Suffragette-2015It’s 1912, in London, England. Laundress Maud Watts has lived a life of abuse and humiliation. The foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse in the quest for equal rights, want Maud to join them. But how much will she have to sacrifice for the cause? Suffragette (2015) stars three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, Cary Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, and tells the story of the Edwardian women who were willing to go to extremes to be heard in a time when they had no voice in the political arena, the workplace, or the home.

In its review of Suffragette, The Telegraph opens by saying “There is a lovely moment during the final scene of Suffragette in which you realise the credits are about to roll even though the story isn’t over. Stung by the lack of a neatly tied-up ending, you prickle with frustration – and then, in a split-second flash, realise that’s the point.”

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Historian Amanda Vickery (The Story of Women & Art) makes an equivalent statement in the newly released BBC documentary The Story of Women & Power – that the centuries-old battle of women vs. men is still going on today. Thankfully, the fight for equal rights for women looks a fair bit different today from when it started. On the journey to uncover the struggle for women’s equality in Britain, Vickery reveals the long-forgotten heroines who dedicated their lives to the cause of equality for women (and men). She guides us through history, from an early march for women’s rights in 1649 to a notorious incident in 1738, when the Duchess of Queensberry crashed the House of Lords, to the militant activities of the Edwardian suffragists, to the modern-day campaigns that remind us the fight is not yet over. Suffragettes forever!

Great Britain, women's movement, suffragettes, announcement of a demonstration at Essex Hall, LondonIn telling the history of the suffragettes, Vickery profiles key figures including Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism; Hannah More, who found ways for women to enter public life; and suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. She visits the Houses of Parliament, Queen Victoria’s holiday home, and she converses frankly with other experts, among them current Member of Parliament Stella Creasy and Viscount Astor, son of Nancy Astor, the first female MP.

The Story of Women & Power introduction takes us to Derby Day, 1913 at Epsom Downs in Surrey, England:

The Derby was the biggest fixture of the pre-war sporting calendar. All of high society was here, including the king himself, George V, whose horse, Anmer, was running in the big race. As the horses thundered around the final bend, a tall redheaded woman slipped unnoticed out of the crowd and underneath the rail. There’s been much debate as to what suffragette Emily Wilding Davison intended when she walked out onto the track.

Was she on a suicide mission, or was it simply a dashing stunt to attach a suffragette scarf to the king’s horse? Either way, when she died of her grisly injuries four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital, the cause had gained a martyr. Davison’s death came at the height of a campaign that saw women firebomb buildings, assault the prime minister, and commit acts of terrorism across the country. How did this happen? What had driven women to these violent outrages?

The answer lies in an ancient injustice that kept 50% of the population legally, morally, and physically under the control of the other half. It was a struggle that drew on recruits from all parts of the social order – from the poorest to the privileged – who fought in every area of public life, in every corridor of power. But the response of the male ruling elite was disdain, ridicule, and even violence. No wonder that in the end, women fought back. 

Emily Wilding Davison, the “accidental martyr” was a leading militant in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and on her person that day at the Derby were two suffragette flags, identifiable by their green, white and purple stripes, folded up and pinned to the back of her jacket, on the inside. They were one and a half yards long and three quarters of a yard wide – large enough for the racegoers to see if she had managed to unfurl them. There was also the return half of Emily’s third-class train ticket from Victoria to Epsom, for her trip home. Tragic.

The BBC documentary then looks at some of the injustices women have endured and brings us to a livestock market in Hailsham, East Sussex, where in 1814 a man had sold his wife to the highest bidder: a tradesman bought her for seven shillings. He “bore her off in triumph to the congratulation of the crowd.”

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Like other unwanted wives before and after her, it is likely that the woman was wearing her Sunday best dress when she was led to market that day, along with a rope halter that went around either her waist or neck.

She was exhibited, haggled over, and sold.

