Suffragette – a moment for shame

The film “Suffragette” is now on general release. It is very much worth watching.

I saw it last night. I approached it without knowing what parts of the Suffragette struggle it would depict. It was good to enjoy the film without any expectations. I won’t give away the gist of it. But I will say that the film is extremely powerful. It manages to artfully straddle the powerful micro-drama of a working community with great events on the broader stage.

Carey Mulligan is superb as suffragette Maud, around whom the movie is built. It’s hard not to be moved by the unfolding events. The on-screen action is quite harrowing. The pain and suffering made me feel ashamed. A Liberal Prime Minister, namely Asquith, was in a position to move women’s suffrage forward but opposed it. Not only that but women campaigners were beaten, imprisoned and force-fed under his leadership. Women were allowed to vote in New Zealand parliamentary elections from 1893 but had to wait until 1928 in the UK.

Two historic notes. This was the first movie to be allowed to filmed in and around the Houses of Parliament (see photo above). It stars Helena Bonham-Carter, who is the great grand-daughter of Asquith.

The film also stars Meryll Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and the cast includes Grace Stuttor, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw and Samuel West. It is directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, who also wrote Thatcher biopic “The Iron Lady”.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it a reasonable 78% rating and this critics consensus:

Suffragette dramatizes an important — and still painfully relevant — fact-based story with more than enough craft and sincerity to overcome its flaws.

One final point directed at fellow men – please go and see this. There were a small number of men at the screening I attended. We should damn well see this and see what we were responsible for as a gender! This is a film for all people to watch and mark.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in The Arts.


  • Tsar Nicholas 24th Oct '15 - 10:57am

    I’m sorry, but collective guilt several generations after the event won’t wash with me. It is worth recalling that prior to the Act which gave women the vote not all men were enfranchised.

  • “We should damn well see this” – no argument with this, but – “and see what we were responsible for as a gender” is outrageous nonsense. I’m no more responsible for what another man does as I am for what people with the same hair colour as me do.

    Certainly past and present prejudice has given me advantages, and it’s right that we’re aware of and try to counteract those, but I’ll only feel shame or guilt about my own actions. That includes any indirect effect of my actions, but unless somebody invents a time machine I’ll not have any influence on people’s actions before I was born.

  • Agree with Jason. It seems very illiberal to say that all men should feel some kind of “shame” for what “we” did all those years ago. You might as well make a job of it and start assigning collective responsibility on the basis of race, nationality or religion.

    Besides, as far as I know my male ancestors were all quite poor and hence were quite possibly amongst the 40% of men who were denied the vote before 1918 for one reason or another (mainly property rights). Does this exempt me from the feelings of shame you seem to think I should be having?

    You’d be on firmer ground if you pointed out the discrimination against women that still goes on, and suggested that all of us who are aware of it but do nothing to fight it – be it men or women – should feel some kind of shame for that.

  • My nan apparently did things for the cause in Edwardian days, I never actuially learnt the full details. I never cease to be humbled by what they all did, went through, and finally achieved because of their war efforts. By the way a lot of men did support them, many in a quiet way..

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Oct '15 - 8:17pm

    If we can talk about ‘what we as a nation were responsible for’ in this era, which would not be a particularly uncommon phrasing (see trench warfare, colonialism, the Boer War, several other highly unpleasant acts of varying levels of cruelty, deliberate intent, ignorance and / or stupidity) – I don’t see why the phrase can’t be made about what ‘we’ as a gender ‘did’.

    In the same way that my great-grandparents didn’t choose the strategies of Kitchener and Haig but ‘we’ fought the First World War, my male antecedents didn’t deliberately choose to disenfranchise women but – arguably – to state that ‘we’ as a gender perpetrated it in some way, shape or form is not an invalid rhetorical construction.

    For another eg (as people on here generally know I am a Christian, as is Paul, iirc) – I wasn’t involved in Pope Urban preaching the First Crusade, but ‘we’ as a religion have much to regret for what ‘we’ did during the Crusades about a thousand years ago.

    Group identity and group inheritance of historic responsibility – even though it is in some ways something we choose to imagine and construct – cannot be dismissed lightly. It also cannot be turned on and off at one’s convenience.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Oct '15 - 8:21pm

    See also Gladstone’s relationship with slavery, which was um, problematic. I’m not suggesting we should all be constantly airing all the skeletons in all our collective closets continually in displays of ritual guilt, but Paul has every right to put his phrase the way he did and should not be sneered at.

