I have a fridge magnet, given to me by my colleagues. It’s a picture of a crying infant with the strapline, “Mummy’s a suffragette!” It is, apparently, a genuine piece of anti-suffrage propaganda from the early part of last century.
When I opened the gift I laughed, marvelled at the desperate tactics deployed by those demonstrably on the wrong side of history, stuck it on the fridge and forgot about it.
Today, watching the film Suffragette, I thought more deeply about it. Suffragette tells a story we all know through the life of Maud Watts, a humble foot-soldier in Mrs Pankhurst’s green, white and purple army. Maud is drawn into the militant suffrage movement by a friend, and kept there by the repeated insistence of her husband, her boss and the police that she is irrevocably powerless. Her arrests lead to the loss of her husband, job and ultimately her young son, who is sent off for adoption – as the legal property of his father, he can be disposed of without Maud’s consent or even knowledge.
We know how this story turns out. The women win, and it is very much to my advantage that they did. So I was shocked and ashamed at my response to Maud’s increasing activism. I didn’t want her to do it. I watched Maud dive deeper into the world of clandestine meetings and assaults on public property, and I silently urged her to go home. To retain her job, see the good in her husband and above all, keep hold of her son.
Which goes to show that I’d be a rotten scriptwriter – “Woman continues to live life much the same as always. Has toast for supper. The end”.
But also demonstrates, sadly, that faced with the injustices and indignities visited on my ancestors, it’s unlikely I’d have taken a stand. I’ve always identified with the suffragettes’ fight against the straitjacket of twentieth century definitions of womanhood. And I’ve often considered that, had I been born eighty years earlier, I’d have been throwing stones and waving banners.
I guess it’s not true. I can’t bear to watch a fictitious woman’s life fall apart because of her commitment to equality. What chance that I’d have lined up alongside her, offering up my own family for destruction?
I always knew I owed a great debt to the suffragettes and their non-violent sisters, the suffragists. But I never considered until today just how much these women had to sacrifice, for me to be able to vote, work and take decisions about my children on equal terms with men. When my daughters are old enough, I’ll make sure they know the stories of the many real-life Maud Watts, who gave up the chance to raise their own children, in order that mine could be free.