Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Suffragette: a film in which the gloves should have come off, but didn't

I saw the film Suffragette over the long weekend, drawn in by its billing as a story about the rank and file of women who struggled for the right to vote in early 20th century England.

Though a great deal more was at stake and actively contested by women in that period, I anticipated the film would focus narrowly on women's suffrage. When I bought my ticket I thought I'd be okay with that. After all, one movie can only illuminate so much history.

What I didn't anticipate was the opacity of the protagonist's shift from resigned (one can't say "satisfied") laundress to radicalized suffragette. As the film was written/released, Maud Watts (played with sympathy and subtlety by Carey Mulligan) seemed to be carried along by accidents of circumstance as she became first a witness to Parliament, then a mailbox-bomber, and then unwillingly separated from her child. These accidents of circumstance do seem to add up to her motivation to radicalize, but only when glued together by the viewer's inference and projection. There's little to indicate what sense Maud Watts made of her own world, or why she made the choices -- hard choices -- she did.

I would have liked the film to delve deeper than accidents of circumstance. On reflection, I think that it was precisely the narrowness of political focus that prevented a deeper portrayal of the film's protagonist.

So what else was at stake for women in the 1910s besides the vote?

It's true that suffragists from Susan B. Anthony to Alice Paul to Emmeline Pankhurst had been fighting for women’s right to vote since the mid-nineteenth century. In that time there was also Margaret Sanger and the many women who insisted as Sanger did that women must determine for themselves whether and when to bear children. Elizabeth Gurley FlynnLucy Parsons, and "Mother" Jones organized the radical Industrial Workers of the World alongside Big Bill HaywoodEugene Debs, and others. Flynn went on to help found the American Civil Liberties Union in a period when antiwar protesters and other critics of the U.S. government were being muzzled, beaten, arrested, and -- in the case of anarchist icon Emma Goldman -- deported. Birth control, labor's struggle with capital, realization and preservation of political/civil liberties, the savage willingness of power and industry to engage in an arms race and slaughter millions in WWI (in order to further enrich and empower themselves): all these were boiling up or boiling over in the period in which Suffragette was set.

Here's Emma Goldman railing against the insufficiency of universal suffrage -- indeed against the insufficiency of government -- to truly liberate either women or men. In Anarchism and Other Essays (1917), the essay “Woman Suffrage” concluded:
She [woman] can give suffrage or the ballot no new quality, nor can she receive anything from it that will enhance her own quality. Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. [...] That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation.  Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life giving; a creator of free men and women.
By quoting Goldman I am not suggesting that the right of women to vote is beside the point. It is not at all beside the point, and in the early 20th century it meant at least as much as an emblem of women's full and free participation in all matters social and political as it did vis-√†-vis electing school boards, mayors, governors, MPs, congresspersons, presidents, and all their varied ilk. The heart of Goldman's point was that voting would not of itself make women free, no more than voting had freed men from the power of capital, state violence, and repressive social constraints.

What I found missing from Suffragette was a context that placed women in the thick of social and political struggles beyond universal suffrage. The film did little to show domestic and labor relations as political issues in their own right, related to but distinct from a right to vote in elections. Yes, the protagonist in Suffragette was clearly and vividly constrained and oppressed at home, in her workplace, by police in the course of peaceful protest, and in the way her grievances were dismissed by the British government. The sole focus of political organizing, consciousness-raising, and demand in the film was, however, the right to vote. Yes, Suffragette gave an indirect nod to broader and deeper context when Maud Watts voiced her realization and then her insistence that "there's another way of living this life." But that nod neither traced nor animated the development of the protagonist's consciousness or participation in the suffragist movement within the context of a broad spectrum of political grievances or demands that were relevant to Maud and to all women in her period and circumstances.

When Maud spoke that line -- "there's another way of living this life" -- I immediately recalled one spoken by Laura Whitehorn in Sam Green's 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary film The Weather Underground. I had no trouble recalling the line because it takes on a key significance in my own recently-published novel, Consequence. Whitehorn was a member of Weather Underground and is currently a writer and activist in New York. Her lifelong work addressed or addresses Black and Puerto Rican liberation struggles, the Vietnam War, feminism, and AIDS/HIV. In Green's documentary, Whitehorn says:
"I definitely think that people never stop struggling, and never stop waiting for the moment when they can change the things that make their lives unlivable."
It's worth noticing that radical women have long stood at the forefront of struggle to change what makes life unlivable, to find "another way of living this life." There's not just one reason for that. There's a broad spectrum of reasons.

Today, as we witness the toxic waste dump identified in the media as the pool of 2016 G.O.P. candidates for U.S. President spew hateful lies in a reactionary bid to undermine women's independence and health, goading heavily-armed scumbags to heinous acts of terroristic violence -- well, it's crystal-clear that the broad spectrum of reasons women and their allies have to struggle for "another way of living this life" remains in play.

I'd say the film Suffragette's narrow focus on voting rights inhibits a viewer from fully understanding or empathizing with the range of issues, social relations, and constraints that led its fictional protagonist, Maud Watts, along the only path that would permit her to realize full humanity in the historical context to which she was born: that is, along a path of radicalized political engagement with a government and patriarchy that sought to deny her inalienable human rights.

Suffragette is worth seeing. I'm glad I saw it. But I wish the filmmakers had taken off their gloves, as I hope women and women's allies will do en masse today.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Activist fiction: it's about engagement, not about The Issue
CONSEQUENCE has arrived
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the public domain image of Emma Goldman addressing a rally in Union Square (New York), 1916.

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