  • Peter Davies 24th Oct '15 - 8:24pm

    If guilt is being apportioned by inheritance, I should like to point out that half my ancestors were women.

  • Ruth Bright 24th Oct '15 - 9:21pm

    There was a documentary about Barbara Castle where she pointed out that Emmeline Pankhurst was later involved with the very nasty movement that sent white feathers to “cowards” who would not fight in World War One.

    I would defend Paul for very reasonably pointing out that this is about gender. Poor men of that era suffered appallingly. But exceptionally vile and demeaning treatments were levelled out to “hysterical” women who would not conform: sexual assault, force-feeding, incarceration in mental institutions for some who were “promiscuous” or who gave birth to illegitimate babies. There is a resonance today. The great powers will go to war over oil but not to save Yazidi women who are bought and sold like animals.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Oct '15 - 9:39pm

    “but had to wait until 1928 in the UK. ” No, there was a free vote in the Commons in 1917 when David Lloyd-George was Prime Minister, which took effect for the general election of 1918, (in which Asquith lost his seat).
    What happened in 1928 was the lowering of the age limit for women voters from 30 years to 21, giving them equality.
    This took effect for the general election of 1929 when all three parties tried to attract this new group of voters.
    It was possible for a woman to become an MP in the 1918 election at the age of 21 and one did.
    There should be mention of suffragistes, who campaigned in non-violent ways. The suffragettes were lucky that their multiple arsons did not turn into murders of men and/or women in the properties they burned.
    The suffragettes’ campaign was suspended by Mrs Pankhurst in 1914 because of World War 1, during which there were no elections anyway.
    The Reform Act 1832, which, abolished the ‘rotten boroughs’ and enfranchised Manchester, also abolished voting rights for the women who had been entitled. The PM at the time was the first Duke of Wellington, a Conservative.

  • @Matt
    I can’t see any “sneering” going on – people have just said why they thing Paul is wrong.

    ” I wasn’t involved in Pope Urban preaching the First Crusade, but ‘we’ as a religion have much to regret for what ‘we’ did during the Crusades about a thousand years ago.”

    Good grief – how far back are you prepared to go? I take it you expect other religions that were up to all kinds of nastiness at the same time to take responsibility for their own crimes, too?

    If you look around the world today, you’ll find that people are killing themselves because of sectarian quarrels that go back way before the Crusades. There really is no rational justification for this.

  • killing themselves

    I of course meant killing each other – but some of them are killing themselves in the process.

  • Paul Holmes 25th Oct '15 - 1:09am

    Well, I have never subscribed to the religious doctrine of original sin being inflicted on the children of the children of the children……… and neither do I believe I am guilty because of what rich privileged men such as Asquith, or Gladstone for that matter, did.

  • Matt: being a christian and being a UK citizens are group identities. Being a man is a coincidence of chromosomes and genital configuration.

  • What a depressing comments thread.

  • Why is that, Jennie?

  • I didn’t realise we had so many Pontius Pilates around here, Jason.
    Richard Underhill’s comment is great though. Especially about the suffragists.

  • Ruth Bright 25th Oct '15 - 9:47am

    Quite Jennie – if the position of women had been totally transformed in the last 100 years all these posters would have a point. However, though the position of women has greatly improved in the last century it has not been transformed. This must be to do with the actions of someone. Or are we being told inequality is just one of those things and no-one bears any responsibility whatsoever.

    Dr Liz Evans of Bristol University wrote a book 4 years ago on the Lib Dems and Gender. Sadly if the response to Paul’s piece is anything to go by she was right to maintain that the Lib Dems have precious little analysis to offer on institutional gender issues.

  • Can we please drop these ‘gender based’ posts. Men weren’t the only ones opposed………………………The Women’s National anti-suffrage League (1908–1918) was established in London on 21 July 1908. Its aims were to oppose women being granted the vote in United Kingdom parliamentary elections, although it did support their having votes in local government elections. It was founded at a time when there was a resurgence of support for the women’s suffrage movement…….


  • I am sad that the nauseous politics of blame finds supporters here. Men today are no more responsible for what happened in the early part of the 20th Century than Germans today (men women and children) are responsible for what happened in the War, or I am for what Tony Blair did to Iraq.

