Why This Film About Pre-WWI London Rings Too True Today


“You have to see this movie,” I had intended to implore everyone I know. I intended to post the trailer on Facebook with this command: Go see this movie!

But then I saw the movie. And haven’t been able to recommend it to anyone.

I can’t. Because I felt nauseous throughout most of it.

Not because the movie is bad; it’s just too realistic.

I felt the same way watching Schindler’s List. When it was over, I was glad I saw it for the heightened awareness it gave me of how insidiously rights can be stripped. But I did not enjoy watching it.

Nor did I enjoy watching Suffragette.

Having authored a play about the early women’s suffrage movement in the United States, I was beyond thrilled that a motion picture would showcase the underbelly of women’s struggle for equality under the law. Friends from all over the country alerted me that it would be released soon; local friends requested to accompany me to see it. I set a date and off we went.

But as the story, set in 1912 London, unfolded—women working in a factory, being sexually abused, coming home only to be abused some more—I sat in the movie theater holding my stomach. They were trapped; there was no sanctuary under the law for them. Their only hope lay in social and political changes sought by the suffrage movement, participation in which was punishable by every means possible, including beatings, incarceration, force feeding, loss of wages, children and home. Many were committed to mental institutions, with no hope of release if they did not relent.

Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, is portrayed by Meryl Streep. Like Alice Paul in the United States, she pushed the British suffragettes toward civil disobedience with the slogan, Deeds, not words. Following her command only made things worse for the crusaders until the casualties mounted enough to gain media attention.

Death is what it took. Death was the ultimate sacrifice.

When the movie ended, I couldn’t move. Not only did this pre-World War I story depress me, it made me realize that this War on Women has been going on for a very long time. All over the world.

It’s my fear that movie-goers will exit the theater thinking, Oh, those nasty men in Parliament! Women were treated so cruelly in London. Most people know so little about the suffrage movement in the United States; they don’t realize that the campaign and resulting consequences were no different here. The London portrayed on the big screen is simply a microcosm of how women were—and are—treated when they demand equal rights.

Or viewers may erroneously believe that the story took place a long time ago and feel relieved and complacent that times have changed.

But the pit in my stomach told me times have not changed all that much.

There are some women who still do not have the right to vote.

In an interview posted on Philly.com, Suffragette star Carey Mulligan says, “We’re still facing massive inequality in education for women, and domestic violence and sexual violence against women. And even here in the U.K., the representation by women in Parliament is still ridiculously unbalanced.”

Women, more than 50 percent of the population of the United States, only comprise 20 percent of Congress.

Ridiculously unbalanced, indeed.

Respect our laws, the suffragettes were instructed in the movie.

We will when the laws become respectable, their response.

The suffrage movement was not about the right to vote. It was about the ability to affect social and political change through legislation. Just like the pro-choice movement is not about abortion—it’s about a woman’s right to self-determination.

Most readers’ grandmothers were born into a country where women did not have voting rights. Will our granddaughters be born into a country where women no longer have reproductive rights?

Go see this movie, with the understanding that what is portrayed did not happen in a galaxy far, far away. Be prepared to weep for your sisters back then and now. More importantly, be prepared to defend the rights of your daughters and granddaughters. For in the end, it will be deeds, not words that turn the tide. Death should never again be the ultimate sacrifice for women’s equality.

And as I type these last few words, a gunman has opened fire on yet another Planned Parenthood clinic.

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Patricia A. Nugentis published in trade, literary, and online journals. She wrote The Stone that Started the Ripple, a dramatization about a modern-day reunion of the suffragists. She is the author of the book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of vignettes portraying the stages of caring for and saying goodbye to a loved one. She can be contacted www.journalartspress.org.