suffrage was granted after two previous non-supporters, outraged by ­Seddon’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings to have the legislation rejected, voted in favour of an Electoral Bill that specifically included women as eligible voters. Although Seddon was not in favour of suffrage – once declaring, “All domestic felicity would be destroyed once ladies commenced to dabble in politics” – he took credit for the vote.

Meryl Streep Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette.


Suffragette is not the record of a bygone battle. As Morgan says, much of the subject’s appeal was seeing this “slice of suffragette history” still taking place. It is only 44 years since women in Switzerland gained the right to vote in federal elections. Samoa gave women the vote in 1990, Kuwait in 2005. This month’s municipal elections in Saudi Arabia are the first in which women are allowed to both vote and stand – about 130,000 women are registered to vote, ­compared with 1.35 million men.

Even then, says Morgan, “the bottom line is women can’t drive themselves to the polling station. The man is still head of the family and he will help her make that decision on that vote. It does raise questions about what equality means.”

Even countries with a long history of ­universal suffrage appear to be experiencing a downturn in female voters. A MORI poll in 2010 found that a third of British women – 9.1 million – did not vote in the 2010 election.

Are we worried? Since Time ran a cover story titled “Is Feminism Dead?” in 1998, claims that feminism has expired under the combined weight of lip gloss, ­teetering heels and the self-obsessed sexuality of young female performers have crammed media columns and blog spaces.

In 2014, singer/songwriter Lily Allen, daughter of Suffragette producer Alison Owen (Sylvia, The Other Boleyn Girl, Brick Lane) told men’s magazine Shortlist that the word feminism “shouldn’t even be a thing any more”. But, as British writer Laura Bates writes, “Feminism isn’t dead, despite all the assassination attempts.”

“Feminism is about equality and freedom of choice,” Owen told the Telegraph this year. “It means women having the same ­oppor­tunities to realise their potential as men do.” Her daughter later changed tack, describing her song Hard Out There as a ­“fantastic ­feminist anthem”.

As Morgan says, there is more work to do. “We still don’t have equal pay. If Mrs Pankhurst was to come back, I think she would be shocked that we still don’t have parity for women.”

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