Sarah Gavron’s acclaimed film Suffragette has thrown a welcome spotlight on the struggle for women’s votes. Jane Avery, director of Central England Co-operative Membership, attended the screening at Leicester’s independent Phoenix cinema, where the descendent of suffragette – and co-operator – Alice Hawkins was on hand to give a talk.
Suffragette follows a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), as she risks the sack for her daily attempts to recruit other women workers to the cause of votes for women.
She is largely rebuffed, but eventually young Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is drawn in.
A steady picture is drawn of just how powerless Maud is.
Her boss takes what were euphemistically called “liberties” and it’s clear that when she was much younger (she started working in the factory at the age of 11), the boss’s liberties were much more active and threatening. He now “favours” another child employee – Violet’s own 14 year-old daughter.
The helplessness of the women to stop him offers a powerful answer to the often-heard refrain that having a vote did not matter. Before a screening of the film in Leicester, the audience heard a talk by Peter Barrett, great-grandson of the city’s famous suffragette – and life- long co-operator – Alice Hawkins.
Alice was imprisoned five times during her political struggle and her story made this harrowing film even more meaningful.
Peter drew parallels with his great- grandmother Alice and Maud. Family archives show that Alice was present when women gathered in London, fully expecting to hear PM David Lloyd George fulfil his promise to bring a bill before the House of Commons on votes for women, only to be let down – a moment of anger and frustration that was powerfully portrayed in the film.
But Maud and Alice weren’t exactly the same. In the film, Maud does not have the support of her husband, who is ashamed of her militancy. It is heartbreaking that he turns her out of their home and takes control of their child.
He can’t cope as a single parent, and his solution is to have the child adopted. Maud has no say in this (perhaps if she’d had the support of the Women’s Guild there might have been a different outcome) and it is a shock to read in the credits that women only got rights concerning their own children in 1925.
Before then, it was the husband alone who made decisions about his children and no court would consider an appeal from a mere mother. It illustrated perfectly just why women wanted the vote.
By contrast, Alice had the full support of her husband Alfred. She was a committed member of the Leicester Co-operative Women’s Guild from its inception in 1890.
She also worked for the Leicester Co-operative Boot and Shoe Manufacturing Society (later Equity Shoes) and was an active trade unionist.
Like Maud, Alice was repeatedly jailed for her activities. Women were ignored or ridiculed by a hostile press. Using tactics that are still sadly familiar, the suffragettes were painted in sexist terms as unmanageable and unmarryable.
The lead-up to the dreadful events at Derby Day, when Emily Davison tried to pin a WSPU scarf on the King’s horse and sustained fatal injuries, had a painful inevitability to it and the shock and sadness is powerfully conveyed in the film.
Emily’s sacrifice meant that the papers could no longer ignore the story. The outbreak of the First World War delayed the long-promised enfranchisement of all women, but it came at last in 1918 with the Representation of the People’s Act.
Even then, women were not treated equally. While the Act gave all men over the age of 21 the vote, only women over 30 who were householders were enfranchised.
It would be another ten years before votes for all was achieved, with many more battles still to be fought. And, of course, there are still some to be won.
But the genie was out of the bottle. The intellectual argument for equality at the ballot box was won – thanks to brave, strong women like Alice Hawkins and many others. We owe them so much.
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