Look who’s becoming a Suffragette! What IS a suffragette?

Meryl Streep
Photo courtesy of Frank Micelotta/Invision/AP

Meryl Streep has obviously impressed the producers of the Ruby Films period drama, Suffragette with her rant last month at the National Board of Review awards when she called Walt Disney a “gender bigot” when presenting Emma Thompson an award for her work in Saving Mr Banks. During the presentation she railed against Disney and declared that Thompson was “a rabid, man eating feminist, like I am”. It’s that man eating feminism no doubt that has endeared her to the producers as she’s in final talks to appear as Emmeline Pankhurst in the upcoming film starring Carey Mulligan, alongside other notable actors such as Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai, and Samuel West, according to ScreenDaily.

Though only slated to play a minor role in the film, it is a vital role in which she is said to deliver a “‘tour de force’ speech on women’s rights during a political rally”.

Abi Morgan, who wrote The Iron Lady (in which Streep played the former British PM Margaret Thatcher and earned her another Academy Award), is also writing this film’s script. Sarah Gavron has signed on to direct and shooting will begin in the UK next week.

So who was Emmeline Pankhurst and why is she so important? If you are a woman and live in the UK, the freedoms and rights you have under the law, are a direct result of her efforts. If you are a woman and you live in Canada, the freedoms and rights you have under the law, are a direct result of her efforts. If you are woman and live in the USA, the freedoms and rights you have under the law can be attributed to an entirely different set of heroes. Bear with me as I backtrack a bit.

Photo courtesy of The Mirror

Born Emmeline Goulden in 1858, she was raised by politically active parents. During the 19th century, England had a number of Reform Acts pass through Parliament, and the big ones had to do with the vote. If you’ve ever heard the term ‘rotten boroughs’, the Reform Act of 1832 sought to eliminate irregularities of voting. In a nutshell, in order to have the vote (= suffrage), you had to own land. If you owned land in more than one area, you had a vote in all of those areas. Further, although there had been some discussion about including women in the Reform Act, the law specifically had wording about enfranchising “male persons”, which literally disenfranchised women. And how many more men got the vote? Well, Wiki (source of all knowledge) says approximately 500,000 adult men had the vote before the Act became law. Afterwards, ca. 813,000. That’s 1 in 6 adult men with the vote. Total population at the time: 12 million.

The Reform Act of 1867 resulted in approximately doubling those numbers in the electorate. In broad strokes, professionals and men with regular (minimum) incomes now had the vote; also, men with over 50 pounds in savings now had the vote. Although there was a movement for universal suffrage, the priorities of various organisations were to get all men the vote, not necessarily all citizens. In 1870, 1886, and 1897, suffrage bills were put before the House, but were never passed. The goal for all men to get the vote was achieved in 1918. Women were included in that one, but only those over the age of 30 and with further strings attached: a woman had to be married to someone registered with the local government authority or had to be registered herself, be a property owner, or be a university graduate. A separate woman’s suffrage bill went before the House in 1905; it was filibustered.

In the UK, equal voting rights were not granted to women until 1928. In Canada (except Quebec), equal voting rights were granted in 1920. Women in Quebec waited until 1940. People of First Nations descent had to wait until 1960, but that’s a whole other topic of discussion. In the USA, the magic number for women was also 1920. Yes, women have had the vote in the UK, USA, and Canada, for fewer than 100 years.

To be clear, Emmeline Pankhurst did not initiate the movement for women’s suffrage, but she (with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, and many, MANY more) was instrumental in gaining significant ground for the movement in England. Why? One reason was so they could affect social justice such as protecting the poor, the elderly, orphans, widows, improve conditions in workhouses, improve education and access to it – the many demographics dependent on the public purse for their well being – and shape future social policy on a political level.

Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889, but it only lasted a year. She founded the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) in 1903. They worked tirelessly and their methods were non violent in the beginning, attending and conducting meetings, dialogues with politicians, pamphleteering, standing on street corners. She and her sisters in the movement endured social ostracisation, public humiliation, imprisonment, physical violence, force feeding (as a way to counter hunger strikes), and Emily Wilding Davison publicly committed suicide in 1913 by stepping onto the racecourse at Epsom mid-race. WSPU methods would later include advocating arson and damage to property, such as breaking windows.

For the vote. Something many of us take for granted. In a time when voter turnouts for federal elections are in the 60% range and municipal elections in Vancouver, for instance, are in the 30-35% range (in Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, that number was 53% in their last municipal election).

Ironically, women (certainly not all) were allowed to stand as candidates for election before they even got the vote. The first woman elected mayor was a medical doctor by the name of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who became mayor of Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1908. Emmeline also stood for election and was in the process of campaigning for a seat when she fell ill and died on June 14, 1928. On July 2, 1928, Royal Assent for the Act enfranchising women (Representation of the People Act 1928) became law. Emmeline Pankhurst never saw the victory.

In 1999, Time magazine included Emmeline Pankhurst in their list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. In 2002, the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 Greatest Britons. Emmeline Pankhurst ranked 27th.

The WSPU motto was Deeds Not Words. That is the badge I wear.

Suffragette emblem and motto
Suffragette emblem and motto


Sigrid Bernhoerster
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