LONDON — A woman’s broken body on the racecourse, the King’s horse and jockey inert on the turf nearby and the whole shocking tableau viewed by a multitude.
Such was the design of a deliberate, desperate and sacrificial act that in the early summer of 1913 changed forever the trajectory of sexual politics.
On that August day a 40-year-old woman named Emily Davison joined thousands of others in the crowd for one of Britain’s favorite sporting events, the Epsom Derby horserace on a course in the rolling hills south of London. The King, George V, had a horse running and that was a highlight of the day.
As a tight pack of horses rounded a bend, Davison threw herself onto the track. Whether by design or by chance she fell under the King’s horse. The horse continued for a short distance and then fell, its jockey with it.
Davison had a record as a dedicated and often violent foot soldier of the women’s suffrage movement. Even before she arrived at Epsom on that day she had suffered severe head and spinal injuries after throwing herself down an iron staircase in a woman’s prison. She died four days after being trampled by the horse.
It was a tragedy but it was also a propaganda coup for the cause. Davison’s funeral had some of the trappings of a state event. Thousands lined the streets as the cortege took the coffin from Bloomsbury to a railway station.
Politicians who had closed ranks (and minds) against giving women the vote began to appreciate the passion and obduracy of the suffragettes—to see that the issue was not going to go away. Soon after that, World War I’s mindless carnage decimated a generation of young men and women became indispensable to the war effort. Five years after Davison became a martyr many women in the United Kingdom got the vote. (Full suffrage did not arrive until 1928.)
The fatal day at the Epsom Derby is the dramatic culmination of a new movie, Suffragette, starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep that I have just seen. (It opens this weekend in the U.S.) Oddly, though, Davison is treated as a minor character who appears late and is never developed, whereas an entirely fictional character is created for Mulligan who has to carry the movie.
What leapt out at me was a scene in which Mulligan, as an abused working class convert to the cause, finds herself by chance making a halting, impromptu appeal at a public hearing where a whole wall of starch-collared politicians listen with thinly-veiled disdain to what they obviously regard as an impertinent assembly of uppity women.
It reminded me of the recent encounter between Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood and members of Congress. If anything, some of the politicians, particularly representative Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, were more aggressively misogynistic than any of the British politicians trying to suppress the suffragettes more than a century ago. (The Republican throwbacks were honorably chastised by Gerald Connolly, a Virginian Democrat, who was openly disturbed by their performance.)
The assault on Planned Parenthood (now continuing in Texas with the governor’s attempt to defund it) would, indeed, seem a strange regression to most Europeans today. Here on the other side of the pond pursuing the abortion issue is seen as a distraction on a level in its irrelevance with, say, wanting to reintroduce the steam locomotive. This, however, misses the point: In America Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics are convenient surrogate targets for a continuation of the organized political resistance to women’s rights under another name. What, after all, could be more fundamental than a woman’s right to decide the treatment of her own body?
But there is a worrying question of social class here, too. Abortions are a miniscule part of Planned Parenthood’s work. The provision of health care and advice to poorer people is its main task and this tends to be most needed in communities where the broader political arguments of feminists are unrelated to the hard realities of surviving everyday life. (According to the Center for American Progress, America ranks 62nd in the world in its handling of women’s health and survival.)
This issue of class is apparent but never directly addressed in Suffragette. Meryl Streep plays the formidably bodiced leader of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. She has a brief appearance in which she appears on a balcony to stir up her followers (she is herself a fugitive from the law and has to stay on the run).
As written and then delivered by Streep, Pankhurst’s tone is de haut en bas: she’s exhorting the lower orders to become cannon fodder. Mulligan plays an emotionally fragile political innocent egged on directly by Pankhurst as she departs in a taxi—rather in the same manner as were the World War One infantry sent “over the top” to slaughter by their socially detached generals.
Of course it’s not Mulligan’s character who gets killed but Davison. And in her life Davison was no working class innocent. She came from a middle class family hard on its luck. But she was academically exceptional, winning first class honors at Oxford, at a time when women however clever were not awarded degrees.
She became a teacher but once she caught the suffragette bug she was an uncompromising activist, throwing bricks through the windows of department stores and planting bombs in mailboxes. Frequently arrested, she went on hunger strikes and had to be force-fed. (Mulligan suffers the same treatment in the film in scenes that literally turn the stomach.)
