Francine Wolfisz speaks to Sarah Gavron, director of Suffragette, a film that portrays the brutal punishments meted out to women who wanted equality
From setting letter boxes on fire to smashing shop windows, cutting phone wires and throwing dynamite at the homes of politicians, these were just some of the shocking militant activities carried out by the suffragettes in their bid to secure votes for women in the early 20th century.
But the price for such guerrilla tactics and following Emmeline Pankhurst’s call for “deeds, not words” proved high – many subsequently lost their jobs, their marriages, their children – and even their lives.
Now the story of the ordinary foot soldiers who sacrificed everything in the fight for female equality is told in a gripping and emotionally powerful film, Suffragette, released in cinemas this week. The stellar cast includes Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep.
Director Sarah Gavron reteamed with her Brick Lane screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) for her latest project, which was six years in the making.
Speaking to Jewish News this week, the talented 45-year-old daughter of London Assembly member Nicky Gavron, said the release of a film about the suffragettes was “evermore timely”.
She said: “At school I learnt this sanitised, Mary Poppins type version of the suffragette movement, but when we started research we discovered the extraordinary lengths they went to and the brutality they faced from the establishment.
“Our research uncovered unpublished diaries and letters talking about the gender pay gap, abuse in the workplace, force-feeding and police brutality. It seemed to echo stories of women repressed around the world today.”
The mother-of-two, who is married to cinematographer David Katznelson, added that her research helped her “realise just how desperate they must have felt” to switch to militant tactics, following “40 years of peaceful protest that resulted in broken promises”.
As shocking as their actions became, the suffragettes were met with increasingly brutal punishment, including police brutality and force-feeding for those on hunger strike.
“In fact, Emily Davison [who threw herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913] was force-fed 49 times. Even the prison wardens found it hard to take and many wrote in letters of having tears in their eyes while holding a prisoner down. Today of course, we recognise force-feeding as a form of torture.
“During the events of Black Friday in 1913, there were many accounts of how the police were ordered to treat the women brutally, as a tactic of putting them off. They twisted their breasts, pulled up their skirts and pushed them to the ground.”
Working alongside Morgan, the pair sifted through their research and devised the character of Maud, a laundry worker and housewife from the East End, who gets drawn into the movement. The role went to Mulligan, who Gavron describes as “thoughtful, intelligent and delightful”.
Meanwhile, the role of Edith Ellyn, a middle-class chemist and staunch suffragette, was given to Bonham Carter. Like her on-screen character, Bonham Carter is of Jewish descent and interestingly, also the great-granddaughter of Henry Herbert Asquith – the Prime Minister at the time of the events depicted and in many ways “the prime antagonist of the suffragettes”.
Finally, Gavron had to find “an icon to play an icon” for the role of Pankhurst. “She’s only in one sequence, but she has to light up all these women and we needed someone with charisma. When Streep was suggested, we thought: ‘Do we dare?’ We were incredibly excited when she came on board.”
Another coup was being granted permission to film at the Houses of Parliament – making Suffragette the first ever film to be given such access.
“Having got that, we then put in another request to bring in 300 extras and horses for the police brutality scene – but very luckily they agreed”, laughs Gavron.
With the release of Suffragette next week, I ask her if she feels the film has changed her perception of the movement and its committed foot soldiers.
“Absolutely”, she responds.
“It made me aware of the debt we owe these women for the society we live in, how lucky we are and how far we’ve come. It also made me think how complacent we have become about the vote and how we have forgotten how hard fought for it was. In many parts of the world, women are still fighting for basic human rights and in many ways we still have so far to go.”
• Suffragette (12A) opens in cinemas across the UK on Monday