IT’S all very well Meryl Streep calling for equality. I’ve a lot of time for this acclaimed Hollywood actress, one of the stars of the new film Suffragette, but she does speaks from a privileged position – injustice in her world is being paid a few million dollars less per movie than her male co-stars.
I reckon her understanding of “equality” and the mundane, persistent injustices which ordinary women and girls endure all over the world, every day, are poles apart. The protesters who stormed the red carpet at the Leicester Square premiere of the film, in protest at cuts to services which help women at the risk of domestic violence, think so.
Janelle Brown, leader of the protest group Sisters Uncut, points out that two women die every week in the UK as a result of domestic violence. If we truly had equality, all those women would still be alive. And if we truly had equality, we would have no need for services which help women at the risk of domestic violence at all.
I have yet to see this film, which was launched locally at the weekend, so I can’t judge in detail. However, from all of the evidence so far, it sounds as if we should treat it as an interesting historical drama rather than a celebration of complete gender parity. I can see where those Leicester Square protesters were coming from. It’s wrong to think that we got the life we deserve just because we got the vote.
Their argument about domestic violence focused on the suffering of “women of colour”, whom they felt were not represented in the film.
I’d add to this whilst girls from affluent and middle-class backgrounds are now competing on equal terms with the boys in terms of education and the professions, girls from less-privileged backgrounds are still under the cosh.
I spoke to a woman the other day who works as a carer for the elderly. When her travelling time is factored in, she told me that she actually puts in 11 hours per shift, but is paid for only eight. And what she is paid doesn’t even equate to the minimum wage.
There is nothing she can do about this, no Emmeline Pankhurst fighting for her cause. And she is just one of the many millions of women who are seriously under-paid for what they do for a living.
If you know anything at all about the suffragette movement, you will know that it was riven with class divide itself. The leaders who could afford expensive lawyers could escape the harsh prison sentences meted out to the foot-soldiers from the factories and the mills who had no means. That’s why it’s no coincidence that in the film, the main character, Maud Watts, played by Carey Mulligan, works in a laundry. There was also a serious divide between the women who would stop at nothing to achieve their aim, and those who preferred a more gentle and persuasive political approach.
It’s true that hindsight has a way of softening the edges. That said, it would be an injustice to under-estimate the personal sacrifice that women such as Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Streep) and Emily Davis (Natalie Press), who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, endured to secure democratic representation.
However, we should remember that the vote was one thing. Equality is quite another. The vote meant everything to these women, who gave up their families, their reputation and in some cases, even their lives. What does it mean to women in the UK today though? We take it for granted, toy with it when we choose whether to use it or to withhold it as a protest. Our democratic right to be represented has become disconnected from our understanding of democracy itself. That’s why Suffragette – which has apparently been 10 years in the making – could not have been released at a more apposite moment. Our daughters don’t even question their right to vote, but they have never known what it is to have a female Prime Minister.
My own daughter, who turned 10 last week, watches the news avidly. And almost every day she asks me why it’s always a man going on about politics. For every advance we have made in gaining equal ground, we find ourselves still under attack. Indeed, when you look at the restrictions certain communities place on the freedom of girls, when you consider the sexualisation of popular culture, when you witness certain music videos and hear the words of rap songs, and yes, sadly, when you look at the figures on domestic violence, you realise women seriously do have a long way to go.
And the boundaries keep on shifting. In the Edwardian Age, gaining the vote was as far as most women could see. How could they possibly imagine a world in which they would have to protect their personal photographs on Facebook or find themselves crying rape with a Premiership footballer in a hotel room?
That’s why Suffragette shows a battle, but it by no means covers the entire war. We women are still fighting that one, every day of every week of every year.