Spartacus Blog

Why Suffragette is a reactionary movie

Wednesday, 20th October, 2015

John Simkin

Abi Morgan, the writer of Suffragette, wrote the first draft of the script about a middle-class member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). However, she changed her mind and according to an interview in Variety when "the film started to hone in" she decided "let’s do it about the working class woman” in the movement. This caused her problems as "there were not a lot of suffragette memoirs from those women because a lot of them were illiterate and couldn’t afford to take the time to write. They were working. And also I think it was about confidence and being educated enough to feel you were allowed to enter the literary domain in a way that the more iconic figures of Pankhurst and Davison were able to". Therefore, Morgan decided to create a fictional character, Maud Watts. (1)

However, it is not true that working-class members of the WSPU did not write their memoirs. Hannah Mitchell, a dressmaker from Bolton, wrote The Hard Way Up (1953), a tremendous account of her experiences in the women's movement and Mary Gawthorpe, the daughter of a leather worker, from Leeds, published her memoir, Up Hill to Holloway in 1962. The problem for Morgan was that she wanted to set her film in 1912-1913 in order to show the militant acts of the WSPU and the hunger-strikes they had to endure. By this time, Mitchell and Gawthorpe, had left the WSPU, as they realised that the organization was not serving the interests of working-class women.

The problem for Morgan is that she appears to know so little about the political and class background of the women's movement. Emmeline Pankhurst, a former member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP), established the WSPU in October 1903. When she joined the ILP in 1893 it was the only party in the country that supported universal suffrage. In the 1895 General Election, her husband, Richard Pankhurst, was the ILP candidate for Manchester Gorton.

Emmeline's husband died on 5th July, 1898. She remained active in politics and in February 1900, she supported the formation of the Labour Party (a group made up of the ILP, the Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian Society, and some trade unions). According to Teresa Billington-Greig she was "of the opinion that the new combined Labour Party would be the instrument of enfranchisement for women". (2)

In the 1902 Labour Party conference Pankhurst created controversy when she proposed that "in order to improve the economic and social condition of women, it is necessary to take immediate steps to secure the granting of the suffrage to women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men". This was not accepted and instead a resolution calling for "adult suffrage" became party policy.

Pankhurst's views on limited suffrage received a great deal of criticism. One of its leaders, John Bruce Glasier, had been a long-term supporter of universal suffrage, and like his wife, Katharine Glasier, was particularly opposed to Pankhurst's views. He recorded in his diary that he disapproved of her "individualist sexism". (3) At a meeting with Emmeline and her daughter, Christabel Pankhurst, he claimed that the two women "were not seeking democratic freedom, but self-importance". (4)

The film highlights the fact that Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) was willing to consider using more militant tactics than the NUWSS. Abi Morgan completely ignores a far more important difference between the two organizations. The main objective of the WSPU was to gain, not universal suffrage, but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.” This meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. As one critic pointed out, it was "not votes for women", but “votes for ladies.” (5)

The forming of the WSPU upset both the NUWSS and the Labour Party, the only party at the time that supported universal suffrage. They pointed out that in 1903 only a third of men had the vote in parliamentary elections. On the 16th December 1904, The Clarion published a letter from Ada Nield Chew, attacking WSPU policy: "The entire class of wealthy women would be enfranchised, that the great body of working women, married or single, would be voteless still, and that to give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament." (6)

If Abi Morgan really wanted to write a screenplay about a working-class member of the women's movement there is no shortage of candidates. But she could not do that as well as making them members of the WSPU, as it was no more than a middle-class pressure group. As the author of The Suffragette Bombers: Britain's Forgotten Terrorists (2014) has pointed out: "The suffragettes were not interested in extending the franchise to working-class women who did not fulfil the property qualifications necessary at that time to be included on the electoral register, they, simply wished for those within their own social class to be allowed the vote." (7)

Vera Holme driving Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909
Vera Holme driving Emmeline Pankhurst in 1909

A great deal of the film deals with the working conditions for women in London. Maud Watts works in a Bethnal Green laundry. The director Sarah Gavron, clearly wanted someone sympathetic and appealing with whom audiences could identify. Not so much that they willing to cast a working-class woman to play the part. Instead they chose the privately educated Carey Mulligan and told her to adopt an appropriate accent. No dialogue coach in the world, can put pain where there isn’t any. The truth is that Mulligan, even with the help of the best make-up artist available, does not have the face to show the suffering of a working-class woman.

