It’s been a long time since I saw the 1974 BBC series Shoulder to Shoulder about the British suffragette movement. I watched it myself on television at the time and the next year our lecturer in Women’s History screened it for us at special night-time viewings (class timetables then didn’t stretch to watching videos). As noted by a recent article noting the 40th anniversary of the BBC series on the LSE blogsite and a report on the accompanying symposium celebrating the anniversary, the story of the suffragettes was largely forgotten in 1974 and has languished in the BBC archives since. Hah! the wonders of YouTube! (Apparently the whole series is available).
It’s precisely because the suffragette story is so rarely depicted on the screen that I’m more willing than many to cut the current movie ‘Suffragette’ some slack. My 87 year-old father had not heard of the suffragettes; I don’t think my daughter would know about them either. The gasps at the end of the film at the rollcall of dates when female suffrage was achieved internationally suggests that it’s a battle that we overlook.
The film- and let’s remember that it is only a 2 hour film- focusses on a fictional working-class laundress who becomes swept up with the suffrage movement, culminating at the racecourse on the 1913 Derby Day. The movie deals with the Pankhursts only obliquely; it consciously chooses a working-class protagonist instead of one of the more articulate middle-class leaders. It does not, it’s true, deal with women of colour, or the colonialist attitudes of the leaders; nor does it deal with the philosophical splits between the leadership. It tells the story of one woman, and in a nod to our everywoman sensibilities today, she’s a fictional, bit-part woman. I’m satisfied that the film takes a broad sweep at a plot level, even if at an emotional level it didn’t explore Maud Watt’s change in sensibility sufficiently. Let’s not drown this movie with expectations and our disappointment in what it is not.
Let it just tell the story. All of the nuances and disputes and historical arguments can be explored in detail once the suffragette story is worn smooth with retelling. Forty years on from the first BBC telling in Shoulder to Shoulder, with the story largely forgotten and so many people completely unaware of it, the time for complexity is not yet.
By the way there’s some silent British Parthe footage of British Derby day in a 7 minute clip, showing both before and after. It’s silent, and it shows the day from the start, leading to an odd buildup in tension, knowing , as we do, how it ends. I encourage you to watch the whole thing but if it’s spectacle you want, it’s at 6.04.