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Suffragette has drawn as much attention for its woman-dominated cast and crew as for its story praising the British women who fought for voting rights with “deeds, not words”—though their deeds might label them as vandals, at best.
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a working-class laundress, wife, and mother, finds herself drawn into the suffrage movement as she realizes the government isn’t protecting women’s rights. After Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep) incites the women to do anything for attention, Maud joins a radical group that bombs pillar boxes and cuts telegraph lines for the cause. The women promise not to harm civilians, but the film is rated PG-13 for violence, language, an implied sexual assault, and a single scene of nonsexual nudity.
The somewhat clichéd script casts Maud as an everywoman who undergoes every injustice for the cause, including a brutal force-feeding and social isolation. The suffragettes believe violence is the only way to get their voices heard. “You want me to respect the law. Then make the law respectable,” a fellow laundress says.
In reality, England’s suffragettes were desperate for good reason. They had campaigned for their rights for years, but the government would not act. Married women could not own property or hold custody over their own children, and many careers were closed to them. In one scene, a friend recites Revelation 21:4 to a grieving Maud, suggesting that all inequality and pain will be redressed in heaven—though it is also right to work for justice on earth.
Screenwriter Abi Morgan ends the film in 1913 with a suffragette who dies for the cause and gains the world’s attention. That’s not the real end of the story, though. The English government continued to class suffragettes as radicals until World War I. Pankhurst called for women to take their fighting husbands’ jobs, earning Parliament’s respect and a limited right to vote by 1918.
Ultimately, the suffragettes gained their goals by peaceful means. But of course that’s not as exciting as exploding mailboxes.
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