Member Groups

The Catalyst
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

November 2015, vol. 21, no. 3

SUFFRAGETTE: Women’s fight for the right to vote

The movie Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, leaves one realizing that the fight for the right to vote for women is far from over. It is still a battle being fought around the world. In the final credits, it is startling to realize that almost 100 years later, there are countries such as Saudi Arabia where women are still fighting for the right to vote. This movie focuses on the British suffragette movement around 1912-1913 and the “deeds not words” of the Suffragettes who sought to gain the world’s attention in their pursuit of a woman’s right to vote.

The story focuses around the fictional character Maud Watts (played by actress Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker in the East End of London who is drawn into the fight by her co-worker Violet (played by Anne-Marie Duff). Maud and Violet work for a sadistic man named Taylor (played by Geoff Bell) who had sexually and psychologically abused Maud. Early on in the movie, Maud is asked to testify before a government committee and we learn about her difficult past which included her mother carrying her on her back while she worked at the laundry. We also learn that she went to work at the laundry at the age of seven and is subjected every day to the dangerous conditions present at the laundry all for a meager sum. After testifying, Maud realizes that the right to vote is her only way to escape this world. Maud’s husband Sonny (played by Ben Whishaw) is unsympathetic to Maud and throws her out of the house. Maud’s husband bars any contact between Maud and her six-year-old son George (played by Adam Michael Dodd). Shortly thereafter, Sonny gives up his parental rights. Losing the only joy in her life, Maud is devastated by the loss of her son with no legal recourse to fight this adoption.

After losing her son, Maud is soon embroiled in the fight for the right to vote at the prodding of suffragette pharmacist Edith Ellyn (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and upper-class activist Alice Haughton (played by Romola Garai). Maud is spurred to civil disobedience while attending secret speeches given by real historical figures like Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in a cameo role). These women freedom fighters commit “deeds” of bombing mailboxes and using dynamite to blow up the vacant summer home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and future prime minister, Lloyd George. As a result of their “deeds”, the women are subjected to government surveillance, imprisonment and torture, including forced feeding, while fighting for their rights.

The movie captures the economic and labor concerns of the working class women which motivated them to unite together for the right to vote. As a mother of five children, I can see how difficult it must have been for these women to put themselves and their families at risk for the greater good. These women sacrificed themselves for the future generations of women who came after them. The conditions that the working women in the East End of London faced every day at work and at home felt like an imprisonment. The movie clearly portrays how the working class women of East London saw the right to vote as crucial to creating a hope for a better life where their voice could be heard. It is always easier to accept life the way it is and the Suffragettes provided that equality does not come naturally and is worth the fight. The movie reminds us that equality is still being fought for everyday – equal rights for women, gays, bi-sexuals, transgender and racial equality.

I recently read a Washington Post Article dated November 1, 2015 by Dawn Teele, titled “What the movie ‘Suffragette’ doesn’t tell you about the how women won the right to vote.” In this article, Ms. Teele points out that the Suffragettes were the militant wing who brought much-needed media attention to the fight for the right to vote which helped bring together the middle and working class members of the early movement. Ms. Teele opined that it was not the civil disobedience of the Suffragettes, but rather the Suffragists led by activist Catherine Marshall who knew that the success of the movement depended on support from elected leaders such as Labour Party leader Arthur Henderson. Ms. Toole concluded that it was Arthur Henderson’s threat of defection from the Labour Party at the end of World War I which resulted in the inclusion of women’s suffrage on the electoral reform bill.

While I appreciate Ms. Teele’s article concerning the fact that the Suffragists’ activism forced the hand of the British government to give women the right to vote, I believe the movie does a fine job portraying the working class women’s struggle for the right to vote through civil disobedience. Their strong voices mattered along with thousands of others who have paved the way for women like myself to be afforded educational and career opportunities that these women could only dream about.

Movie is PG-13, Running Time: 1hour 46 minutes. Now Playing with Limited Release in Theaters.

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Meg O’Sullivan is in private practice employed Of-Counsel with the law firm of Michael T. Huguelet P.C. in Orland Park, IL. Her primary areas of practice are real estate, probate administration including guardianship matters, estate planning and municipal prosecution. She resides in Chicago with her husband Dan Reidy and their 5 children. She is a member of the ISBA Women and the Law Committee.