If the horrors of violence towards females across the world were not enough, this week's flurry of Australian sexism (Briggs, Dutton, Gayle et al), coupled with the serious New Year outrages in Germany, has rightly re-focused attention on the continuing need for feminist activity in the western, as well as wider, world. In that light, it is good to see the current film Suffragette. For anything which informs for the first time, reminds, or deepens, our awareness of the long feminist struggle is to be welcomed. Seeing Suffragette myself this week was thus duly encouraging. I have to say that I had been nervous about doing so. For the film's subject matter was core to my doctoral thesis Combating the 'sin of self-sacrifice': Christian feminism in the women's suffrage struggle 1903-1918 (available on-line here I recently discovered). Like most historians, a modern media portrayal is sometimes trying, even when directors have been assiduous in context and detail. With inevitable allowances for dramatic space and effect, and with some small but important qualifications, Suffragette however has done a very good job. Its lessons are certainly most valuable for today...
Central to Suffragette, and to the feminist struggle then and now, are three entwining themes of awakening, action and attention. In terms of the first theme, the makers of Suffragette thus specifically chose to focus on a young working-class woman in the east end of London in order to bring to light the multi-faceted nature of early 20th century female oppression. The film is thus partly the story of that character's own awakening but also a means of awakening us all to the interlocking elements of justice for women: elements which include addressing issues of wealth, education, law, culture, family and personal relationships, as well as of political power and access. Indeed, whilst a little underplayed, there are also references in the film to the way in which there were problematic tensions around and within the Pankhurst-led Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Not for nothing did some at the time call it the Women's Socialite Political Union! From the first images in the iniquitous east end laundry of the film, Suffragette challenges us to a renewed radical identification with those who are most suffering and to building fresh coalitions of sometimes surprising allies. Secondly, Suffragette, reflecting its subject matter, is thus inevitably a call to action. Refreshingly this includes highlighting the agency of poor women themselves, as well as exposing the lack of agency of would-be friends. If some might be disappointed by the brevity of Meryl Streep's performance in the film, it is actually very positive to see the Pankhursts given so little of their usual, and sought-for, limelight. Indeed, thirdly, Suffragette rightly touches gently on what is proper attention in terms of political strategy and personal commitment. For, as one character rightly observes towards the end, by 1912-13 (the period of the film's action), the WSPU form of militancy ran into problems. In its early years, the WSPU had certainly given fresh impetus to the bogged-down women's struggle. Yet, on the eve of the first world war, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst's monomaniacal obsessions with narrow goals and tactics were increasingly both counter productive and destructive of those involved. Moving forward then and now requires more than exalting deeds over words and ratcheting up the rhetoric and realities of militancy. In a fresh age of a different kind of militant violence, we do well to be attentive and adaptive as well as awake and active.
So how do we pursue action which is both fully awake and duly attentive? It is a challenge for our own time with pointers in that earlier age. After all, alongside Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in the WSPU stood a third leader of the 'Triumvirate': Emmeline Pethick Lawrence. Significantly, from 1912 she became further and further marginalised by the other two. For at the heart of her inspiring, deeply spiritual, engagement was an active and attentive awakening to the ways in which women are prone to what she called, in a notable address, 'the sin of self-sacrifice'. The classic sin of self-sacrifice for women of that era was the inability to break the chains of dependence, she said, whether those were forged by class or culture, family demand or sheer survival. The main female characters of Suffragette are thus potent examples of how the suffrage movement as a whole, not least in its radical guises, combated that sin. Such transcending of self-sacrifice can be deeply costly, as we see in the film. It was reflected historically in suffragists' reflections, where many of them indeed saw close association with the patterns of Christ's suffering. Yet there is another sin which can come with action, namely the false sacrifice of self for a cause, or at least for a false direction in a cause. Towards the end of Suffragette we therefore find its main characters having to make choices, about what is life-giving, and what might be death-bearing, in their actions. As we reflect today on the way in which violence can spiral out of control, externally and internally, in people's lives, this is further food for thought.
Perhaps the answer lies partly in a deeper sense of true solidarity, another vital aspect of feminist struggle, then and now. For in the British suffrage struggle there were other options than the WSPU which provided a broader base for awakening, action and attention. In my view, the Women's Freedom League (WFL) deserves greater appreciation. Formed in 1907 by members of the WSPU alarmed by the authoritarian direction of the Pankhursts, it also used militant methods, but always of a nonviolent nature. This included tax resistance and other creative means. Significantly also, the WFL campaigned not simply for the vote but on legal and social issues affecting women, especially the poor and vulnerable. In doing so, they partly foreshadowed the genuinely effective radical developments of the Suffragette film period, namely the growing alliance between mainstream suffragism and working class women and men. This was my main reservation about Suffragette. For whilst Sylvia Pankhurst, who took this direction, did merit a brief mention, there was no indication of the thriving east end labour movement, both of women, and of key male figure such as James Keir Hardie and George Lansbury. Lloyd George and his fellow Liberals may have been able to scurry away from the WSPU but they were growing ever more concerned about the developing alliances of progressive women and men and working people. Direct action by 'advance' groups and individuals most certainly has its place. Yet patient and creative building of new partnerships and understandings is also critical for a world which seeks to realise the feminist dreams of past and present (for historical examples, see further my suffrage blog Making a Track).
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.