Friday, November 4, 2016

Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power (Matchlight/BBC-TV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Emily Davison’s protest at Derby Day, May 25, 1913

The film was a three-part TV mini-series by Matchlight Productions for the Scottish branch of the BBC called Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women in Power, and oddly for something so blatantly feminist it was directed by a man, Rupert Edwards, even though the writing credit went to a woman, Jacqui Hayden, and the on-screen narrator was a no-nonsense woman academic named Amanda Vickery. The subject was the British women’s movement for equal rights from the 1600’s (when Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads overthrew the monarchy, beheaded King Charles I and established the Protectorate — and women hoped that their equality would be on the agenda of the new liberal government, a hope that was dashed again and again and again as various male-led “reform” movements treated the demands of women for equality with the same vicious, sexist scorn as their “conservative” predecessors) to the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first elected woman leader in 1979. The show featured a lot of names I was familiar with and some I wasn’t, including Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 (and a particularly favorite person of mine not only because of her own status as a pioneering feminist but because her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, wrote the novel Frankenstein) and who, like a lot of feminists then and later, was vilified publicly and in the media for her unconventional private life (including a number of intense friendships and living arrangements with women as well as men, suggesting she may have been Bisexual).

One of the women mentioned here I hadn’t heard of was Hannah More, a 19th-century figure who in a way was the Booker T. Washington of British feminism (with Wollstonecraft as its Frederick Douglass), steering female activism away from a direct challenge to the patriarchy but arguing that women had a unique duty to help the poor and do social work. More may not have been a feminist in the modern sense, but her work did help broaden the opportunities available for women to achieve social change and showed that they could be capable of work outside the strict, narrow sphere of home, family and religion (what the Nazis called “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” — “children, kitchen, church”). There were also a number of interesting male characters on both sides of the issue, including John Stuart Mill, the 19th century philosopher who became an unlikely feminist champion thanks to his extra-marital relationship with feminist activist Harriet Taylor and was the first Member of Parliament to introduce a bill calling for women’s suffrage. Against him was another leading philosopher of the time, John Ruskin, who’s known today mostly as an art critic but who wrote some sickeningly flowery sentiments about women’s “proper” role in society in a book whose title, Sesame and Lilies, itself speaks volumes about its message calling on women to be properly subservient to men. According to Ruskin’s Wikipedia page, the lecture “Of Queens’ Gardens,” the chapter of Sesame and Lilies about women, “focused on the role of women, asserting their rights and duties in education, according them responsibility for the household and, by extension, for providing the human compassion that must balance a social order dominated by men … [T]wentieth-century feminists have taken aim at ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’ particularly as an effort to ‘subvert the new heresy’ of women’s rights by confining women to the domestic sphere.”

The first part of this documentary focused on the early 19th century, while the second dealt with the Victorian era and noted the irony that while the British Empire was nominally ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria, it was largely a retrograde time for women’s rights because Victoria herself was anti-feminist and didn’t see any contradiction between her own power and maintaining male dominance over politics, economics and education. (Remember that Victoria had been so subservient to her own husband, Prince Albert, that even after his death he had casts made of his head and hand so she could still see his face and hold his hand, or a replica thereof, in bed, and at meetings of state she would frequently talk about what Prince Albert would have done.) Of course, an American viewer can’t help but notice the parallels between British and American feminism, including the one apparent from episode one that both British and American women activists were often radicalized and converted to feminism by the discrimination they faced from men in groups in which they were supposedly fighting for the same cause. British feminists, like American ones, were drawn to the movement to abolish slavery and frequently were moved to feminist activism by the contradiction between the soaring rhetoric of abolitionists about human equality and the way they treated the women in the movement as virtual slaves themselves. The end of episode two and the start of episode three depicted the radicalization of British feminism and the acts of what even the feminist academics Vickery was interviewing concede were terrorism, as the campaign to get women the vote became more frustrating and the intransigence of men — one man in particular, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, whose party had been elected as part of a Liberal “reform” movement in 1906 but who soon made it clear that his “reform” agenda did not, no way, no how, include even allowing the House of Commons to send a women’s suffrage bill to the House of Lords and the Crown. The change from relatively polite lobbying for votes for women to direct-action “stings” much like the tactics ACT UP became famous for in the early 1990’s to force the political system to confront the needs of people with AIDS was largely spurred by two people, one of whom I’d heard of — the legendary feminist leader Emmeline Pankhurst — and one I hadn’t, her daughter Christabel.

