The Frock Flicks Guide to Suffragettes on Screen

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In honor of Election Day in the United States, we’re taking a look at the representation of women’s suffrage activists in movies and TV. In the U.S., the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 granted equal voting rights to women, and then the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 in the U.K. did the same. Women in Canada were allowed to vote starting in 1919 and in Australia in 1903, except for indigenous peoples in either country, who had to wait for successive decades. After World War II, universal suffrage had spread across much of Europe and Asia.

The work to gain women’s equal rights had begun in the 19th century, thanks to activists such as the Americans Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton from the 1850s-1880s; Alice Paul from the 1900s-1920s; and the British Emmeline Pankhurst from the 1870s-1920s, plus her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, among many other activists over the years.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, around 1900

Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, around 1900

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913

Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913

Alice Paul, 1913.

Alice Paul, 1913.

In movies and TV series, suffragist characters are often minor figures used to stir things up and add conflict (note: historically, “suffragette” was a derogatory term used by men to belittle the female activists, while “suffragist” was what the women tended to use themselves; today, they’re often used interchangeably). Sometimes, a major character in a TV show gets involved with the women’s suffrage movement to rebel or express discontent with her life constrained by the patriarchy. Suffragettes may also be used in late Victorian to early Edwardian productions just to add historical flavor, like having someone ride past on a penny-farthing bicycle. Only a few movies or TV series have been made specifically about the history of the women’s suffrage movement itself.

Suffragists at the U.S. Capitol, 1914

Suffragists at the U.S. Capitol, 1914

Typical suffragist sash, U.K., 1910s.

Typical suffragist sash, U.K., 1910s.

Let’s look at a select history of suffragettes in historical movies and TV, with an eye towards how accurately these images present the women’s suffrage movement of the United States and Britain. There’s more on the British side, probably because more historical costume movies and TV shows have been made in the U.K., but if you want to read into that something about America not knowing much or caring much about women’s history, go right ahead.

 

 

Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins (1964)

The Suffrage Story: Mrs. Winifred Banks (played by Glynis Johns) is a women’s suffrage activist, and this doesn’t leave her any time to take care of the kids, so they need a decent governess, a la Poppins. In the end, she gives up her “Votes for Women” sash as a kite tail. She’s painted as kind of a silly character, but the lyrics to her “Sister Suffragette” song are surprisingly sharp.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yes, with a song and a smile.

 

The Great Race (1965)

The Great Race (1965)

The Suffrage Story: Driving one of the cars is the ‘beautiful and feisty suffragette / photojournalist’ Maggie DuBois (played by Natalie Wood). She spends almost as much time in skimpy burlesque outfits as she does driving.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Um…not so much.

 

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

The Suffrage Story: In the midst of this anti-war farce, we get British suffragist Sylvia Pankhurst (played by Vanessa Redgrave) delivering a strident speech against World War I. Unlike her activist mother and sister, Sylvia was against WWI, so this is both historically accurate and obviously a metaphor for the then-current Vietnam War.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yes, on multiple counts.

 

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971), Season 2, Episode 10

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971)

The Suffrage Story: A common trope is the aristocratic lady dabbling with the suffragettes, and that’s what we have here. Daughter of the upper-class Bellamy family circa 1908, Elizabeth (played by Nicola Pagett), is restless and eventually joins a group of suffragettes. They attack a prominent politician’s home, and faithful servant Rose follows to try and keep her mistress out of trouble. Unfortunately, Rose is sent to jail with the suffragists (where she’s beaten up), while Elizabeth gets off free .

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Um, kind of sad, actually.

 

Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)

Shoulder to Shoulder (1974)

The Suffrage Story: Finally, some actual history! This BBC miniseries chronicles the life of Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Siân Phillips) and her daughters Christabel (Patricia Quinn) and Sylvia (Angela Down) and their activities to promote equal franchise in Britain from about 1918 until women achieved the vote. Unfortunately, the only DVD available is for U.K. region.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Absolutely!!!

