What Would Suffragettes Make of Hillary and The Donald?

by Heather Robinson

Watching “Suffragette,” the newly released film starring Carrie Mulligan as a British suffragette who protests and hunger strikes in order to secure the vote for British women, I couldn’t help but reflect: more than one hundred years down the line, what has changed and what has not?

Mulligan is terrific in her role as Maud Watts, a fictional composite character who, along with her sister suffragettes, protests, speaks out, hunger strikes, and eventually commits acts of vandalism in the drive to secure women the vote in Britain. The film takes place in 1912/1913.

The film raises some interesting questions about what tactics are ethical when entirely peaceful means have been entirely ineffective in securing basic rights over a long period of time. And although I personally think it is reasonable to critique this particular wing of women’s rights advocates for their choice to embrace property destruction, the film does a good job creating a story arc for Maud and others that suggests the fight was not just about the vote, but also about the broader, and connected, issue of respect for women’s basic rights and dignity. Sexual abuse, demeaning comments, unequal pay, lack of workplace safety, and lack of parental rights are all believably dramatized in a way that puts the viewer in Maud’s shoes and helps her understand these women’s righteous anger and determination.

At one point a police detective rebukes Maud for her arrogance in helping stage a bombing of a politician’s home, arguing that the family’s maid was on her way back to the house and could have been killed. He attacks her for feeling she has the right to risk others’ lives (Presumably the suffragettes planned the bombing to take place when no one was home, but there was still a small risk of injury to someone). She calls him on his hypocrisy, asking how he could do nothing while women were beaten in front of him for nonviolent protest, and says something to the effect that the law means nothing to her because she had no role in making it.

A few things struck me about this exchange. For one, it seems to me the suffragettes’ efforts to raise awareness with dramatic acts of vandalism differ from those of terrorists (as in Islamist extremists today) in that they were not trying to hurt civilians, and indeed did not; rather, they staged their physical attacks on property at a time when they believed no one would be inside and took precautions to avoid hurting people (in this way, the bombing dramatized in the film is reminiscent of the Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel in British Mandate Palestine, when the militants warned the British command to evacuate the building first). In both cases, the point was not to kill human beings, but in the case of the suffragettes, to make a dramatic point about women’s need for representation in government and political life that fifty years of peaceful protest had failed to do; in the case of the Irgun, to force the British government to open its blockade against Jewish emigration from Europe at a time when, although the war was technically over, Jewish civilians were being killed by the hundreds in anti-Semitic pogroms erupting across Europe even after the Holocaust, and hundreds of thousands of survivors were awaiting entry. Yet month after month, the British refused to allow Jewish immigration. One can still certainly argue the ethics of the suffragettes and the Irgun in deciding to go in a violent direction, but it is important to note the stark difference in both motives and methods between these groups and Islamist terrorists, who deliberately target civilians.

Agree with their methods or not, the British suffragettes as depicted here were women of principle willing to endure great physical and emotional hardship themselves first – chastisement, ridicule, imprisonment, and hunger strike – for the cause of equal participation in the political life of their society. Also, their goal, like that of the Irgun, was a positive one: not to destroy another people or its government, but to gain a say in their own governance via equal participation.

It’s a cliche, perhaps, but the right to vote and to hold public office are rights we take for granted all too often in today’s world.

Which brings me to my next point. There is something touching, even poignant, from the standpoint of our cynical age, about their struggle, and their ardent belief it was worth it. In other words, I can’t help but marvel a bit from this place in time, one hundred years plus in the future, that these women held the idea of voting and political participation in such high esteem.

The smaller scenes in the film are also strikingly well done, ring true, and sadly, even relevant to today’s world. Early in the film, a suffragette is speaking to a group of women laundry workers gathered outside for their lunch break. A man nearby interrupts, hollering something like, “Ya women never labored a day in yer lives!” to the laughter of the other men standing around. It reminded me of the derisive tone Donald Trump, one of the lead contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, takes when he talks about women.

And when Mulligan’s character says, in her testimony before a government official, asked what getting the vote would mean to her, “I’ve never thought we’d get the vote so I never thought about what it would mean … that there’s another way of living this life” I couldn’t help but think about Hillary Clinton, a woman who has remained in a humiliating marriage and arguably lied, but almost certainly heavily massaged the truth on many occasions and compromised ethics about matters of grave significance, in order to get ahead in this life.

How much has really changed for women when these leaders are the best we have to choose from? And shouldn’t we, like they, demand something better?

With their willingness to sacrifice and their high principles, what would the suffragettes make of the menu of candidates before us today, including an arrogant billionaire who insults women based on their looks or, if they are pretty and don’t kowtow to him, dismisses them as “bimbos.”

And what about the fact that, no matter how insulting or dismissive Trump becomes toward women, it doesn’t seem to hurt his standing among his supporters? And some women, such as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, make excuses for him.

He is critiqued for allegedly being racist, but being undeniably sexist? That’s ok.

More to come.

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