A more important point is that the WSPU were not concerned about the lives of working-class women and had "little sustained contact with organized women workers". (8) The people who were fighting to improve the conditions of working women are not mentioned in this film. This included the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). In 1911, Mary Macarthur, the organization's secretary, organized an estimated 2,000 women in strikes in London complaining about their working conditions. (9) During this period the WSPU and the NUWSS, actually came under attack from feminists such as Eleanor Marx, who criticized them for opposing state intervention in imposing standards in the treatment of women workers in factories. (10)

Abi Morgan has attempted to write a non-political film about the struggle for the vote. Strangely, no political parties are named in the Suffragette. The viewer would be unaware that the country had a Liberal government in 1912, headed by Herbert Asquith (his great-grand-daughter, Helena Bonham Carter, appears as Edith Ellyn, in the film). During the 1910 General Election campaign Asquith announced that if he was returned to power he would make sure that women with property would get the franchise. It was his change of mind in November 1911 that caused the window breaking campaign that is shown in the film.

Nor are we told of what the Conservative Party and the Labour Party thought about this issue. Of course, as always, the Conservatives were on the wrong side of the argument. William Cremer was one of the leading opponents of women's suffrage in the House of Commons. Hansard reported: "He (William Cremer) had always contended that if we opened the door and enfranchised ever so small a number of females, they could not possibly close it, and that it ultimately meant adult suffrage. The government of the country would therefore be handed over to a majority who would not be men, but women. Women are creatures of impulse and emotion and did not decide questions on the ground of reason as men did. He was sometimes described as a woman-hater, but he had had two wives, and he thought that was the best answer he could give to those who called him a woman-hater. He was too fond of them to drag them into the political arena and to ask them to undertake responsibilities, duties and obligations which they did not understand and did not care for." (11)

The Conservative Party helped to establish the Anti-Suffrage League. (12) Led by Mary Humphry Ward, she published a manifesto that stated: "It is time that the women who are opposed to the concession of the parliamentary franchise to women should make themselves fully and widely heard. The matter is urgent. Unless those who hold that the success of the women's suffrage movement would bring disaster upon England are prepared to take immediate and effective action, judgement may go by default and our country drift towards a momentous revolution, both social and political, before it has realised the dangers involved." (13)

Postcard published in 1906.
An anti-suffrage postcard published in 1906.

Winston Churchill, who was a member of the Liberal government at the time wrote to Asquith on 21st December, 1911: "The women's suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers, and husbands." (14) The right-wing media, that controlled communications at the time, agreed with Churchill. Interestingly, the term "suffragette" was first used as a word of derision by the Daily Mail. (15) The women who refused to use violence were called "suffragists".

The only politician to appear is David Lloyd George who appears to be sympathetic to the women's cause and it is those unnamed members of his unnamed political party that are against the idea. The leader of the Labour Party, James Keir Hardie, who was a strong supporter of women's suffrage, is never mentioned. Nor is George Lansbury, Maud Watts's MP, who along with Hardie, led the campaign in the House of Commons for votes for women. Lansbury was especially critical of the Cat & Mouse Act and was ordered to leave the building after shaking his fist in the face of Asquith, the Prime Minister, and told him that he was "beneath contempt" because of his treatment of WSPU prisoners. In October, 1912, Lansbury decided to draw attention to the plight of WSPU prisoners by resigning his seat in Parliament and fighting a by-election in favour of votes for women. Lansbury was defeated by 731 votes. (16)

Sylvia Pankhurst recovering from hunger strike in July 1913.
Kitty Marion being arrested after heckling David Lloyd George on 5th September, 1912.

In April 1912, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which previously supported the Liberal Party, announced that it intended to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary by-elections. At this time the NUWSS had 100,000 members whereas the WSPU had less than 2,000. The NUWSS established an Election Fighting Fund (EFF) to support these Labour candidates. The NUWSS also employed organizers such as Ada Nield Chew and Selina Cooper, who were active members of the Labour Party. This created a crisis in the Liberal Party as without supporting women's suffrage they faced the possibility of election defeat.

One wonders why it was decided to ignore the role played by politicians such as Hardie and Lansbury in the struggle for the vote. In doing so, Abi Morgan, is not able to show the arguments put forward by the established political class. To the modern viewer, without a good understanding of this period in history, this must be fairly confusing. I wonder if the funding of the film meant that they could not use information that would give good publicity to the left but highly damaging to the right.

By concentrating on the militant activities of the WSPU in Suffragette, the impression is given that it was these events that won women the vote. The last scene in the movie in the funeral of Emily Wilding Davison, the martyr the WSPU had been hoping for. However, in reality, many historians believe that their actions actually delayed women getting the vote.