 

Lost Empires (1986), Episode 2

Lost Empires (1986)

The Suffrage Story: In this series about 1910s vaudeville magicians, a women’s rights activist, Mrs. Agnes Foster Jones (played by Rachel Gurney), asks to be “disappeared” so the police won’t find her. While she’s not the main focus of the series, much less this episode, Mrs. Jones does get in a juicy feminist speech directed at the jerky magician, plus the guy’s nephew, the series narrator (played by a young Colin Firth), is kind of swept up with the women’s movement.

Lost Empires (1986)

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yeah, it’s not bad.

 

 

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax (1991)

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax (1991)

The Suffrage Story: With Jeremy Brett as the great detective, at least the mystery is entertaining, even if there’s little legit historical content. The titular victim, Lady Francis (played by Cheryl Campbell), is credited as being a suffragette.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Meh.

 

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992), Season 1, Episode 2

The Suffrage Story: Indy follows an attractive bus conductor, Vicky Prentiss, to a women’s suffrage meeting, thus hearing activist Sylvia Pankhurst (played by Kika Markham) speak. Adventures ensue, because, duh, Indiana Jones. In the end, Sylvia Pankhurst proclaims: “Mr. Jones, you have struck a better blow for freedom, than if you’d spent a whole year in the trenches.”

Making Our Foremothers Proud?  Yeah, it’s a nice cameo.

 

Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (1997), Season 5, Episode 23

Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (1997)

The Suffrage Story: You’d think Dr. Quinn would be pretty damn liberated, as a female doctor in the American frontier of the 1860s (historical note: many Western states gave women the right to vote before 1920). However, in this episode, Quinn is rather shocked by her sister Marjorie (played by Alley Mills), who arrives from Boston where she was recently arrested for suffragist activities.  As a protege of American radical feminist Victoria Woodhull, Marjorie preaches free love, and she ends up reforming the town’s prostitutes, among other things. Beyond Marjorie’s political ideas, her fashion sense is bizarre even for this show’s questionable historical accuracy.

Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (1997)

Miner guy can’t believe it — she’s’ wearing a bustle bodice with pants.

Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (1997)

This bodice would be fine with a skirt, but WTF with those pants?!?

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yep, the message is better than the clothes.

 

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

The Suffrage Story: A dramatized (and only a little romanticized) and overall inspiring look at the fight to get the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed in the 1910s, lead by militant activist Alice Paul (played by Hilary Swank) along with Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor). This appears to be the only fictional movie that specifically focuses on the American women’s suffrage movement — we are really lagging behind our British sisters on film and TV, which is ironic because we earned the vote first. WHAT UP, HOLLYWOOD?!?

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)
Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

The film depicts the gruesome forced feedings that imprisoned female activists endured.

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

This is a recreation of the ‘Silent Sentinels’ protest outside the White House in 1917.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? HELL YES.

 

Downton Abbey (2010), Season 1, Episode 6

Downton Abbey (2010)

The Suffrage Story: When Lady Sybil attends a political rally, she bumps into a few women wearing suffrage ribbons. While Sybil Crawley never gets directly involved with the women’s suffrage movement, she does irritate her father in conversation about why women should get the vote. Interestingly, Lady Edith comes around to a similar view in later seasons, when she becomes a journalist.

Downton Abbey (2010)

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Meh, but we had to include it.

 

Parade’s End (2012)

Parade's End (2012)

The Suffrage Story: A dreary romantic triangle (Kendra actively disliked it) set during World War I, wherein a married aristocratic solider has an affair with a young suffragette (played by Adelaide Clemens). The only possibly interesting thing is the costumes.

Parade's End (2012)

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Meh.

 

Up the Women (2013-2015)

Up the Women (2013-2015)

The Suffrage Story: A TV comedy  series about an Edwardian suffragist group calling themselves the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Politely Requests Women’s Suffrage — turns out it’s charming and sometimes genuinely LOL funny. Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Sandi Toksvig) visits in the third episode after one of the ladies sends a poem to her. Nine episodes were made, and they’re online.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yes! Because feminists do have a sense of humor.

