Film Review: “Suffragette”

By Barbara Winslow

The movie Suffragette is the first feature film that dramatically depicts the monumental struggle for women’s right to vote in pre- World War I England. (Please erase from your memory the horrible, and I mean horrible, portrayal of suffragettes in the Disney monstrosity Mary Poppins.) Directed by Sarah Gavron, with screenplay by Abi Morgan, the project also had the support and star power of Meryl Streep in a brilliant-as-always portrayal of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the militant suffragette organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

This film is a powerful and moving story of women’s struggle and sacrifice to win the right to vote and, in addition, to be considered citizens and treated with dignity. In twentieth-century England, there were two major suffrage organizations. One was the constitutionalist suffragist organization, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The movie focuses on the activities of the more militant suffragette organization, The Women’s Social and Political Union, (WSPU) which was founded and led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Christabel and Sylvia. The militants used in-your-face tactics, unheard of at the time, such as heckling politicians, conducting mass nonviolent civil disobedience, smashing windows and blowing up mailboxes and buildings, even the Brighton Pavilion. They used acid to etch "Votes for Women" on men’s golf courses. One suffragette debutante had the audacity to ask King George for the vote! The Liberal government responded by jailing the suffragettes, who then retaliated by hunger striking. Desperate and unwilling to deal with the basic demand for the vote, the government then began forced feeding (read: torturing) the women.

Not all women campaigning for the vote were middle or upper class. Some, like Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia, were socialists. Many trade union and labour militants supported the women’s suffrage struggle, albeit warily. They were concerned that the middle-class suffrage fighters would support Tories and Liberals over the nascent Labour Party.

Suffragette takes place mainly in London’s East End, a diverse, working-class immigrant community. Suffragette’s protagonist, Maud Watts, is a married mother who works in a laundry. She embodies the experiences most working women faced and face today -- long hours, back-breaking labor, sexual harassment and dangerous working conditions. She comes home to a tiny, dingy, poorly lit, badly heated flat to shop, cook, clean and take care of a husband and son. Maud, a very conventional working-class woman, is drawn into the WSPU’s orbit after witnessing (and enjoying) window breaking in the more middle-class West End of London. Maud ends up testifying about the horrendous working conditions women face in the East End, joins demonstrations and attends meetings. She meets other WSPU comrades but finds herself ostracized by some friends; her husband kicks her out of their home and takes away her son. But Maud finds sisterhood and comradeship in the WSPU and the struggle, even as the suffragettes move away from mass militancy and more toward individual acts of property destruction. The movie ends with the martyrdom/death of Emily Wilding Davison and her massive funeral. There were no dry eyes in the theater.

As a historian of the British suffrage movement, I could quibble with some of the historical inaccuracies. But the strength of the movie, along with the brilliant performances, lies in its emphasis on the struggle, on sisterhood, on comradeship. The movie doesn’t ignore the real class differences that existed in the suffrage movement, though it avoids exploring political differences between the suffragist and suffragette wings. The scene of forcible feeding was horrifically real. (And now, think of what the U.S. government is doing in Guantanamo.) There was not a whiff of the "lean-in" feminism, power-feminism, or anyone-can-do-it feminism that get touted these days. Even though Emmeline Pankhurst was quite an elitist, she believed fervently in women’s inherent worth, dignity and emancipation. It is so clear in the movie that without women’s feminist militancy there would be no women’s suffrage. (Partial suffrage was granted in 1918; all women over age 21 gained the vote in 1928.)

U.S. women won the vote in 1920. (The U.S. activists called themselves "suffragists," while their detractors, seeking to belittle and diminish them, called them "suffragettes.") What galled me at the end of the movie was the thought that today, while women have the constitutional right to vote, the U.S. Congress, the Supreme Court, and state governments are taking the vote away from the poor, people of color, the elderly, youth and students. It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, women have to take up the fight for birth control, contraception and the right to be sexual. For every gain women have made, thanks to suffragists and suffragettes and then women’s liberation activists in the post-1965 era, we always have to be on the alert and always fighting to save what we have as we continue to demand more. Hmmmm, maybe it’s time for some in-your-face window smashing.


Barbara Winslow is professor emerita at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the founder and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, 1945 to the Present (


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Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.


  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link:

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps


Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.