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.
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.
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)
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 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)
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
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)
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
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.
Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yeah, it’s not bad.
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
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.
Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yep, the message is better than the clothes.
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?!?
Making Our Foremothers Proud? HELL YES.
Downton Abbey (2010), Season 1, Episode 6
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.
Making Our Foremothers Proud? Meh, but we had to include it.
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.
Making Our Foremothers Proud? Meh.
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
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
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.
Making Our Foremothers Proud? OK, aside from some cliches.
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.
Making Our Foremothers Proud? Yes.
Houdini & Doyle (2016), Episode 2
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!