Catherine Elms watches Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette, a documentary looking at some of the history behind the movement and the events surrounding the death of one of its most well-known figures
“To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless and inspiring.” The words of Emily Davison a year before her death reveal the lengths the suffragettes were prepared to go to in the face of brutal opposition, in this insightful documentary presented by sporting commentator Clare Balding.
The programme mostly focuses on suffragette Emily Davison, remembered for stepping in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. She died from her injuries four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital. This act that took place 100 years ago established a martyr for women’s suffrage, and a stage-managed funeral procession in central London attracted hundreds of spectators. Balding explores the question of what drove this white middle-class governess to such an extreme act of militancy and how should we remember her today. Between the narrative of Davison’s life and the development of her radical feminist politics, Balding also looks at the history of the suffragette movement; we learn about some other key women in the cause, the historical landmarks in their fight for suffrage and the movement’s place as part of a wider challenge to the established political order.
In 1908, a women’s suffrage protest in Hyde Park attracted 700,000 people, but the establishment still ignored the movement’s demand. Snubs like this further radicalised the movement and shifted the focus to clandestine militancy, from suffragist to suffragette. The Women’s Social and Political Union was founded, advocating more direct action to agitate for the vote – these were the ones nicknamed ‘suffragettes’ (an initially disparaging term that was re-interpreted) and included the Pankhursts, who were central to the organisation.
Balding explores the extent of government power deployed against the suffragettes, including extensive police surveillance, Black Friday (where 300 women on a march to parliament were faced with police brutality and sexual assault) and prison force-feeding, along with the physical and psychological after-effects of such barbaric treatment.
As the backlash intensified and the movement’s aims were still not being engaged with, radicals felt they had nothing to lose. The violence escalated, seen as the only answer. Suffragettes were frequently arrested, involved in vandalism of property, planting bombs and burning public buildings, causing damage that today would equate to millions of pounds. The movement was willing to go to any extreme in order to further their cause. Balding admits that she had underestimated the movement, noting that these actions today would be labelled as “terrorism”. Vitriol from the press, political parties and male citizens intensified – angry male mobs would often manhandle and assault female protesters in the street. An interesting section is where Balding visits The Women’s Library and reads the hate mail that Davison received – “I hope you suffer torture until you die… I should like the opportunity of starving and beating you to a pulp.” As my friends and I noted while watching the programme, this is remarkably similar to the aggression that feminist activists deal with online today, perhaps highlighting just how far ahead of their time they were!
The last 20 minutes or so focuses on Davison’s death, where a forensics team analyses the film footage in depth for the first time. It has always been assumed that Davison threw herself under a horse and that it was pure chance that it happened to be the King’s horse – this is the view held by Balding’s family, who are horse racing enthusiasts. However, upon investigation, the team reveal that the footage in fact implies that rather than a suicide, it was a protest gone wrong. The restored footage shows that Davison is holding something; this is later revealed to be a suffragette sash that reads “VOTES FOR WOMEN”. The team to speculate that, in fact, her intention was to throw the sash around the king’s horse so that it would go past the winning post wearing the votes for women colours – a great publicity stunt for the cause.
Balding mentions that the footage of Davison’s death was being shown in cinemas only days later. One thing that strikes me about this is that the film was shot when cinema was in its infancy and had not yet been used as a tool to show the realities of human suffering and oppression. It is important to remember that the footage of Davison’s death had a monumental impact on a public that had never viewed such brutality on the screen before.
Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette is engaging and insightful in what it teaches about the history of the movement and its most well-known protagonists. The suffragettes are portrayed sympathetically, with much focus dedicated to their strength and determination in the face of such brutal opposition. My main critique is that the programme focuses a little too much on the footage of Davison’ death, with the grainy image of her act replayed many times over, from different angles and using computer generated footage to determine what happened and what her motives were. Although the quality of the original recording doesn’t reveal clear violence, this part nevertheless seems a little gratuitous and sensationalist. Having said that, it is remarkable footage and harrowing to watch, so I wonder whether the programme is simply reiterating the extreme militancy of the act with the intention of searing it into the viewer’s memory as a reminder of all that we have to be thankful for due to the fight of these women. Though much mention is made of the brutality faced by the suffragettes (and this was what my boyfriend found the most affecting as we watched it), I personally found it all rather inspiring – the powerful acts born out of desperation for democracy, something that we should be thankful for and never take for granted.
This programme is on 4oD until 25 June 2013.
Image description: Black and white portrait of Emily Davison taken before 1913. She wears feathers, medals and a wide-brimmed hat. This image is in the public domain.