The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the movie ‘Suffragette’ doesn’t tell you about about how women won the right to vote

(Focus Features)

“Deeds, not words.” In Sarah Gavron’s new film, “Suffragette,” the slogan is uttered first by the militant pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), repeated at key junctures, and seen finally, scrawled on a prison wall, by the (fictional) activist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). The film is most effective, and affecting, in its depiction of the many deeds that demanding the right to vote entailed for British women.

In Maud’s case, she must contend with the dissent of her husband and the loss of her child, the sexual and psychological abuse of her boss at work, police violence, incarceration and force-feeding. Ultimately, she not only speaks before an all-male parliamentary hearing but throws a rock through a window, puts a bomb in a mailbox, and dynamites the vacant summer home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and future prime minister, Lloyd George.

However, the film actually fails to explain how these sacrifices helped make votes for women a reality. The film begins in 1912 and ends in 1913, but we are informed in the closing credits that Parliament did not pass legislation permitting any women to vote until 1918.

So what gets us from the turbulent times of 1912 to a partial victory in 1918? It was the suffragists, not the suffragettes. The suffragists were the non-militant wing of the movement, and it was their activism that forced the hand of the government.

Many suffragists were members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, famously led by Liberal feminist Millicent Garrett Fawcett. They grew frustrated with the impotence of rallies and leafleting. They had learned from the militant movement that pledges from politicians were worth very little, and by 1912 they had realized that Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had no intention of giving women the vote.

In this year, the suffragist movement created an innovative electoral strategy. Under the leadership of the brilliant young activist Catherine Marshall, the suffragists worked to cement an alliance between the mostly Liberal members of the National Union and the upstart Labour Party. This alliance, which came together under the “Election Fighting Fund,” convinced Labour lawmakers that making votes for women a part of their platform would win them the respect, financial support and, ultimately, the votes of a coalition of committed women that cut across class lines.

With about 53,000 members in 1914 (more than 10 times the number in the militant movement), the National Union had money to draw upon. In each constituency that held a race for the House of Commons, it spent as much money on leafleting and educational initiatives as it cost candidates to run their own campaigns. Access to the National Union’s deep coffers provided the Labour Party with a key reason, other than a commitment to equality, to back women’s suffrage.

Even though the Labour Party was not powerful enough to lead Britain on its own, the Election Fighting Fund alliance threatened to upset the balance of power in the House of Commons. It was the threat of defection by the Labour Party, and not the militants’ acts of civil disobedience, which began to make the Liberals sweat. At the end of World War I, an architect of the alliance with the Liberal suffragists,  Labour leader Arthur Henderson, threatened to resign from the cabinet — a move that would have dissolved the government — if women’s suffrage was not included on the electoral reform bill being discussed in Parliament.

To be sure, the more militant wing — the suffragettes — brought much-needed media attention to the issue and helped bring together the predominantly middle-class members of the early movement and the working-class women highlighted in the film.

But while the militant suffragettes were vehemently opposed to cooperating with political parties, the suffragists knew that the success of the movement depended on support from elected leaders. The National Union played on the incentives faced by Britain’s political parties. In a letter to Lloyd George, Millicent Fawcett wrote that the women “will begin to laugh at riot and tumult when it is absolutely clear that the reform desired can be obtained by the ordinary constitutional channels.” In the end, ordinary constitutional channels worked.

The British suffrage movement illuminates a more general point about how women won the vote around the world. At first, women’s organizations focused on convincing men that women were fit to have political opinions.

But as time passed, the key obstacle to women’s inclusion was not prejudice against their intellectual capacities but rather fears about what women’s inclusion would mean for political leaders’ electoral fortunes. Parties often resisted reform when they believed it went against their interests. When organized movements became savvy about these electoral calculations, they found a way to make it in the interest of the ruling groups to give women the vote.

It bears keeping this lesson in mind as we gear up in 2020 for the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the American Constitution. In 1920, the 19th Amendment decreed that insofar as states allow people to vote, they cannot withhold this right on the basis of sex.

Most accounts of the period agree that the amendment was made possible by an assiduous strategy pursued by the non-militant suffragists. By ensuring that as many states as were needed to pass an amendment had already granted women voting rights within the state, the American suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt’s famous “Winning Plan” laid the groundwork for the amendment’s success at the federal level.

In the end, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and beyond, it was not solely deeds or words but adept political strategy that won women the vote.

Dawn Langan Teele is assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is writing a book on the politics of suffrage reform, an excerpt of which appears in “Ordinary Democratization: The Electoral Strategy that Won British Women the Vote.”