It is difficult, and painful to imagine, but The Story of Women and Power tells us that there were at least 300 wife sales at fairs and markets all around Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that as late as 1928 a woman was sold in Blackwood, South Wales, for a pound. Though these sales were against the law, they were working on a legal principal that a married woman was the property of her husband, not having a separate legal identity from her husband – and this law survived until the late 19th century.

The primitive tradition of wife sales exposes an ugly truth upon which British society was built. Male mastery and female inferiority were taken for granted. Her husband could claim her lands and her earnings. Her children belonged to him. He could exercise rights of ownership over her body.


The Wife Auction in England illustration above was published in Harper’s Weekly in November of 1876. To read more about the practice, see Wife Selling in England & 17C-18C early America, and Lauren Padgett’s ‘The British Scandal’: Victorian Spouse-Selling.

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, set in the mid-1800s, deals deftly with the issue of wife selling: At a country fair near Casterbridge, Wessex, a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard overindulges in rum-laced furmity and quarrels with his wife, Susan. He decides to auction off his wife and baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, to a sailor, Mr. Newson, for five guineas. Once sober the next day, he is too late to recover his family. When he realises that his wife and daughter are gone, probably for good, he swears not to touch liquor again for as many years as he has lived so far. The novel has been adapted into two excellent period dramas.

The Mayor of Casterbridge BBCThe BBC dramatization of Thomas Hardy’s heart-wrenching novel is remarkably loyal to the original. The incomparable Alan Bates (Gosford Park) manages to make the mature Michael Henchard, the flawed protagonist, sympathetic, despite his galling youthful misdeeds. Anna Massey (The Importance of Being Earnest) is his poignant co-star. This literate series captures the melancholy fatalism that distinguishes Hardy’s work from that of his fellow Victorians.

 

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Ciaran Hinds stars in the 2003 version of the tale.

While the 1978 miniseries with Alan Bates is much less abridged and gives a fuller immersion into the novel and life at the time, the swiftness of this two-part adaptation makes it more immediately emotionally engaging, and the superb, compact performances by the entire cast (including Polly Walker and James Purefoy) give this version a potent punch. –Bret Fetzer

 

the duchessRelevant to womens’ early involvement in the political sphere is the costume period drama The Duchess which chronicles the life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, the film, among other things, shows Georgiana’s life and involvement in the Whig Party in an effort to bring reform to late-1700s England.

Georgiana is discussed in The Story of Women and Power:

Women who dared to engage in any kind of political conversation ran the risk of being savaged in the vivid and vulgar cartoons of the day. One of the favorite targets of the satirist’s pen was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. She was tabloid fodder already because she was a celebrity. Highly fashionable. Much talked about. But then she got involved in the Westminster election of 1784, canvassing for Charles James Fox, the Whig candidate. A salacious story went about that she’d been exchanging kisses for votes. There’s a rather titillating theme which underlies almost all the depictions of Georgiana. But it wasn’t just individual women who were smeared – the very idea of a female political gathering was inherently ridiculous. The message of these cartoons is clear. A woman who ventured into public life ran the risk of vicious attack on her sexual reputation.

Female influence or, the Devons—e canvasIn this pen and ink sketch Georgiana is shaking hands with a bashful butcher while in the background another butcher is saying, “By George, I’d kiss the Duchess.”

The Duchess challenged eighteenth-century notions of femininity’ by politicising independently of the family sphere. Contemporaries reacted to this in two distinct ways – by depicting Georgiana as either masculine or as sexually deviant. The prints of the duchess continually emphasise that her political role was outside the bounds of normality and moderation, and therefore subject to derision by the public through the medium of satirical prints. 

 

Suffragette is in theaters now, and Willow and Thatch recommends that you take in the BBC documentary The Story of Women and Power before, or after you see the period drama. It tells us how, right through the reign of Queen Victoria, women persevered in petitioning parliament, despite being met with dismissive hostility, leading toward an awareness that deeds might be the only way to garner attention, when words failed, and how five years after Queen Victoria’s passing, the suffragette movement started a new phase in the war to win an equal share of power for women. The third part of The Story of Women and Power brings us into the final stages of women securing the vote, and beyond. Hear, hear!