As Fern Riddell has pointed out, the WSPU was now seen as a terrorist organisation. "The press used the same language to describe the actions of Irish Republicans in the late 19th century as they did for the suffragette attacks of the early 20th.... If contemporary society judged the actions of the militant suffragettes to be equal to those of groups such as Irish Republicans, whose historical identity has become central to discussions of terrorism, why should we continue to ignore or lessen the nature of their violence? All violent acts of militant suffrage can be viewed as acts of terror.... These threats were then carried out and ranged from window breaking to the destruction of communications (post-box burning, telegraph and telephone wires being cut); the damage of culturally significant objects (paintings in national galleries, statues covered in tar, glass boxes smashed in the Jewel House of the Tower of London); and arson attacks on theatres, MP's houses and sporting pavilions. At the more extreme end, bombs and incendiary devices were placed in and outside of banks, churches and even Westminster Abbey." (17)

The WSPU was always a small organization. At its peak it only had eighty-eight branches of which no less than thirty-four were in London. (18) Although regional offices were maintained they had no power and all decisions were made in the capital. (19) Elizabeth Dean, who helped Mary Gawthorpe run the Manchester office, complained: "When the women's suffrage movement was formed by the Pankhursts, it was... middle-class. They took decisions in London... We was left to do any irritating things we could think about, on our own." (20)

Emmeline Pankhurst told members that she intended to run the WSPU without interference. As a result of this speech, Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Helena Normanton, Anne Cobden Sanderson, Margaret Nevinson and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League (WFL). Like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL was a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. (21)

The NUWSS decided to organize a Woman's Suffrage Pilgrimage in order to show Parliament how many women wanted the vote. Members of the NUWSS set off on 18th June, 1913. The North-Eastern Federation, the North and East Ridings Federation, the West Riding Federation, the East Midland Federation and the Eastern Counties Federation, travelled on the Newcastle-upon-Tyne to London route. The North-Western Federation, the Manchester and District, the West Lancashire, West Cheshire and North Wales Federation, the West Midlands Federation, and the Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire Federation travelled on the Carlisle to the capital route. The South-Western Federation, the West of England Federation, the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire Federation walked from Lands End to Hyde Park. (22)

A large group of women reached Hyde Park in London on 26th July. As The Times newspaper pointed out, the march was part of a campaign against the violent methods being used by the Women Social & Political Union: "On Saturday the pilgrimage of the law abiding advocates of votes for women ended in a great gathering in Hyde Park attended by some 50,000 persons. The proceedings were quite orderly and devoid of any untoward incident. The proceedings, indeed, were as much a demonstration against militancy as one in favour of women's suffrage. Many bitter things were said of the militant women." (23)

Pilgrimage entering London on 26th July, 1913
Pilgrimage entering London on 26th July, 1913

On 29th July 1913, Millicent Fawcett wrote to Herbert Asquith "on behalf of the immense meetings which assembled in Hyde Park on Saturday and voted with practical unanimity in favour of a Government measure." (24) Asquith replied that the demonstration had "a special claim" on his consideration and stood "upon another footing from similar demands proceeding from other quarters where a different method and spirit is predominant."

The problem for Asquith is that he could not be seen as giving in to the "terrorism" of the WSPU. He had to wait for them to give up in order to grant women the vote. By the summer of 1914 over 1,000 suffragettes had been imprisoned for destroying public property. All the leading members of the WSPU were in prison, in very poor health or were living in exile. The number of active members of the organisation in a position to commit acts of violence was now very small.

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. (25)

Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Annie Kenney reported that she had received new orders came from Christabel Pankhurst: "The Militants, when the prisoners are released, will fight for their country as they have fought for the Vote." Kenney later wrote: "Mrs. Pankhurst, who was in Paris with Christabel, returned and started a recruiting campaign among the men in the country. This autocratic move was not understood or appreciated by many of our members. They were quite prepared to receive instructions about the Vote, but they were not going to be told what they were to do in a world war."

After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men. Although the NUWSS supported the war effort, it did not follow the WSPU strategy of becoming involved in persuading young men to join the armed forces. (26)

In January, 1917, the House of Commons began discussing the possibility of granting women the vote in parliamentary elections. Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister during the militant suffrage campaign, had always been totally against women having the vote. However, during the debate he confessed he had changed his mind and now supported the claims of the NUWSS and the Women's Freedom League.

On 28th March, 1917, the House of Commons voted 341 to 62 that women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or graduates of British universities. MPs rejected the idea of granting the vote to women on the same terms as men. Lilian Lenton, who had played an important role in the militant campaign later recalled: "Personally, I didn't vote for a long time, because I hadn't either a husband or furniture, although I was over 30."