The crucial question raised by the movie and not answered is: what was at that time (and perhaps even now) the most effective means of protest for basic social justice in societies that considered themselves civilized but continued to deny it to women, in ways both open and furtive?
The movie certainly does convey how violent the campaign was—violent in its actions and violent in the reactions of the police.
Davison’s martyrdom really marked the end of the guerilla-phase of the movement and began the phase of attempting to construct a more acceptable political dialog—more acceptable, that is, to the male ruling class. Then war forced an increasingly pragmatic brokering process in which women were clever in exploiting their new bargaining power. Nonetheless at first British women won only suffrage limited to those aged 30 and over and basically the property-owning class whereas American women got full suffrage in 1920.
Women’s voting rights is one thing but winning them does not bring equality. There was a more deep-rooted, anthropological resistance to be met all over the world. Primarily, fear—the fear aroused in men at the thought of a loss of their instinctive primacy. (We have only to look at the barbaric medieval mindset in places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan to appreciate how dangerous that fear can become.)
The boorish behavior of some of the Republicans in the hearings on Planned Parenthood shows the American man beast to be far from quieted.
In August 1970 the women’s movement marked the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America with a march down Fifth Avenue in New York. Some 50,000 people took part, by no means all of them women. I can vouch for that because I was among them, and I have a clear memory of how socially unrepresentative the crowd was. The metropolitan media elite were the most conspicuous among them and in no sense was this an uprising of the neediest.
I found myself in a group that included Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan—who perfectly represented the conflicted mood of the moment. Here was the author of Sex and The Single Girl and the single most skillful promoter of the commoditisation of a woman’s body, marching alongside thousands of new activists to whom this industry was enemy number one. Brown didn’t see this as a cynical or hypocritical act—she said she felt just as strongly about equal rights as anyone.
Nonetheless here was an assembly of people who closely reflected the new Manhattan social group that Tom Wolfe, in a landmark piece in New York magazine, nailed as the “radical chic.” The mistake made then was to believe that social and media elites could shift attitudes not just nationally but where it was really needed—down in the layers of the vast American hinterlands where misogyny remains a way of life, fed by the likes of the thrice-married Rush Limbaugh who coined the term “feminazis.”
And the needle hasn’t moved anything like as much as those marchers thought it would. Unlike in Europe, for example, progress on women’s equality in America is bedeviled by wide variations in state laws and the obstacles to reforming them. The Center for American Progress, mapping those variables, shows a predictable pattern—the most progress in California, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast—and the least progress in the southern belt from Texas to Georgia.
Inevitably, the most fluent leaders of a movement like this will always be an elite. In the 1970 s the leading ideologues of the day were Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and the now barely-remembered Kate Millett whose 1970 book Sexual Politics was a publishing sensation. Of these, it is Steinem who is now the most active surviving firebrand, little dimmed in her asperity.
Giving an interview to The Guardian to mark her new memoir My Life on the Road, Steinem was on the defensive against charges of her own elitism. For example, her support of Sheryl Sandberg’s role at Facebook was challenged on the grounds of Sandberg’s naked sense of entitlement and wealth.
Steinem said this complaint was “another form of internalized misogyny” and that, if anything, Sandberg had not been ambitious enough. “She has to cut this out…she has to stop being number two to some asshole.”
In fact, women still make up less than 15 percent of American business executives, and there are only 8.1 percent of women among top earners like Sandberg.
But it occurs to me that there is one striking fact about women in business: they don’t seem to make good crooks. Among the rogues of Wall Street they are hard to find. Dreaming up the funny money schemes that brought the crash was a testosterone-dominated business.
Yet women are now widely trusted as the supervisors and cops of the financial and business worlds. Senator Elizabeth Warren has earned the enmity of Wall Street for her vigilance and concern for the consumer. Janet Yellen runs the Fed with a canny hand. Further afield, Christine Lagarde is a very effective managing director of the International Monetary Fund and the feisty Dane, Margrethe Vistiger, as the European Union’s watchdog on competition, has been the scourge of the business practices of Amazon, Apple, Google and now Starbucks.
Could it be that women better understand the difference between good and bad behavior because they have been on the receiving end of so much bad behavior?