“Cast off the shackles of yesterday
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray
Our daughter’s daughters will adore us
And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
Well done sister suffragettes”
– Mary Poppins, 1965
This post is brought to you by Transmission Films
Mary Poppins was my first introduction to the Suffragette movement as a young girl, Mrs. Banks wearing the iconic green, white and purple ‘Votes for Women’ sash sings “No more the meek and mild subservience we, we’re fighting for our rights militantly”.
Looking back, you can argue that the subtext of the scene is that Mrs. Banks was neglecting her children’s emotional needs in her self-absorbed fervour for her cause, but that does not take away from the fact that the writers inadvertently introduced a whole generation of young women to the struggles of the suffragette movement, even if it was in Disney’s sugar coated style.
But, as much as I love the movie Mary Poppins, it saddens me to think that it’s really most people’s only exposure to the suffragettes; it’s a part of history that has been largely ignored by history books, school curriculums and popular culture until now.
Suffrage = right to vote
Suffragette, a film directed by Sarah Gavron, is a fictional account of a group of East London women who realised that polite, law-abiding protests were not going to get them very far in the battle for voting rights in early 20th century Britain.
It centres around the story of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), who has worked in a London laundry since she was a girl. She initially wants nothing to do with the movement, but eventually joins the suffragettes’ campaign of civil disobedience as a way to counter the abuse she and her friends continually suffer.
It’s easy to take for granted how far we as a society has come in the progression of women’s rights and how much these women sacrificed to fight for what they believed in – the right for women to vote. The movie, set in 1912, shows how the laws of the time, that a woman was the property of her husband, that she had no access to her own wealth and had no legal rights over their children, impacted the lives of women of all classes.
There is a heart-breaking scene where Maud’s husband gives up their son for adoption and Maud has absolutely no say in the matter. It’s a turning point in the movie where Maud has nothing left to lose and becomes involved in increasingly militant activities.
This movie certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the suffragette movement, it depicts uncomfortable scenes of police brutality and force feeding of the women in custody who’s only means of protest left to them was to refuse to eat. But also it poses the question, are violent acts as a form of protest justified?
We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers. – Emmeline Pankhurst
But as the end credits roll, a timeline showing exactly when women, the world over, were given the vote helps bring this period piece back into sharp focus.
New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote in 1893.
Australia followed suit in 1902, but unfortunately both male and female Aborigines did not have the right to vote until 1962.
In 1925 the UK law recognised a mother’s rights over her children and finally gave women full voting rights in 1928.
The sacrifices these women made over 100 years ago still has relevance today. The basic rights that the suffragettes were fighting for in 1912 is still a reality for many women around the world today who still work in slave like conditions, don’t have the right to their own bank accounts or have access to safe and legal contraception.
As Australians we may all have equal voting rights, but we still have a way to go on human rights and marriage equality, and it poses the question: am I, as a middle class white woman, doing enough to champion the rights of the disenfranchised? Probably not.
“It was a war that was fought on our behalf and we reap its rewards today but so few know about it.” says Carey Mulligan “Our film isn’t meant to be the story of a time that is no longer relevant to us. It’s not about a historic event, it’s about a general movement and one that is on-going.”
The movie Suffragette opens in Australia on Boxing Day. Go and see it.