Sometimes my reading selections and film viewing tend to weave together, as if I’m naturally tapping into larger cultural trends. And when those trends happen to match my long-standing interests, or in this case, my scholarly background–oh, joy! Such is the case with the 2014 graphic novel, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, and the 2015 film, Suffragette. Both are situated in the militant suffrage movement in England, during the early years of the 20th century leading up to World War I.
In Sally Heathcote: Suffragette (2014) we meet the title character while she is a domestic worker in the home of Emmeline Pankhurst. Her journey begins on the fringes of the militant suffragettes, but soon she seeks out more dramatic roles, which leads to prison time and hard choices within an increasingly polarized movement, especially as a world war looms on the horizon.
Bookended by an elderly Sally in a nursing home in the late 1960s, it’s through Sally’s eyes in a long dream that we see past events unfold, the responses and decisions of leaders of the militant faction, and her own struggle to make her voice heard both under a government that ignores women and within a movement that ostracizes internal critics.
The characters are well-rounded: Sally struggles to pay bills and loses friendships with those who disagree with her suffrage work, and the Pankhursts are as flawed in fiction as they were in real life. The lives of male characters are weaved into the women’s; they face similar difficult choices on how to respond to the call for combat in a society that becomes increasingly militant as Europe plunges into war.
Since this is a graphic novel, I should mention the illustrations, which were extremely well-done. The book as a whole is in black and white, with subtle use of color throughout, notably Emmeline Pankhurst always appears in pale purple, and Sally’s red hair is portrayed in color throughout the book, so we can always locate our heroine in a parlor, an outdoor rally, or prison. Sally’s prison scenes are deciphered through thick black strips, as if we’re watching her undergo forced-feeding through the bars of her cell door. One of my favorite scenes was in part III, where the suffragettes are meeting with the politicians to present their arguments, and both sides slowly morph into mice and cats respectively, a visual representation of the looming “Cat & Mouse Act,” which resulted in the random arrest and release of suffragettes by the police and prison guards. Other stylistic and subtle use of coloring for blood, banners, street lighting, and posters effectively added to a story where visual culture was such a necessary element of the struggle.
Well-researched and documented, the book includes a lengthy annotation, or notes section, in the back of the book; however, the author informs the reader to read the notes after the novel, as the information isn’t necessary to understand the story, and may be distract from it, instead. There is also a timeline, and a bibliography, for further delving into the history of woman suffrage and life in England in the early 1900s.
Suffragette (2015), directed by Sarah Gavron, also features a woman of the working class as the central character; however, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works in a laundry, not as a servant. Unlike Sally Heathcote, who is aware of the key players and concerns in the fight for suffrage for some time before she takes up the cause, Maud is an accidental suffragette, who stumbles into the movement through a militant co-worker, and only fully embraces activism when she discovers the limitations placed upon her life, simply because she’s female. And poor.
Violence and voice played an important role in the fight for the vote, and Maud develops both simultaneously. She does so alongside fellow street soldier suffragettes, each representing different struggles women faced at the turn of the 20th-century: Violet (Ann-Marie Duff) is an abused and ever-pregnant wife, and Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) is a physician under surveillance for her suffrage activities.
These three women support each other through serving time in prison, the loneliness of activism as each is ostracized from their community, and the difficult choices made by each woman on whether or not to continue participating in a movement that grows more and more militant.
They are buoyed by a brief appearance of their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, a much-touted cameo by Meryl Streep (and quite possibly the only reason this film saw limited distribution in the United States) and are humbled by the fearlessness of Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), in what becomes the climax of the film. Once it is clear to the audience that Maud’s conversion to a suffragette is complete, the film fades into actual period footage, and then to black, where a scroll lists the years each major country granted voting rights to women. Be prepared to be shocked. We are not as far away from this history as we think.
It was a risk by the director, script writer, and producer to feature the foot soldiers of the movement, rather than the famous, the leaders, or the wealthy, but I think it was a good choice, as most of the viewers may be unfamiliar with the toll it takes to physically take a cause to the streets year after year, with little success. The graphic novel also demonstrates Sally’s daily challenges, but with a natural wider scope the medium was able to offer a perspective on the flawed nature of the Pankhurst dominance as well, and doesn’t let Emmeline or Chistabel off lightly for choices they made as England headed toward war.
No country’s history happens in a vacuum, and the cause of suffrage was no different. While clearly set in England, these two art forms carry within their story a glimpse of the American woman suffrage movement, too. For example, Katherine Houghton Hepburn (yes, the mother of the actress) hosted Emmeline Pankhurst in Hartford, Connecticut in 1913, Harriot Stanton Blatch (yes, the daughter of women’s rights movement founder Elizabeth Cady Stanton) began parades in New York state inspired by those of WSPU as early as 1910, and Alice Paul fully participated in England and Scotland fighting for woman suffrage directly with the Pankhursts before returning in 1909 to take up the suffrage banner as leader of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) on American soil. Such international sharing of language, imagery, and strategy for this political cause deserves more of our time and attention, as it is vital for a deeper understanding and appreciation of women’s struggles in both countries.
And, allowing for some dramatic flair, surely, we could envision the transatlantic influence of the woman suffrage movement looking something like this:
1915 New Jersey suffragists on a tugboat publicity tour.