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‘Suffragette’ calls on women to “never give up the fight” for equality

By Alana Hodson

Section: Arts

October 30, 2015

In the midst of the feminist activism that has swept the country in recent decades, it is not surprising to see a film on the silver screen that took advantage of this interest in gender equality. It was the intention of director Sarah Gavron to make a standout political statement with her latest historical fiction drama, “Suffragette.” This past Thursday, Oct. 22, dozens of students gathered in Wasserman Theater Cinematheque to see the pre-screening of the film’s release.

Set in 1912 London, “Suffragette” spans the time period during the fight for women’s suffrage, in which a tremendous amount of progress was achieved. From the perspective of a common, working-class woman named Maud Watts, played by Academy Award-nominated actress Carey Mulligan, “Suffragette” examines and humanizes the fight for equality from an entirely new point of view. It explores the bolder actions of suffragettes, as they attempt to pass the “Vote for Women.”

The film opens inside an industrial laundry company. Women are bustling about, carrying back-breaking stacks of linen, pressing out wrinkles with heavy, heated irons, scrubbing sheets in metal basins as their hands bled from blisters, all under the hungry eye of the factory foreman, who does not hesitate to abuse his power. These scenes depicting the horrid factory working conditions are revisited many times throughout the film, emphasizing the harsh reality of the past women had to endure.

Maud soon becomes entangled with a rebel organization bent on fighting for women’s suffrage. She quickly realizes that more of her friends and community members, played by renowned actresses Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff, are involved in the fight than she had thought. This draws her more closely to the cause. As Maud devotes more of her time to this risky gamble for freedom, she begins to recognize her own value as a citizen, and wants her voice to be heard. This idea drives the plot of the film, and empowers the women as they set aside their own safety and security in order to create a better quality of life for their daughters and fellow women.

The theme of sacrifice is prevalent throughout the film, especially in Maud’s life, as we see how her involvement with the suffragettes causes her marriage to disintegrate. The shift in Maud’s image of herself from a devoted spouse to an individual deserving of equal rights becomes undeniably apparent when she declares to her husband that she is more than just a wife. Maud reflects a paradigm shift that women all over the country were experiencing during this era.

Maud’s assertion of her own individuality and her right to fight for equality is a core theme represented by the controversial line, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” This line is delivered by Academy-award winning actress Meryl Streep’s character Ms. Pankhurst, the elusive leader of the women’s suffrage movement. Though Streep’s role is hardly more than a cameo, she also delivers another powerful line which surely speaks to every viewer: “Never give up the fight.”

Gavron certainly does not shy away from showing exactly what these early activists had to go through so that women may enjoy the rights they have today. Perhaps one of the most disturbing scenes of the film is when Maud is force-fed while serving her second jail sentence. At the time, this was common for women who subjected themselves to hunger strikes while serving their sentences, though it is now a recognized form of torture.

Another striking moment in “Suffragette” was when a peaceful protest turned violent after women were yet again denied the right to vote. As the mass of women were sparked into outrage at this declaration, the police officers standing by suddenly turned on them, savagely beating them into submission. These scenes demonstrated the enormous disadvantage women faced while attempting to challenge their patriarchal state. Nevertheless, they persisted, and we benefit today from their labor. However, “Suffragette” did not end on that happy note, and rather concluded with a true and tragic historical event that brought to the world’s attention the fight for women’s rights, implying that though we have made great strides, gender equality in every nation is still a work in progress.

In a discussion with the Brandeis audience after the prescreening, Gavron shared her thoughts on her dreams for the film. She hopes that “Suffragette” will raise more awareness around the globe for women’s rights, especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, and that her work will give women a voice through global connectedness. “Suffragette” is intended to be a film about feminism, but it allows for a discussion to be had about inequality of any kind, driving home the assertion that we should “never give up the fight.”

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