 

Mr. Selfridge (2013), Season 1, Episode 6

Mr. Selfridge (2013)

The Suffrage Story: Because everything happens in front of the new Selfridge’s Department Store, a women’s suffrage march is planned, and of course it’s due to happen when the boss is out. His fellows left in charge argue about what to do, and finally Mr. Crabb gets all commercial and suggests a fancy window display of suffragist goods. When Mr. Selfridge returns, he gets caught up in the march, which has turned violet, but all is better when he finds his daughter among the activists.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Just OK.

 

Murdoch Mysteries (2014-2015), Season 8-9

Murdoch Mysteries (2014-2015)

The Suffrage Story:  The character of Lillian Moss (Sara Mitich) enters at the end of Season 8 as an activist, and slowly the women’s suffrage movement of Toronto, Canada, becomes part of a side plot with her and Dr. Emily Grace. The two women develop a close friendship that deepens into love, and in Season 9, the pair plan to move to London. But Lillian is murdered in revenge by an ex-lover’s husband.

Murdoch Mysteries (2014-2015) Murdoch Mysteries (2014-2015)

Making Our Foremothers Proud? OK, aside from some cliches.

 

Suffragette (2015)

Suffragette (2015)

The Suffrage Story:  Only the second full-length feature solely about any aspect of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, so yeah, it still feels very “eat your vegetables.” Serious history is serious. Also, lots of grey clothing. But for insight into what women of different social classes experienced and went through, fought and truly suffered, to bring about equal franchise, this is required viewing.

Suffragette (2015)
Suffragette (2015)

Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) makes a brief appearance.

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yes.

 

Houdini & Doyle (2016), Episode 2

Houdini & Doyle (2016)

The Suffrage Story: This Edwardian paranormal-mystery series has a women’s suffrage activist, Lydia Belworth (played by Laura Fraser) as the murder victim early on. She’s seen in flashbacks that reveal a felonious past. The series hasn’t been renewed,

Making Our Foremothers Proud? Meh. We can do better!

 

 

Have we missed a great suffragette story in movies or TV? Tell us about it!

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

25 Responses

  1. MoHub

    Shoulder to Shoulder is my favorite, especially since it included actual footage of the suffragist who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Ascot and was trampled to death for the cause.

    Also, as far as Marjorie Quinn’s outfit: It’s legit, if exaggerated. The women of the Rational Dress Society in England donned pants to declare their independence. However, most of the outfits were pretty much same-old, same-old on top but with (very full) pants replacing skirts on the bottom.

    Reply
    • Daniel Milford-Cottam

      Also, it looks quite a lot like a vivandiere style outfit, as seen in commercial images and cartoons from the period, although perhaps the vivandiere in pants outfit was not actually as widely worn.

      Reply
  2. ladylavinia1932

    The Suffrage Story: Driving one of the cars is the ‘beautiful and feisty suffragette / photojournalist’ Maggie DuBois (played by Natalie Wood). She spends almost as much time in skimpy burlesque outfits as she does driving.

    Making Our Foremothers Proud? Um…not so much

    I’m a big Maggie DuBois fan. I loved how she managed to break down Leslie Gallant little by little, using her brains, her devotion to women’s rights . . . and even her skimpy costumes.

    Reply
    • JessB

      Yes, I agree! I haven’t seen the movie in many years, but I remember really liking her character. I hope we’re not judging women’s worth by the clothes they wear, that would be a bit crap.

      Reply
  3. Jenni

    Have you seen Fröken Frimans Krig? It’s about the women’s movement in 1905 Stockholm, as a bunch of women set up a shop to combat the male dominated market.

    Reply
  4. Saraquill

    So Murdoch Mysteries and Suffragette touch upon intersectional feminism? I remember Iron Jawed Angels made a rather token effort on that front. Any other suffragette films try to be diverse?

    Reply
  5. MoHub

    I hadn’t realized Verity Lambert was one of the creators of Shoulder to Shoulder. She was one of the original producers of Doctor Who at a time when women in the television industry had a hard time getting any respect as creators, directors, and producers. Seems fitting that she had a hand in Shoulder to Shoulder.

    Also the theme song—”March of the Women”—was written by Dame Ethel Smyth, a woman composer and a major player in the suffrage movement.

