In my first year at university, one of my tutors asked my tutorial group, made up of twelve girls and two boys, who would call themselves a feminist.
Only two of us, both girls, raised our hands.
I remember being really shocked. Why on earth wouldn’t you be a feminist in this day and age? My tutor asked them that exact question and their answers, to say the least, were not good. Feminists are violent. Feminists are man-haters. Feminists are big butch lesbians who refuse to wear makeup and hate those women who do. My shock only intensified when I went home that weekend and told my friends, who agreed with everything my class had said. It became clear to me that none of them really knew what feminism was, or what it meant to be a feminist.
A similar thing happened when I first suggested going to see Suffragette, which came out in cinemas earlier this month. I was faced with a lot of “what would you want to go and see that for?” and “the Suffragettes gave women a bad name” – a reaction I had not expected and could not understand. And seeing the film only added to my confusion.
Set in 1912, the film, directed by Sarah Gavron, follows a group of Suffragettes in the East End of London. Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a devoted wife and mother, is convinced by her friend and work-mate, Violet Miller (Ann Marie Duff), to join a team of local Suffragettes. Led by the local pharmacist, Mrs Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), Maud soon finds herself in the middle of numerous riots, dropping bombs in letter boxes, and even blowing up an MP’s house. But this all comes at a cost. Watts is imprisoned and force-fed after partaking in a hunger strike. She is also rejected by her husband and forced to leave her familial home and her son, George. The viewer is taken on a journey with Maud, who realises that what first seemed to be a story about some women breaking windows actually becomes a poignant one of struggle, sacrifice and survival.
The beauty of Suffragette, aside from the phenomenal acting by both the females and males, all of whom triumph in their difficult roles, is that the taboo nature of feminism is broken down and we are invited to look beyond the violence and see why they did it. These women are not hard, cold and cruel. They are mothers, sisters, wives and daughters who simply want to be given the same rights that are given to every man. As Emmeline Pankhurst, who briefly appears in the film played by Meryl Streep, put it, they would rather be rebels than slaves.
If you take nothing else from this stunning film, at least recognise that the fight is not over. By including a timeline of when women around the world were given the vote, the viewer is shown that we were not the first to be given the vote and we certainly were not the last. In fact, women’s voting rights in Saudi Arabia were only acknowledged this year. Even in Britain, we are still faced with wage inequality and of course, domestic violence service cuts, for which hundreds of women protested at the London premiere of the film by storming the red carpet. The inclusion of real-life clips of the funeral of Emily Davison (who brought much attention to the Women’s Suffrage Movement by jumping in front of the King’s horse at the Derby) reminds us that it isn’t all costumes and make-up. Feminism is not in the past. It did not die with Mrs Pankhurst or Emily Davison. Feminism is still very much alive, and there is a lot of work still to be done.
It is my hope that, by seeing this film, boys and girls alike will realise that the word feminist should not be used to offend or insult or as a means to describe a stereotype. I am not a violent person. I do not, by any means, hate men. I am not a lesbian, and my cosmetics bag is fit to burst with make-up. But I am a feminist, and Suffragette has just made me all the more proud to say it. We should all be unbelievably grateful for what those women, our women, gave up in order to give us what we have today. A fighting chance.