After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act the first opportunity for women to vote was in the General Election in December, 1918. As the WSPU had what they wanted they disbanded and formed the The Women's Party. The three senior officers in the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, and Flora Drummond, sent out a letter to all members on 23rd February, 1918: "Votes for Women has been won because the WSPU was blessed with marvellous leadership, which drew to itself loyal and enthusiastic followers... Under its new name of the Women's Party, the WSPU has now even greater work to do." (27)

The NUWSS still advocated universal suffrage and therefore continued the fight under the new name, National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). (28) Eleanor Rathbone succeeded Millicent Fawcett as president of the new body. Later that year Rathbone persuaded the organization to accept a six point reform programme. (1) Equal pay for equal work, involving an open field for women in industry and the professions. (2) An equal standard of sex morals as between men and women, involving a reform of the existing divorce law which condoned adultery by the husband, as well as reform of the laws dealing with solicitation and prostitution. (3) The introduction of legislation to provide pensions for civilian widows with dependent children. (4) The equalization of the franchise and the return to Parliament of women candidates pledged to the equality programme. (5) The legal recognition of mothers as equal guardians with fathers of their children. (6) The opening of the legal profession and the magistracy to women.

Meanwhile, the former leaders of the WSPU, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, joined the Conservative Party. Others such as Mary Richardson and Mary Allen became active in the British Union of Fascists. None of these women showed any interest at all in getting the franchise for women still denied the vote.

The NUSEC had close links with the Labour Party and Ramsay McDonald and were bitterly disappointed when its 1924 minority government was unable to give the vote to women on the same basis as men. A bill was introduced in March 1928 to give women the vote on the same terms as men. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections.

Abi Morgan has argued that Suffragette is the first movie to be made about the struggle for women's suffrage. I suspect that for the adult population that means it will be the main source for their understanding of how the vote was achieved. No wonder the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail gave it great reviews. All we can hope is that teachers in the classroom make sure our youth are told the true story.

It would be really good if someone would make a movie about one of those real working-class women who fought for equality during this period. Here are some examples of women in this category (in alphabetical order): Hertha Ayrton, Minnie Baldock, Annie Besant, Teresa Billington-Greig, Margaret Bondfield, Winifred Batho, Ada Nield Chew, Selina Cooper, Mary Fildes, Mary Gawthorpe, Katharine Glasier, Edith How-Martyn, Annie Kenney, Millie Lansbury, Jennie Lee, Lilian Lenton, Victoria Lidiard, Mary Macarthur, Hannah Mitchell, Julia Scurr, Evelyn Sharp, Vera Wentworth, Alice Wheeldon, Hettie Wheeldon and Ellen Wilkinson.


(1) Variety (6th October, 2015)

(2) Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (2001) page 100

(3) John Bruce Glasier, diary entry (18th October, 1902)

(4) John Bruce Glasier, diary entry (18th October, 1902)

(5) Simon Webb, The Suffragette Bombers: Britain's Forgotten Terrorists (2014) page 3

(6) Ada Nield Chew, The Clarion (16th December 1904)

(7) Simon Webb, The Suffragette Bombers: Britain's Forgotten Terrorists (2014) page 3

(8) Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us (1984) page 41

(9) Angela V. John, Mary Macarthur : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Sheila Rowbotham, Dreamers of a New Day (2011) page 174

(11) William Cremer, speech in the House of Commons (25th April, 1906)

(12) Ray Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) page 319

(13) Mary Humphry Ward, The Anti-Suffrage League (8th July, 1908)

(14) Winston Churchill, letter to Herbert Asquith (21st December, 1911)

(15) Elizabeth Crawford, The Women's Suffragette Movement: A Reference Guide (1999) page 452

(16) John Shepherd, George Lansbury : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(17) Fern Riddell, History Today (3rd March, 2015)

(18) Roger Fulford, Votes for Women (1942) page 149

(19) Andrew Rosen, Rise Up, Women! (1974) page 115

(20) Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us (1984) page 41

(21) Teresa Billington-Greig, The Non-Violent Militant (1987) pages 102-108

(22) Catherine Marshall, The Common Cause (4th July 1913)

(23) The Times (26th July, 1913)

(24) Millicent Fawcett, letter to Herbert Asquith (29th July 1913)

(25) Martin Pugh, The Pankhursts (2001) page 299

(26) Paula Bartley, Votes for Women 1860-1928 (1998) page 88

(27) Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Kenney, and Flora Drummond, letter to all WSPU members (23rd February, 1918)

(28) Joyce Marlowe, Votes for Women (2001) page 255

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