By Diana Matthews
It was a perfect coincidence that I watched Suffragette on Women’s Equality Day.
When I woke up in the morning, my Instagram feed was swamped with celebratory #WomensEqualityDay photos and videos, acknowledging the incredible work done by and for women. It was amazing to see the video of Hillary Clinton declaring women’s rights as human rights at the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing alongside quotes from Malala Yousafzai and images of Rosie the Riveter.
But watching Suffragette provided a stark and important contrast to the joyful outpouring of sisterhood I began my day with.
Set in London in 1912, Suffragette follows the story of Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan), a 24-year-old laundress who gets involved in the suffragette movement. While women had been peacefully campaigning for the right to vote years prior, their demands were unmet. Frustrated by their continued marginalization, a new movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst carried out a national campaign of civil disobedience in hopes to obtain voting rights.
The film opens with scenes of women sweating through their clothes and working away in a laundry, lifting sheets and other linens in and out of steaming metal washing basins. Their faces are obstructed, they’re either shot from behind or are masked by the clouds of humidity in the air.
As we see these images, we hear the voice of a man addressing a crowd, presumably Parliament, giving reasons as to why women should never have the right to vote.
“Women do not have the calmness of temperament or the balance of mind to exercise judgment in public affairs.”
We hear cheers from an invisible crowd.
For a movie set over a hundred years ago, the content suddenly felt very real.
As a Canadian who has recently moved to the United States, it doesn’t take long for many of the people I meet to ask the inevitable question, “What do you think of this presidential election?”
Almost automatically, I joke about how I’m pretty much the only Canadian going south of the 49th parallel and that on my way across the border I waved at the hoards of Americans who are moving north to escape the bleak future this country could manifest in November.
In Calgary, I exclaimed my enthusiasm and support for Hillary Clinton in a proudly feminist and almost naive way. I took a “you can’t be it if you can’t see it” viewpoint on the power of seeing her as the first female presidential candidate ever and how that was only going to expand when she takes the Oval Office.
In short, I was proud.
But I saw that sense of pride missing in so many of my friends, women who declared themselves as feminist, but were unwilling to stand with a woman who has fought tirelessly for our rights.
And then on July 28th, Hillary Clinton accepted to presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention and gave me an entirely new vocabulary for how to talk about this election.
I felt elated seeing her on stage, knowing that just under 100 years ago, women in the United States weren’t even able to vote. And here she is – a presidential nominee.
That’s how I felt, and by no means am I saying that’s how we should all feel.
The women portrayed in Suffragette made history. And we may very well see history made yet again this November. But it doesn’t come without profound sacrifice.
As the characters in the film stage protests and demonstrations throughout London, they are badly beaten by cops who punch, kick and throw them to the ground. At home, their husbands abuse them, leaving the women with only each other to go to for safety.
The brutality of the violence in the film caught me off guard, and while it was incredibly difficult to watch, its inclusion is essential.
This was the bleak reality in which the suffragettes were protesting, trailblazing a path to a future they couldn’t even fully imagine. That faith and resolution, to fight for rights you can barely even dream of is palpable in Maud, Emmeline and every other woman carrying a banner and wearing a pin.
Equality. Not better or worse. But equal.
Fast forward 96 years from Edwardian London to present-day Philadelphia. President Barack Obama said it beautifully in his speech speech at the Democratic National Convention: “Don’t boo, vote.” It still comes down to casting a ballot.
At the end of Suffragette, a list of countries and the corresponding year in which women were given the right to vote scrolls across the screen. The numbers began to hit harder and harder. In England, women achieved the same voting rights as men in 1928. USA, 1920. Saudi Arabia, 2015. While Canada wasn’t on the list, this year, we beaverettes are celebrating 100 years of exercising our right to vote.
We must never take this or any of our rights for granted. While there is much to celebrate, there is far more work to be done. And the successes we recognized on Women’s Equality Day came as a result of the tireless work by many who were not around to see their dreams come true.
The future is not bleak and I couldn’t be happier to be in this country, at this time. Beautiful things happen when women support other women, I am forever grateful for the work women before me have done and we’re already seeing even more changes take place.