Pictured below: Suffragette rosette and badge with ribbons in the white purple and green colour scheme of the Women’s Social and Political Union. In the centre of the rosette is a tin badge bearing the slogan: ‘Votes for Women’. Suffragettes were encouraged to wear rosettes and badges at all times. The Votes for Women newspaper declared ‘Wear the colours as a duty and a privilege. Never be seen without your badge’. 1908 -1912

Votes-for-Women-Rosettes

What else to watch

One Woman, One Vote: How could America call itself the world’s greatest democracy, but continue to deny the right to vote to more than half of its citizens? This program documents the struggle which culminated in the passing of the 19th Amendment in the U.S. Senate by one vote. Witness the 70-year struggle for women’s suffrage. Discover why the crusaders faced entrenched opposition from men and women who feared the women’s vote would ignite a social revolution. From PBS, narrated by Susan Sarandon.

Iron Jawed Angels: Oscar-winner Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park) star in a fresh and contemporary look at a pivotal event in American history, telling the true story of how a pair of defiant and brilliant young activists took the women’s suffrage movement by storm, putting their lives at risk to help American women win the right to vote.

The Suffragettes: This is the story of the late nineteenth century movement to win voting rights for women in the United Kingdom. At its head was the redoubtable Emmeline Pankhurst. The women who fought and in some cases died for the right to vote came to be known as the Suffragettes. Mrs. Pankhurst herself was imprisoned several times in pursuit of the cause which was only won in 1928, the year all women over twenty-one achieved the right to vote. It was also the year of Emmeline Pankhurst’s death. This informative program chronicles both the complete Suffragettes story and provides insights into gender politics, human rights, and the struggle for equality. With authentic reconstructions including the first Suffragette march, dramatized contemporary eye-witness accounts. period images, photography and film footage.

Not for Ourselves Alone: Two women, one allegiance. Together Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony fought for women everywhere, and their strong willpower and sheer determination still ripple through contemporary society. Ken Burns’ Emmyr Award-winning documentary recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of two pioneers striving to give birth to the women’s movement. Not until after their deaths was their shared vision of women’s suffrage realized. From PBS.

She Wolves: The medieval and Tudor world was built for and ruled by men. Kings were warriors who earned power through blood spilled on the battlefield. Women who sought to rule in their own right were viewed with horror and vilified as “she-wolves.” Yet beginning 800 years ago with Matilda—daughter of Henry I, granddaughter of William the Conqueror—a handful of extraordinary women decided they would wear England’s crown. They were thwarted, betrayed, imprisoned, and condemned until the day came when England had no choice but to name a female monarch.

Hosted and based on the book by Dr. Helen Castor, “an accomplished and elegant historian” (The New York Times), and filmed on location in England and France, this captivating BBC series explores the lives of seven English queens who challenged male power, the fierce and fiery reactions they provoked, and whether, in fact, much has changed. Cambridge professor Dr. Helen Castor is a historian of medieval England, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Making History, and author of the award-winning book Blood & Roses.

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A liberated female typist in the late 19th Century shocks staid Boston with her outspoken views on women’s rights. The luminous Betty Grable and lively Gershwin tunes make this an enjoyable, toe-tapping romp.

ANZAC Girls: Arriving in Egypt to serve in World War I, a group of idealistic young Australian and New Zealand nurses are full of romantic notions. All too soon, however, they are faced with convoys of the dead and wounded from the doomed Gallipoli campaign. Realizing that war is not quite the “splendid adventure” they thought it would be, they rise to meet the challenge, finding love, heartbreak, and lasting friendship along the way.

Based on the book by Peter Rees and drawing on the real nurses’ letters, original journals, and historical records, this acclaimed Australian miniseries follows five unsung heroines through the traumatic war years. A “beautifully shot, multilayered drama” (The Sunday Telegraph, Australia), it “brings these little-known stories vividly to life” (The Daily Telegraph, Australia). Georgia Flood, Caroline Craig, Anna McGahan, Antonia Prebble, and Laura Brent head an ensemble cast of more than 1,200 actors and extras in this breathtaking and stirring production.