Christabel Pankhurst became the first woman in Britain to obtain a law degree, only to find when she completed her education that the Bar would not admit her and therefore she could not practice. Incensed by this, she joined her mom’s movement and became one of its most fervent spokespersons, spending some time in France (as Mary Wollstonecraft had done over a century earlier) in hopes that might be more fertile territory for feminist activism (Wollstonecraft had done her French sojourn at the height of the Revolution, hoping that a regime that was rewriting all the other traditional rules of society would be willing to consider women’s equality, but then fled for home as the Revolution degenerated into the Reign of Terror) and also to get away from the intense repression of the feminist movement, including mass arrests and police assaults on women demonstrators (another theme — in the 19th century cops had gone into women’s protests with drawn sabers and aimed particularly at the women’s faces and breasts — that runs through the entire story) and force-feeding of women who protested their treatment in prison by going on hunger strikes (there are some photos of this gruesome process, which more recently the U.S. has used against the hunger strikers at Guantánamo). Charles gave the filmmakers points for mentioning Emmeline Pankhurst’s other daughter, Sylvia, who tends to get overshadowed in the histories by her mom and her sister. Vickery opened her show with an account of an event that figures prominently in her history: the Derby Day protest of May 25, 1913 in which Britain’s most prestigious horse race was disrupted by Emily Wilding Davison, who charged into the racetrack, was trampled by the horses — including one owned by King George V himself — and died of her injuries four days later, giving the feminist movement a martyr. Vickery briefly acknowledges the revisionist view of this event, a story told in an article by Vanessa Thorpe in the British progressive paper The Guardian published on the 100th anniversary (, that Davison wasn’t a suicidal martyr but merely the victim of an accident when her plan — an ACT UP-style “zap” attempting to pin a suffragist leaflet on the king’s horse — went horribly wrong. (The Guardian piece also notes that the King’s jockey sent a wreath to Emmeline Pankhurst’s funeral in 1928 and committed suicide in 1951.)

In 1913, from her French redoubt, Christabel Pankhurst issued a Lysistrata-like call to British women to refuse sex with their husbands until women got the vote — and, ironically, her campaign got support from Right-wing religious people (much the way the religious Right in the U.S. enthusiastically endorsed the anti-porn campaigns of Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin and other U.S. feminists in the 1980’s) — though it ended when World War I began and the women’s organizations threw themselves into the war effort. Women — some women, anyway: those over 30 who owned property — finally got the vote in 1918 largely as an effort by male politicians to clear the issue off the table before it got into the way of postwar reconstruction and recovery — but it took another decade before the franchise was extended to all British women and in the meantime there was an anti-feminist reaction after the war similar to that in the U.S. after World War II, and for the same reason: the women who had worked in munitions factories and other jobs to support the war effort were now being told their services were no longer needed now that their menfolk were returning home and expecting their old jobs back. Vickery and her collaborators somewhat jump the narrative at this point to Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in 1979 and her disinterest in women’s issues — or in the progressive agenda in general: this film shows a number of photographs of her Cabinet and notes that in virtually all of them, she is the only woman. Vickery’s narration notes that the struggle for women’s equality is not won — a timely observation and probably one reason PBS showed these programs on the eve of a U.S. election that might, or might not, produce America’s first female head of state, and also the sexist vituperation that has been directed against Hillary Clinton in what has been one of the ugliest and most vicious political campaigns in U.S. history!