On the week the Bond film Spectre was released, as I entered the cinema through a 007 themed red carpet for the only screening of Suffragette that day, I was struck by the juxtaposition with Britain’s most popular misogynist. I wondered if the film’s director Sarah Gavron had considered this possible scenario when she made the film! The story focuses on working women in London’s East End who get involved in the suffragette movement. Much of the story trades on double standards between the rights of women versus the rights of men. The film’s heroine, Maud, works in a laundry and finds herself one of a number of working women giving ‘testimony’ to Lloyd George (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) who was preparing a suffrage bill for Parliament. Maud’s testimony describes how her mother worked in the factory from age 14 and died when Maud was 4, and how Maud started working there aged 7. She highlights the young age working women died, attributing it to ‘gases’ and injury; she comments that women work longer hours than the men for less pay. Whilst the film is set 100 years ago, many of these conditions still hold true, such as women working longer for less. This raises important questions about the progression of gender equality.
The film offers a range of social and cultural portrayals of a number of different women involved in the suffragette movement. Maud gets to know and eventually joins a group of working and middle class suffragettes. This leads to her husband locking her out of their home after her second arrest because of the social embarrassment it caused him. He even goes so far as to have their young son adopted because he can’t cope as a single parent. In this storyline the film plays out very vividly the lack of parental or property rights that women had. Although heart-breaking, Gavron is careful not to vilify Maud’s husband, implying he was a loving husband and father but that he had no other cultural script with which to respond to his wife’s actions.
Maud’s situation is juxtaposed with another woman, Edith. A qualified pharmacist, Edith is supported through the suffragette struggle by her wealthy husband. In Edith’s context, she is shown as an educated woman, who wanted to study medicine but was unable to because of social and cultural mores. Her husband has no qualifications but owns the pharmacy. After an imprisonment during which Edith is force fed, she is very unwell. Edith’s husband, instead of locking her out, locks her in a cupboard in a genuine attempt to save her life by preventing her attending another protest until she is recovered. He is portrayed as a loving husband who is in a position to financially and socially support Edith.
Another double standard was in the way in which the authorities handled female militancy. For example, Maud is radicalised by the events of ‘Black Friday’, when upon hearing that the Prime Minister had dissolved Parliament without allowing time for a second reading of the ‘Conciliation Bill’ (which would grant female suffrage) around 300 women marched on parliament and were assaulted by the police. This double standard is also illustrated in a recent biography of Norah Dacre Fox (General secretary of WSPU) which cites an incident when she was arrested picketing the home of wealthy Ulster Unionist Lord Landsdowne, stating to the judge later “If I am charged with making inciting speeches, why are not Sir Edward Carson and Lord Lansdowne and Mr Bonar Law standing beside me – these men who are guilty of incitement to take human life? I was arrested on the doorstep of a man who has made worse incitements than I have made.”
A hundred years on
The film closes with scrolling text giving the years different countries gave women suffrage. While the UK certainly did not lead the way, we are ahead of Saudi Arabia! But how far have we come on gender equality? What is the impact of austerity? At what level does the gender pay gap persist? Are governments more honest about the issues? Are there still double standards under the law? Can women advance on equal terms in science and medicine?
Women may now vote and working conditions are physically safer. Women now have parental rights and can own property. But double standards persist everywhere. Women remain unequal under the law and are “more likely than men to go to prison for non-violent offence”. The gender pay gap may be less marked but women earn on average 14.2% less than men. Edith could now become a doctor but her male colleagues would be earning 40% more than her. Austerity is described as a ‘triple jeopardy’ for women because of the impact on jobs, benefits and services. Women make up 2/3rds of the public sector work force and so are disproportionately affected by public sector cuts; tax credit benefits make up 1/5th of women’s incomes compared to 1/10th of men’s; cuts to public services affect women disproportionately because women use these more than men.
Governments are no more honest about these issues! David Cameron’s now infamous lie about tax credit cuts is obvious, but Tory women are also complicit in the obfuscation of equality issues. Edwina Currie derided Harriet Harman’s Equality Act as “ludicrous proposals to promote equality in the workplace”. On BBC Breakfast (25/10/15), Currie commented that women earn less than men because women have families. I’m fairly sure a man and a woman are required to ‘have a family’! Currie then defended the disproportionate number of women in top jobs on the grounds that women are less willing to travel. This is clearly a gross simplification.
So what hope is there for a progressive politics to address this enduring inequality? For women in science and medicine, the Athena SWAN Charter “was established to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine employment in higher education and research.” The National Institute for Health Research announced that institutions applying for funding would require a silver level Athena SWAN award by 2016. An analysis of these changes stated ‘there is no evidence yet to suggest that…the announcement of NIHR to tie future funding to Athena SWAN silver status has led to a measurable improvement in the careers of females employed in UK medical schools.” The enduring inequality suggests many of the problems may be more deeply entrenched than a few requirements for funding applications. Certainly, my recent red carpet experience was a spectral reminder of how little has changed in 100 years and that the barriers to change are more entrenched in our cultural discourse than we like to think. It seems the WSPU slogan ‘Deeds not Words’ are more pertinent today than ever.
About the Author: Susan McPherson is a senior lecturer in the School of Human Sciences at the University of Essex. She researches around the boundaries of clinical psychology, health psychology and medical sociology and also has interests in social history and social policy. Specific research interests include mental health, the construction of diagnoses and management of depression. Her great grandmother was Norah Dacre Fox who was General Secretary of the WSPU and in 2010 Susan co-authored her biography entitled ‘Mosley’s Old Suffragette’.