    Reply
  6. Nynke

    As an enormous fan, I kind of feel urged to comment on the Mary Poppins text. See, I never had the idea that Mrs Banks ‘gave up’ her sufragette-status at the end of the film. On the contrary; while she tries to hide her sashes and activities in the beginning out of fear for Mr Banks his reaction, at the end she proudly displays them. Of course all thanks to Mary Poppins, who ‘saves’ far more people than just the children.

    But that’s just my opinion, please excuse the explosion of Poppins geek here.

    Reply
  7. JessB

    Wow, what a great collection! I’ve never heard of Up the Women before, but it looks so great! I’ll have to find it online and watch.

    Incidentally, Australian women were actually granted the right to vote in federal elections and stand for parliament in 1902, although this didn’t include Indigenous women.
    Each of the individual states granted women the right to vote, and to stand for parliament, in their own time- some earlier, some later.
    There’s more information here, on the Australian Electoral Commission website:
    http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/australian_electoral_history/wright.htm

    I’ve always thought New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote, in 1893. I think that actually included Maori women as well, which is pretty incredible!
    http://women.govt.nz/about/new-zealand-women/history

    Reply
  8. MaryC

    I feel like I saw part of Shoulder to Shoulder when I was a kid, maybe it aired on PBS in the 70s? My mom and her friends were all into the ERA so I think that must be how I saw it. I vividly remember a scene or scenes where the imprisoned suffragists were tube-fed, it was awful. It’s only now that I realize they were in jail because of wanting to vote. I had forgotten the reason why, just the horrible force-feeding. Yikes!

    Reply
  9. Kathleen Norvell

    Thanks for this thread, ladies.

    Just as an historical reference point. Today, many women are wearing white to the polls in remembrance of our foremothers who fought and in some cases, died, to get us this right. And many women are visiting Susan B. Anthony’s grave in New York state and sticking their “I voted” stickers on it. The cemetery is kept open until 9 PM on election day and the grave is lit.

    Sisters, we do not forget.

    Reply
  10. Susan Pola

    Shoulder to Shoulder and Suffragette are my favourites about the cause. I will have to see the Hillary Swank and the BBC comedy, tho.

    Reply
  11. Jay

    I was appalled that I learned more about the American suffragist movement from Iron Jawed Angels than I did from 12 years of history class in school, where it was like “Susan B. Anthony… Seneca Falls… 1800s… then in 1920 women got the right to vote.” I don’t seem to recall ever going over the protests outside the White House, but maybe I’m blanking on stuff we did cover??
    Anyway, Maude in Harold and Maude is portrayed as a grown-up feisty suffragette, especially in the scene where they’re trying to harass Harold’s military uncle (?)

    Reply
  12. Jennifer

    I’m sorry but Murdoch Mysteries has so much more to offer in reference to Suffrage. Not only does Margaret Haile, the first woman to run for legislative office in Canada, played brilliantly by Nicole Underhay, appear during the story arc but also Clara Brett Martin, played by Patricia Fagan, the first female lawyer in the British Empire. The Dr. Grace-Lillian Moss storyline is just a small part of the Suffrage storyline. Also, Haile received 79 votes during that legislative election. Not bad for 1902.

    Reply
  13. Leigh

    Women in New Zealand were allowed to vote from 1893. Kate Sheppard was our most famous suffragette.
    A play about Sheppard and the Temperance movement ‘O Temperance’, written by acclaimed New Zealand playwright Mervyn Thompson, was first performed in 1972.
    In 2016 a new production entitled “That Bloody Woman” is touring New Zealand. The show tells Kate Sheppard’s story as a rock/punk musical.

    Reply
  14. Veronica

    I know it looks weird but here’s Marietta Stow who ran for Governor of California in the 1880’s. All bustle pantsuit. (Shoot, can’t post pic)

    Reply
  15. Nora

    There are references to the women’s suffrage movement in the 2002-3 tv adaptation of the Forsyte Saga. The forward-thinking June Forsyte gives a speech in a suffragists’ mething, talking about the force feeding of female suffragists in prison.

    Reply
  16. Adina

    What about that hideous reccent sherlock episode where they turned british suffragettes into the kkk? I’m pretty sure that had many people rolling in their graves.

    Reply

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