“Suffragette” illuminates the fight for voting rights—then and now
In an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, IL in 1838, Abraham Lincoln said, “Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others.” He called for a strict adherence to a “political religion” in the observance of law, arguing against a rash of mob executions that had become too commonplace before the advent of the Civil War.
Many years later, his counterpart in freedom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about openly disobeying certain laws, citing St. Augustine’s belief that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Dr. King encouraged civil disobedience among disenfranchised black Americans that changed a nation by openly defying the law and becoming a political heretic. Lincoln calmly argued that unjust laws must be changed but followed “with political reverence” in the interim.
Lincoln believed fully in the system that created those laws. King, however, knew the truth of the downtrodden. Change can only be effected by making those in power face uncomfortable truths. In “Suffragette,” these themes are explored in detail. The film follows a group of women fighting for their voice in turn-of-the-century England. This is a film that everyone should see.
Voting rights are, without a doubt, the one of the most important fights humanity has ever faced. Repeatedly, the right to vote has been opposed for minority groups. The reason for this is clear: one vote is meaningless, but many votes are powerful. If any group can be sufficiently motivated, the very structure of political power is threatened. It is in the interest of the powerful to impede the progress of the marginalized, lest the powerful become marginalized.
At least, this is the mindset. It has been the mindset in every voting rights denial around the world—change is “too dangerous,” “too burdensome.” The status quo must be upheld at all costs.
The fight for women’s voting rights in the United Kingdom began as early as 1865, but full voting rights were not granted until 1928. For 63 years, woman fought for basic human rights, for their ability to control their own destiny, for a chance to improve the lives of their daughters. In these years, they were treated as mentally ill, removed from their homes, beaten and imprisoned, stripped of their rights to their children, and forced into a campaign of civil disobedience that shook the foundations of their country.
“Suffragette” highlights these struggles in glaring, uncompromising detail. The film, while seemingly dated as a problem of a bygone era, ensures that the audience understands that woman’s suffrage is an ongoing, important cause by listing the years in which woman gained the right to vote around the world. To that end, we learn that woman in Saudi Arabia have only been allowed to vote since 2008, and elsewhere in the world are woman barred from exercising what should be inherent.
But voting is only one issue: As the film highlights, the woman of the early suffrage movement in the United Kingdom were left to the mercy of their husbands, their brothers, the fathers, and their employers. They had no rights to their money, their property, their children, or their own lives. Under the guidance of leader Emmeline Pankhurst, the women fought for their freedom with rocks and bombs and demonstrations, setting the tone for later movements. Through “deeds, not words,” these women stared into the face of their government and demanded equality.
We see shades of Lincoln and King in the characters of Steed (Brenden Gleeson), a government agent, and Maude (Carey Mulligan), a young laundry worker who gives the audience a visceral view of conditions for poor, uneducated women in desperate need of change. The rule of law cannot contain a movement, and Steed cannot compel Maude to abandon her ideals because her ideals replace what has been taken from her by the rule of law. The film is exceptional in its treatment of the themes and in its power.
The right to vote is one of the most precious, and yet, national voting turnout in 2014 in the United States was around 36 percent. A film like “Suffragette” is essential as we near our next election, if only to remind the audience how fragile our democracy is. Rights are being eroded here at home, for everyone, by Supreme Court decisions and voter ID laws because the power is being consolidated at the top. “Suffragette” serves to remind the world where we have been—and where we do not want to return.