    It doesn’t stop awareness, education or a determination to fight against such things happening in future, but the desperate need of some people to assign blame to anyone other than themselves in order to assuage some wrong committed a long time ago is a prime example of being willing to stereotype and ultimately demonise others with the new conformity that the sins of the father will be assigned to the son. Some political movements may need to do this to acquire a badge of honour for themselves, liberals should not.

  • Paul Walter 25th Oct ’15 – 12:02pm……

    When you post , “We should damn well see this and see what we were responsible for as a gender!” as a fact, you should expect to be challenged….
    To define responsibility as a ‘gender issue’ is nonsense…Many men supported suffrage and many women opposed it….

    BTW this is my third post today and, under the rules, that appears to be my limit…Any reply will have to wait…

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Oct '15 - 12:37pm

    I’ve got no problem with Paul’s line of “We should damn well see this and see what we were responsible for as a gender!”. In fact, it’s arguably a very good point. I say people should watch history documentaries and read books for similar reasons.

    My main concern is that I can spot people today for whom democracy does not seem that important. If people focus simply on the policies, and not the legitimacy of them, then withholding votes from women is the sort of thing you get.

    Of course, most are concerned with the legitimacy of policies, but I can no longer say that this is the vast majority. Many seem to think authority comes from oneself alone and if that is the case then people will resort to any means necessary to implement their policies.

    Finally, so I don’t sound pious, people from across the political spectrum failed to support votes for women, so it can’t just be blamed on one political group.

  • I suggest that we drop these gender based posts when women in the Lib Dems achieve equality and we are a long way away from this. I feel shame that a Liberal government opposed women’s right to vote because we are still fiddling around talking about inequality and haven’t yet done anything substantial to end it. That is why there should be shame. If being a Liberal means that in theory there should be no discrimination in the party but in fact means that women and members of ethnic minorities are totally under represented at all levels of the party then Liberalism is a sham and to be a Liberal is to be a hypocrite.
    I have been a Lib Dem since the party was formed so I am still hoping that we will discover the way to be truly Liberal that doesn’t exclude those who have tradionally been excluded. Thank you for this post Paul because it keeps that hope alive in spite of those who have dismissed or ridiculed your ideas.

  • I’ve not seen this film yet so can’t comment on the detail but what I will say, having researched this period extensively, is that it’s a very complex affair. There was a battle between suffragettes and suffragists which rarely gets much exposure and the militant suffragettes were also split. The Pankhursts couldn’t stand each other and famously clashed over tactics. I’ve listened to hundreds of tapes of real suffragetres talking of their experiences and not all the politicians were ogres eitherand the women I researched were very candid about it. Yes the cat and mouse act was appalling but the politicians of the day did change their views over time not least Lloyd George who recruited the Pankhursts to help him keep the Russians in the war – and who clashed with the unions who were angry at women taking what were perceived as male jobs during World War I. Anyway, I’ll reserve judgement until ive seen it but I do worry when we show films without any constructive context

  • And a footnote to this, please remember all the positive stuff Asquith and DLG did to improve the lot of ordinary people in Britain – they started a revolution of which women’s suffrage became part of

  • And Mark Wright is right to point out that some women did get the vote in the 19th century for certain elections – often fogotten about. The issue of universal suffrage was an issue for all parties and all dragged their feet on it. It was liberals in the end who brought in change

  • Not seen the film, but would hope that it does cover the formal removal of women’s right to vote by a combination of the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act. So the suffragettes weren’t so much gaining the right to vote, but restoring their previously recognised voting rights.

  • Ruth Bright 25th Oct '15 - 4:15pm

    Very much agree with Sue S. Paul’s occasional reviews are very good. He was interesting on “The Iron Lady” too!

    The trouble with Mark Wright’s spiel is that is about head in the clouds big P political rights not physical autonomy. Actually it wasn’t so great being an upper class woman in any era before 1967 because like her working class sisters she did not have control over her own body and fertility. It was not a bundle of laughs for any woman of any class in any era to experience agony in childbirth because medics of the time thought women should suffer without pain relief in order to “pay for the sin of Eve”. Marital rape only became a crime in 1991 (yes, nineteen ninety-one).

    As for class v gender I have never been shouted at or made to feel frightened in the street for daring to be the daughter of a bricklayer. I have lost count of the times I have been shouted at or made to feel frightened in the street for daring to have a female frame.

