Behind the Scenes of ‘Suffragette’

Michelle S. Lee ’16

“Suffragette,” a historical film highlighting the movement of women for the right to vote in early 20th-century London starring Meryl Streep as iconic suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and Carey Mulligan as young suffragette Maud Watts, is set to come out in theaters on Friday, Oct. 23. In a college press conference hosted by Focus Features, “Suffragette” director Sarah Gavron, screenwriter Abi Morgan, producers Alison Owen and Faye Ward and great-grandaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, Helen Pankhurst, discussed their accounts of the production of the film.

Inspiration for the film began with a questioning of women’s representation in the historical United Kingdom, in which several of the producers and screenwriters banded together in hopes of producing a film that would highlight feminist movements that were pivotal in advancing women’s right to vote. The film’s development was carried forward by a team of female producers.

“The deeper we got into the research, the more relevant it all starts to really become in today’s society about what this story is and how this story can travel,” said Ward.

Development of the film, which began several years ago, included the team investigating the historical background of the suffragette movement, consulting with historians, researching in libraries and in archives and gathering gaining firsthand accounts through diaries written by literate women of the time. The purpose of the film hoped to highlight the participation of women from the lower, middle and upper classes via the perspective of the main character, Watts, a working-class launderette in London’s East End.

The film covered the militancy of the movement as well as the police and public force used against the protestors, including beatings, public shaming and force-feedings of hunger-striking incarcerated suffragettes. It not only highlighted the use of force against protestors but also military tactics used by the suffragettes to gain visibility.

“As doors were closed on them, [suffragettes] found new ways [to protest]. As they were treated more and more brutally, they responded with militancy in terms of property, never on people… It really needs to be positioned in context of the violence by the state as well,” said Pankhurst. “We could have done a nice, pretty story without it, but the reality of both the violence done to them and how far they were willing to go was more powerful and more interesting in terms of how we reflect on the world today.”

“The film chimed with today… it made one realize it touches on police surveillance, why people turn to activism when they’re treated unequally, the brutal treatment of women in police force-feedings and other issues that feel relevant,” said Gavron.

The film went under fire when a quote by Emmeline Pankhurst — “I would rather be a rebel than a slave” — appeared in a promotional campaign for the film. The controversial quote, worn on t-shirts by a cast of white actresses, bore largely negative connotations throughout social media networks, which criticized the racial insensitivity of likening the suffragette movement in the United Kingdom to that of historical slavery in the United States.

“If Emmeline knew her words would be interpreted the way [they are] now she would be shocked,” said Pankhurst. “One of the first social consciousness raising elements she remembers as a young child was that her father was an abolitionist, and she was involved in that campaign, so she’d be horrified to think that her words were taken out of context.”

“What it does allow us to do is look at the difference between English and American suffragette movement,” Morgan said. “Most of the big waves of immigration were after World War II, so we didn’t then have the kind of rich and [racially] diverse Britain that we have today, and we’re acutely aware of the sensitivity around that subject. The discourse is very important, and we don’t want the subject to be diluted because that is one that needs to be had.”

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