Film Review: Suffragette

New film explores the lives of working-class women militants.

Laura Schwartz | Published in 08 Oct 2015

Scene from 'Suffragette'Suffragette sets out to tell the story of the ‘footsoldiers’ of the women’s suffrage movement. Director Sarah Gavon and writer Abi Morgan have therefore made the refreshing decision to avoid a more traditional focus on the famous Pankhurst family and the numerous well-dressed ladies who swelled the ranks of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and look instead at the lives of working-class women militants.

Maud Watts (Cary Mulligan) and Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) work in the Glasshouse Laundry in the East End of London. The film opens with a spectacular vision of this gruelling, dangerous work in a 1912 industrial laundry re-created with an impressive yet unobtrusive historical accuracy that characterises the film as a whole. ‘Laundry work is short life if you’re a woman’, Maud goes onto explain to a committee of MPs listening to testimonies for women’s enfranchisement. Maud herself began working at the laundry when she was only seven years old. Her mother was killed on the job, scalded by boiling vat of water, and should Maud ever have a daughter she too will inevitably work at the Laundry. That is, Maud slowly begins to realise, unless something changes…

Women like Maud and Violet toil away at their dirty, steamy, noisy work so that women in the West End can enjoy pristine white bedclothes and tablecloths. What on earth could they have in common, then, with the upper-class Alice (Romola Garai) who stands on her soapbox at the Laundry gates and calls upon working women to join the struggle for the suffrage? ‘You never laboured in your life!’ jeers one laundry worker; ‘no one cares love!’ shouts another. But Violet, who has to support five children on her wage alone, and yet who is prevented by law from divorcing her drunken violent husband, does care. And with Violet’s encouragement, Maud also comes to embrace the struggle for the vote as offering the only glimmer of hope that life doesn’t always have to be like this.

Suffragette shows very clearly how much harder it was for working-class women to join the suffrage movement and undertake militant activity. Smashing windows, firebombing letterboxes and blowing up stately homes takes time, organisation and nerve – all the more so when it has to be done at the end of a 10 hour working day. When a group of suffragettes gets arrested on a demonstration outside Parliament, Alice is promptly bailed out by her wealthy husband, while Maud and Violet are left to serve their time. On hearing that she is to be imprisoned, Maud’s immediate response is to ask who will collect her son and put him to bed that evening? Working-class suffragettes had not only to juggle their political activity with waged work, but also with their ‘duties’ as wives, mothers and housekeepers. 

By contrast, middle-class suffrage activists could rely upon domestic servants to look after their children, clean their houses and feed their husbands while they were out fighting the police or hunger-striking in prison. For almost every educated, ‘modern’ and emancipated woman at this time, the employment of a live-in servant was a necessary prerequisite for active involvement in the women’s movement. Domestic servants, therefore, might also be considered ‘footsoldiers’ of the suffrage struggle, far less visible but no less crucial to the success of the suffragettes’ high-profile campaigns. Yet servants are referenced only fleetingly in Suffragette, when a minor character is rescued by Maud from a life of exploitation and sexual abuse in the Glasshouse Laundry, and taken to work instead as a maid for Alice.

The assumption that life as a domestic servant in a suffrage-supporting households represents salvation for this young woman, was the only aspect of the film that, for me, failed to ring true. Servants’ working conditions were not necessarily any better than those of laundry workers or women factory workers. They too had to perform backbreaking work: lugging buckets of cold up flights of stairs and scrubbing flagstone floors in the houses of wealthy employers too stingy to pay for gas and electric kitchens and modern appliances. Servants certainly had to work longer days (rising at 6 AM and retiring at 11 PM) than factory workers, who were beginning to benefit from trade union campaigns for limited hours of work. And perhaps even more than the laundry workers featured in the film, domestic servants were highly vulnerable to sexual violence from their male employers.

Suffrage-supporting mistresses were not necessarily any better employers. Feminist newspapers from the period frequently feature articles and letters from otherwise progressively-minded mistresses complaining about their lazy and incompetent servants. Yet domestic workers were also becoming politicised by the struggle for the vote, and began to answer back – to demand to know why their mistresses were so keen on freedom and equality for all women, except those who cleaned their houses? Suffragette does a wonderful job of depicting the effects of class difference in the women’s movement, and sometimes hints at the possibility of class conflict between its supporters. But the most difficult aspect of such conflict in a movement which claimed to be struggling on behalf of all women was the conflict between mistress and maid, between the woman who didn’t wish to waste her life on domestic drudgery, and the woman she paid to ‘drudge’ her place. And it is this aspect of gendered class conflict, with all its contemporary resonance and unresolved tensions, that remains absent from the film. 

Laura Schwartz is Assistant Professor of Modern British History at the University of Warwick. She is the author of two books on the history of British feminism: Infidel Feminism (MUP, 2013) and A Serious Endeavour (Profile, 2011).