  • James Brough 25th Oct '15 - 6:59pm

    Having earlier this evening seen my girlfriend groped, kicked and shouted at for the offence of being blind, being a woman and having dyed hair, the number of people here saying “Nope, nothing to do with me” is seriously depressing.

  • David Allen 25th Oct '15 - 7:48pm

    Guilt, shame and blame are not quite the point. I feel absolutely guiltless about the slave trade, since I wasn’t around at the time. However, I do know that it made Britain a wealthier country, and that we continue to benefit today from the capital our ancestors accumulated by selling African slaves. So I don’t accept any blame for (effectively) inheriting some of that wealth, but I do feel somewhat ashamed that we haven’t done enough to hand it back.

    I am equally faultless when it comes to what Asquith did, because I didn’t vote for him either. So I am inclined to accept that, if what we most need is pedantic accuracy, then Paul’s remark about “what we were responsible for as a gender” does fail the test. But, have men since the time of the suffragettes done enough to help carry through change and create gender equality? I don’t think we have.

    Perhaps I could also add that, with respect to the slave trade, my conscience is considerably quietened by the fact that I am a Lib Dem, and our party does in many ways have a reasonable record in seeking to reverse international inequalities. I don’t think our record on gender politics has been as good.

  • Allan Heron 25th Oct '15 - 7:52pm

    All this over what is no more than a decent movie.

  • Mark Wright
    I thought the 1884 Reform Act got rid of most of the property qualifications for men. You may be right that there were still certain residual exceptions, but you are wrong on the general principle.

  • Nobody said inequality isn’t a problem.
    Nobody said men haven’t been disproportionately responsible for inequality.
    Nobody said men aren’t now disproportionately responsible for inequality.
    Nobody said “it’s nothing to do with me”.
    Nobody said there’s nothing we can do about it.

  • @Tim13
    40% of men were still excluded from the vote after the 1884 Act – hardly a few “residual exceptions”.

    @James Brough
    What are you saying – that the dreadful attack you describe was somehow to do with anybody here? In what way?

    What’s really depressing is that a few Lib Dems here genuinely seem to believe that there is a rational justification for prejudice – identifying somebody first and foremost as part of a group (and if we can do this by gender, why not race, religion, nationality, whatever) and treating them as somehow collectively responsible for the actions of that group, not even just in the present time, but many many years before any of us were born. To see this stuff being written by self-proclaimed liberals has been a real eye-opener. If pre-judging people by some accidental (and in this case completely unavoidable) human characteristic is not the antithesis of liberalism, it’s hard to know what is.

    It’s got nothing to do with turning a blind eye to the wrongs still being perpetrated today, as I said yesterday. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why I, as someone who was not around before 1918, and is certainly not even the descendant of anybody who had any kind of power before then (or even, quite likely, the vote), object pretty strongly to being told to feel “ashamed” by members of a party that has such a rotten record of tackling discrimination in the present day.

  • I’m a bit confused, some people seems to slip quite easily from a sensible position of trying to understand the history of suffrage in to identity politics.

    Of course people should understand what the resistance was to improvements in the past, it helps everyone understand what resistance future improvements may face and also help us understand how people may rationalise illiberal positions.

    Though I am a bit concerned about the how quickly some slip in to “inherited guilt” which is such a key component of identity politics. In fairness to those who have raised it, I can excuse this when applier to the Catholic Church as they believe in inherited guilt (yes I am kidding). But this is a rabbit hole you don’t want to go down, it ends with the rights of individuals meaning very little and actions being justified be “the greater good.” I don’t know if Paul was actually being serious with his comment or if people just missed what was actually meant.

    There are many problems in the LibDems today about how some women were mistreated in the very recent past and how women and some minorities are not adequately represented in positions held, identity politics isn’t going to get a good out come to that.

  • Paul – we should all have a whip round for your popcorn next time!!

  • @Ruth – But only if he takes his daughter! (assuming he has one!)

    My wife has pencilled in this film as one for us to take our daughter (12) to…
    My son being a couple of years younger will see it when it comes out on ‘home’ release when our daughter will want to see it again…

    Whilst Paul makes a comment being ashamed, in our house we take a more forward-looking view and see the struggle as a reason for why we should not limit ourselves or take our rights (such as women’s votes) lightly; because the real message of the suffragettes is that our rights are all too easily taken away, but very hard to regain.

