Interview: Sarah Gavron on “Suffragette”

Posted on November 7, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Sarah Gavron directed “Suffragette,” starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Meryl Streep in the story of some of the women who fought in the decades-long struggle to give women voting rights in the UK. I spoke to her in an especially appropriate location, Washington DC’s Sewall-Belmont House, a museum and archive of the National Woman’s Party and the fight for women’s voting rights in the US.

Copyright 2015 Focus Features
Copyright 2015 Focus Features

The movie’s main character, played by Mulligan, works in a laundry, as her mother did before her, and the movie’s focus on the participation of ordinary working-class women, and not just the leaders, is based on years of research. “We dove into these archives in the Museums of London and the Women’s Library and discovered these accounts of these working women. And so often women have been marginalized in history books, but working-class women even more so. And it was really striking that this movement brought together women from all categories, despite the kind of class apartheid of Edwardian Britain. They worked alongside each other. The working women had so much to lose and they sacrificed so much. They went to prison, they lost their jobs, they lost their relationships and their families and homes as it was very shaming in that community to go to prison and so they were risking a lot. And they are also very instrumental. There were working-class women in the leadership of the movement like Anne Kenney who was a millworker. And there were women on the ground. We wanted to depict their stories because it felt like to tell a story of the women with no platform and no entitlement would be a way of connecting with audiences all over the world today.

The women fighting for the vote were following in the paths of activists who created the first grassroots political movements, to end slavery and to get universal suffrage for men, which was not granted until . “Emmeline Pankhurst kept saying that previous political movements and charters to fight for male suffrage also resorted to civil disobedience and I think that that was kind of instructive in terms of the tactics that they employed and as we said on the civil disobedience front that the women only turned to it after 40 to 50 years of peaceful efforts. And even then, they would never harm human life; it was always attacking property.” And some of the women in the movement came from families that had fought to end slavery, so they were familiar with political activism, the opportunities and the options for making their case. “I think it was just that campaigning genius which run through these families. Emmeline Pankhurst’s own family had been involved in so there was a connection there. But they were also coming up with original tactics for this movement and pioneering a lot. It’s kind of impressive the way they brand themselves, the way they got their message out, the way they used the media. And it was new media at the time, it was that emerging cinema and photographs just beginning to appear in these newspapers. They knew how to use it and they were employing new tactics a lot of the time.”

It is difficult for us to imagine today, with two women currently running for the Presidency with considerable support, that anyone could argue against the rights of women to vote and serve in government. But the way the issues are argued still has some resonance today. “It’s interesting when you read the debates in parliaments between MPs about whether they should give women a vote. It’s a lot of fear, it is fear of change, it’s fear if women get to vote family structures will breakdown, women will stop having children, women won’t vote for war. And women didn’t have the intellectual capacity, they were two emotional. The counter was what these women were. I mean someone like Christabel Pankhurst who was a Lawyer although she couldn’t practice as a lawyer — she was extremely eloquent and I think her intellectual prowess was proof alone that she was more than capable. So I think that they were just countering it with their speeches and the way they were behaving. They just realized that they had to use whatever they could to make their point.”

At the time depicted in the film, the UK was led a a woman, Queen Victoria. But she opposed women’s suffrage. “I think it’s very different if you were born into power and it’s hereditary and not out of a democratic system and so I don’t think that you can compare that in a way.”

The movie ends with a sobering list showing the years when different countries granted women the right to vote, ending with Saudi Arabia, which just this year began to extend a partial voting right to women, though they still need to be driven to the polls by men. “When we were researching we started to just look up when other countries got their vote and it was kind of extraordinary to realize how recently many of these countries had won their vote for women and it’s a reminder I think of how precarious those rights are and how important it is use our voting rights and how fought for they were and how recently they were won. We brought it up to present day because one of the aims in the film is to say that this is just not piece of history, this is a film that resonates with also issues we’re still attacking in the 21st century. Having the vote is just symbolic. There still many issues on which women don’t have any right and in many countries where women are given very very few rights. Like education. There are 63 million girls worldwide denied education and the correlation between lack of education and babies dying in early infancy. You know education is so key and then sexual violence. There are so many issues we’re still dealing with apart from representation.”

While the movie is grounded in history, the central character is fictional. “We read a lot of accounts of working women and we really she is based very closely on a number of the working women that we read about. So the reason we create a fictional character is to kind of give us leeway in terms of the timing and where we put her with her and how we began into the story but in terms of what happens to her you will find out in the research there are women who went through everything she went through. Some women were writing about their experiences at the time, like The Hard way up – The Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell – Suffragette and Rebel Anne Kenny was also a working woman who wrote a memoir and Anne Barnes another working woman. And female academics particularly have gone and dug into the working class woman’s life now and gone through records and accounts and factory accounts.”

Gavron wanted to make this film for ten years, and there was six years of research to get the script. One of the people they worked with was Anne Pankhurst, a descendent of Emmeline. She was struck by the challenges the women faced. “It was really the length to which they went and the violence they faced and the personal cost, the fact that they were prepared to go to prison, hunger strikes, be forced-fed 49 times Emily ward begged and she was even most forced-fed it was sort of extraordinary we know that’s a form of torture and it was even more so a form of torture with the equipment they used and so it was that that I found most shocking.”

They had to use the “pockets of London” that could still pass for a hundred years ago. “We wanted to film in the house of Parliament. No one ever had filmed in the house of Parliament in the whole history of cinema but we decided that we had to be suffragette about it and we did not give up, we filed a petition and finally got access. So then we had stunt people and vehicles and we were staging this government protest in this very place that barred women for centuries so that was very exciting. The testimony was shot in the very room where women appeared before Members of Parliament to make their case. One of the supporting actors stood up, an old man, and said, ‘My grandmother was a working woman who gave her testimony to Lloyd George.'”

Gavron hopes the film will inspire people to learn about the women who fought for the vote and to join them in pursuing justice and equality. “I hope that people come away remembering or realizing how hard fought for the vote was if they didn’t know and also feeling empowered to speak out against current day inequalities.” What makes her happy is when people come out of the movie saying, “I will never miss a chance to vote again.”

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