Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, center
The Fight For Women’s Rights Was Never Easy
By Skip Sheffield
It’s hard to believe there was a time when women were disenfranchised and did not even have custody rights of their own children.
“Suffragette” dramatizes the long, torturous struggle by women to earn the right to vote in England. The setting is early 20th century London. A woman named Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) has been campaigning tirelessly for women’s right to vote through an organization called Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The men in power have reacted with increasing vehemence and violence, enforced by police.
Meryl Streep’s role is really just a cameo. The main characters are the working-class foot soldiers in the fight for suffrage. Writer Abi Morgan (“Iron Lady,” “Shame”) created the lead role of Maud Watts, a struggling laundry worker played by Carey Mulligan. Maud is married to a man called Sonny (Ben Wishaw), and they have a 6-year-old son. Maud’s co-worker Violet Miller (Ann Marie Duff) is an increasingly radical supporter of the women’s rights movement. So is shopkeeper Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), whose husband (Finbar Lynch) is fully sympathetic.
When Mrs. Pankhurst calls on women to smash windows and destroy property, shouting “Deeds, Not Words,” the effort becomes more like a guerilla war. Maud Watts had spent virtually her whole life toiling in the laundry, but the police brutality radicalizes her and alienates her husband. Trying to maintain an uneasy truce is Police Inspector Arthur Steed (Brendan Gleeson) who tries to get Maud to snitch on fellow WSPU members in exchange for lighter punishment. The conflict comes to a head dramatically at a horse-racing Derby attended by King George V himself. “Suffragette” is a highly dramatic history lesson that illustrates how difficult it was for women to get the same rights men take for granted. Stay until the end credits and you will see the fight for women’s right is not over.