  • David Allen

    “I feel absolutely guiltless about the slave trade, since I wasn’t around at the time. However, I do know that it made Britain a wealthier country”

    I missed this one earlier, and it is a side point, but slavery doesn’t make economies any richer it actually damages them. What it does is to concentrate wealth in to certain hands (with an adverse effect for the economy over time), in the same way a monopoly does, skewing incentives and misdirecting investment and innovation.

    At a historic level the adverse economic impact is insignificant compared to the human suffering so not something to dwell on. However it is worth remembering that slavery still occurs today in a number of countries, as a result we should never make the mistake of telling those countries that it is doing anything positive for their economy.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Nov '15 - 1:02pm
    “Sophia, Suffragette Princess”, which aired first on BBC One in late November 2015.”
    This program is well worth a look. It depicts the grand-daughter of a Maharajah becoming a debutante at the court of Queen Victoria, travelling to India and returning as a suffragette.
    It also fails to mention the increased enfranchisement of men and women in 1917, when David Lloyd-George was Prime Minister, and the defeat of Herbert Asquith in the 1918 general election. The implication is therefore, again, that women could not vote for their MPs until the 1929 general election, which is misleading.

  • Women aged 21-29 could not vote until after 1928, and even women 30 and older could not vote unless they passed certain property tests which did not apply to men. It was not an equal franchise in any respect.

    The Representation of the People Act was passed by the House of Commons in 1917, but did not become law until 1918. Lloyd George (not Lloyd-George before 1945) was Prime Minister until 1922.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Feb '18 - 8:02pm

    The Suffragette film is excellent, but not perfect. It does state that the objective of the suffragettes was to avoid murder, but in its attempted destruction of the Surrey house being built for David Lloyd George no-one was killed because a housekeeper forgot her gloves and was therefore not present at that precise date and time. In those days a conviction for murder carried the death sentence. Arson is nowadays one of the offences which, on conviction, carries a life sentence at the discretion of the sentencing judge (usually the trial judge). Other such offences nowadays are causing explosions, attempted murder, violent assault, rape, homosexual rape etcetera. Murder, on conviction, carries a mandatory life sentence since the reforms which happened when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary in the 1960s.
    Lloyd George’s decision to abstain on a motion of female enfranchisement was, he wrote, because of the anomalies, he supported the principle. The anomalies in the 1918 act result from a Speaker’s conference following division in the Commons.
    The attempted murder of Winston Churchill MP at a railway station in Bristol [ISBN 0385 607415] might not have helped the WSPU cause if it had succeeded and seems to have been caused by extreme anger in one person, somewhat unjustified.
    Theresa May’s stumbling at PMQ was not caused by a cough (unlike conference) but perhaps she forgot her lines, confusing equality with full enfranchisement. Perhaps she has not been spending her time reading Roy Hattersley’s writings about the many, small trade unions which existed before World War One, most of which were male dominated and perceived votes for women as a risk to their levels of pay and terms of employment.
    Because of the severity of the offences a general pardon would set a wrong precedent. An apology for force feeding is needed. It did not happen to other hunger strikers with different causes at different times. Mahatma Gandhi for instance?

  • Richard Underhill 10th Feb '18 - 8:04pm

    Clare Balding’s film on Channel 4 goes into the issues at the Derby using modern technology and should influence the debate.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Mar '18 - 9:14am

    Clare Balding’s film ‘Secrets of a suffragette’ was repeated on Channel 4 on 6//2/2018. She goes into precise details about exactly where the suffragette was standing when she was run over by the King’s horse and discusses whether she intended suicide or publicity. The scarf which she tried to put on the horse was recovered by the Clerk of the Course and given to his baby daughter. In her old age it auctioned to raise money for her care. The Jockey Club was the under-bidder, whose motives Clare Balding considers might be significant, but which she did not explore further. The successful bidder was interviewed. She donated the scarf to parliament. The suffragette died from her injuries. The jockey was thrown but lived. He later committed suicide. Worldwide publicity was achieved. The fact that the suffragette had a return railway ticket is probably irrelevant to whether she had a suicidal intention because the usual practice of the railway companies on Derby Day was not to issue any other kind.
    An open question remains: Would female enfranchisement for parliament have been achieved without the campaign of violence and the risks of murders consequent on the multiple arsons? The political pressures resulting from the work of women (on equal pay) in the dangerous and unhealthy munitions factories implies Yes, but the opinion of suffragist Clementine Churchill, who had acted to save Winston’s life when attacked, should be taken into account.

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