In the last year there’s been a resurgence of media engagement with the Suffragettes, the most militant wing of the first wave feminist movement between 1890 and 1919.
It began with two television programmes. There was Clare Balding’s Channel 4 documentary Secrets of a Suffragette, and the BBC 4 sitcom Up the Women, written by and starring Jessica Hynes. Up the Women aired to coincide with the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, who infamously stepped in front of the King’s horse at the Epson Derby on June 4 1913.
Fast forward a year and their story is once again back in the spotlight. Suffragette, a film starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, will be the first commercial film to be filmed in The Houses of Parliament. And there has also been the publication of Mary Talbot’s graphic novel Sally Heathcote: Suffragette.
When asked what attracted them to the story of the Suffragettes, the female writers were unanimous. Each said their interest was piqued by noticing a lack of information about this significant period of women’s history currently circulating in culture.
Through their study of the first-wave, these women told of a new kind of appreciation for the development of feminist consciousness. In one interview for instance, Jessica Hynes said:
I started to realise how dark it was, reading all these lists of women who were beaten up and killed. You think of Emily Davison as the only martyr, but it was all quite serious. It was no longer Carry On Up the Suffrage. I was crying into my tea.
Abi Morgan (who wrote the screenplay for Suffragette) and Mary Talbot saw their work as an opportunity to address the misconception of the first-wave movement as primarily middle class. They have written back into history the contribution of the working-class campaigners. Discussing her novel’s central heroine, servant girl Sally Heathcote, recently, Mary Talbot said:
I thought it would be useful to have someone lowly in the story. I wanted to emphasise that the campaign wasn’t just a middle and upper-class phenomenon. It involved housemaids and seamstresses, too, and they wanted more than the vote. They wanted better education, pay and working conditions as well.
This resurgence of interest in that period of women’s history is fantastic, but what is surprising about it is the lack of attention the topic has received in popular culture in the past. And the one attempt to engage with it, the BBC’s landmark six-part suffragette drama, Shoulder to Shoulder, also belongs to this cultural amnesia.
This year is its 40th anniversary. The series originally aired in April and May 1974; but despite a repeat soon after, it has rarely been shown again and never made available on DVD.
Similar to the contemporary examples, it was women who created Shoulder to Shoulder. Its producers lamented the lack of knowledge circulating in culture about the Suffragettes fight to secure the vote for women during the golden jubilee of women’s suffrage in 1968.
And chiming with the testimonies of the contemporary female authors, the series took pains to acknowledge the participation of women from all social ranks, from the Oldham mill girl Annie Kenney to the high-born Lady Constance Lytton. The series documented the period from 1898 to 1918, and each of the feature-length episodes engaged with significant moments in the militant suffrage campaign.
Featuring the emergence of the movement in the parlour of the Pankhurst family in 1903, Black Friday in November 1910 when hundreds of women were manhandled and assaulted by police, the death of Emily Davison, forcible feeding and the factionalism within the movement, the series concluded with the winning of the vote for some women over the age of 30 in 1918. Siân Phillips and Angela Down, actors from the series, told us last week at a screening of it that Shoulder to Shoulder was the catalyst for their own feminist awakening in the context of a new wave of feminism in the 1970s.
At the time, the drama was successful. It is often cited by feminist historians, and also by television viewers who remember the series, which has led to a call by fans for it to be released on DVD.
Given this strength of feeling, why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep inside the BBC archive? Rather depressingly (in 2014), the answer seems to lie in the same reason that this new wave of suffragette texts are being written entirely by women: women’s history has been culturally and politically marginalised. And in our troubled age of emancipation we find it difficult to keep our stories alive. Let’s hope that this latest crop of stories lasts a little bit longer.