“The woman wanderer goes forth on the path towards freedom.” She wonders, “I am alone, utterly alone. Why do I go to this far land?” And reason says to her, “Silence, what do you hear? Thousands, and they beat this way. . . Feet of those who follow you. Lead on.”

So begins Dreams, a book passed down from suffragette to suffragette. In Suffragette, it ends up in the hands of Maud Watts, and over the course of the film, she leads on, bringing us along with her as she transforms from an average working class woman into a key player in Britain’s women’s suffrage movement.

At first, the life Maud knows is one consumed by Glasshouse Laundry, where she has folded the same white cloth in half over and over again, day in and day out. She is 24 now, and from the age of seven, she has worked her way into her manager Mr. Taylor’s favor, one chore at a time. Yet her coworker and friend, Violet Miller, sweeps her out of this life and into the world of the suffragette, one that is as strange and new as the one described in Dreams. In her first act as would-be suffragette, Maud stands in for Violet, testifying before prominent British statesman David Lloyd George. She is unsure of what the vote would mean to her, but expresses wonderment at the prospect that “there’s another way of living this life.”

Suffragette does indeed introduce to Maudand usa new way of living. Maud, who originally does not want to call herself a suffragette, ultimately embraces the cause to survive: she has nothing else to hold onto because all that she knows is gone. A crucial turning point occurs when Maud’s husband, Sonny, finds his wife left outside his home late at night after being detained by the authorities for hearing suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst speak. “You’ll never shame me again,” says Sonny as he throws Maud out of the house and proceeds to prevent her from having any say in her son George’s wellbeing and future. Sonny represents the views of many anti-suffragists, male and female alike, who believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Maud’s expulsion from her home both strips her of her agency most unceremoniously and lays the foundation for a new role outside of her old life.

The film also tests Maud’s commitment to the cause with acts of increasing aggression, including bombing escapades, setting fire to buildings, smashing windows, and learning jiu jitsu as self-defense against police officers. However, the odds are stacked against these women. One heartbreaking scene follows Maud as she is jailed for the first time, struggling against her bonds as she is force-fed milk via a tube inserted up her nose. And in one of the most tragic moments of the film, a suffragette with high hopes for the visibility of the movement, Emily Davison, runs in front of the King’s horse and is trampled during the Epsom Derby in June 1913. The rest of the scene passes by in silence: it is clear that the film has steamrolled its way past, leaving the viewer in pieces. Suffragette is as much a transition for Maud as it is for us, for it is truly a wake-up call to the death toll and the nature of the trials and tribulations that women have undergone for the sake of the ballot a right that may be taken for granted.

Despite mostly positive responses, some critics have picked up on the one-dimensionality of Suffragette. The film ignores important suffragettes of color, such as the Indian Princess Sophia, who handed out booklets in support of the cause. Yet this may be due to the limited scope of the film it is centered on Maud and sets out to put a spotlight on the story of her particular group of working-class women. Another complaint arises from the racial insensitivity on the part of some star actresses who chose to emblazon their T-shirts with suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s ringing words, “I would rather be a rebel than a slave.” In the modern era, the comment sounds out of place and even inappropriate because these women’s personal experiences are so far removed from the hardship the comment suggests. Within the context of the film, however, the statement seems justified as an expression of anguish over their complete lack of rights and loss of personhood.

Suffragette begs the question: how far have we progressed today, in this moment and onwards? It’s a question we repeatedly pose to ourselves, our friends and family, and nations and governments around the world. In a day and age when so many people are reluctant to say they’re a feminist, Suffragette urges viewers to embrace the cause, for what’s wrong with equality between men and women?

The events that transpired in Britain over a century ago acted as a watershed in the movement towards gender equality. Suffragette revives this old conversation in a refreshing way. Watch if you are a Violet bring a friend along and join the conversation. Watch if you are a Maud unsure how brave you can be but willing to find out.

Suffragette hits theaters October 23.

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7 Comments

    1. I know you posted this a while ago but I just saw the film now.. Based on my pausing the film and thinking I make out ‘Olive’ on the spine, I do see a book called Dreams by Olive Schreiner going back at least to the 1890’s. I’m sure given its age you can also find the pdf online, assuming that’s it. My guess is it is.

    2. Yes, it is. I have a tiny “Little Leather Library” copy from around 1920. The writer is Olive Schreiner.

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