Land Girls: Set in England during the Second World War, Land Girls is a five-part drama that captures the sacrifices and experiences of four young women in the Women’s Land Army. Sharing hardships and working alongside captured POWs, Annie, Bea, Joyce and Nancy toil in the fields to grow food for the war effort. Commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the start of World War II, Land Girls is a tribute to all the women who answered their country’s call for service to do their bit on the home front, while their men were overseas, fighting the enemy.

Bomb Girls: Set in the 1940s, Bomb Girls tells the remarkable stories of the women who risked their lives in a munitions factory building bombs for the Allied forces fighting on the European front. The series delves into the lives of these exceptional women from all walks of life peers, friends and rivals who find themselves thrust into new worlds and changed profoundly as they are liberated from their home and social restrictions.

Up the Women: BBC sitcom following the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle as they join the suffragette movement. It’s 1910 and we’re in Banbury church hall at the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle. Margaret has been to London and discovered the Women’s Suffrage movement so she decides they need to set up their own movement and The Banbury Intricate Craft Circle becomes the hilariously ineffectual Banbury Intricate Craft Circle politely request women’s Suffrage.

Parade’s End: Set over a tumultuous ten-year period 100 years ago, this five-hour miniseries tells the story of an honorable Englishman coping with his growing disillusion at the end of one privileged era and the beginning of a new, egalitarian one. As the comfortable certainties of Edwardian England begin to give way to the chaos and destruction of WWI, aristocrat Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) puts principles first by marrying Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), a pretty, manipulative socialite who gives birth to a child who may not be his. While enduring his new wife’s whims and overt indiscretions, Christopher finds himself inexorably drawn to a young suffragette, Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), but refuses to give in to their mutual passion or end his marriage with Sylvia. The onset of war, combined with the advent of feminism at home and communism in Russia, ushers in far-reaching changes for the English status quo, and gradually erodes the constraints that have kept Christopher tethered to his aristocratic past.


Suffragette-Mrs.-S.-Loebinger-1908-NYCSuffragette Mrs. S. Loebinger, 1908, NYC

Originally broadcast on the U.K.’s BBC TwoThe Story of Women & Power; uncovering the centuries-long struggle for women’s equality in Britain is available at  AcornOnline.com and on Amazon. The miniseries is also available to watch at any time on Acorn TV, the premier streaming service for world class television from Britain and beyond at Acorn.TV.

 

suffragette the movieSuffragette (2015):  A drama that tracks the story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State. These women were not primarily from the genteel educated classes, they were working women who had seen peaceful protest achieve nothing. Radicalized and turning to violence as the only route to change, they were willing to lose everything in their fight for equality – their jobs, their homes, their children and their lives. Maud was one such foot soldier. The story of her fight for dignity is as gripping and visceral as any thriller, it is also heart-breaking and inspirational.

A wonderfully involving, moving Carey Mulligan and the spirited ensemble around her flesh out a handsomely crafted, timely look at why and how far people are willing to go for a cause.  – Empire

Writer Abi Morgan (‘Shame’, ‘The Iron Lady’) and director Sarah Gavron’s (‘Brick Lane’) tough, raw, bleak-looking film makes the suffragettes’ dilemma feel immediate and real. – Time Out London

“Suffragette” unfolds partly as an Edwardian thriller, with a Special Branch detective (Brendan Gleeson) chasing after the militants as they plot their actions. – NYT

Starring  Carey MulliganAnne-Marie DuffHelena Bonham Carter. (Here’s a list of over 30 other period dramas with Helena Bonham Carter.)

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll want to wander over to the full (growing!) list of recommended best period films and romantic and historical costume dramas, all sorted by era and theme, in The Period Films List. You may also like the post about Strong Female Leads in Period Dramas.