On this day in 1893, the women of New Zealand voted in a general election for the first time. New Zealand was the first self-governing nation in the world to grant universal suffrage, following the tireless campaigning of activists such as Kate Sheppard, generally considered the figurehead of the suffrage movement in New Zealand. After an unsuccessful similar attempt in 1891, the 1893 Suffrage Petition was signed by close to a quarter of the adult female population of New Zealand and led to the Electoral Act 1893, enshrining female voting rights into law.
While on holiday earlier this year, I was very happy to pick up a copy of the 2010 edition of Cineteca di Bologna’s Cento Anni Fa (One hundred years ago) series: Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914. Today, then, is a good date to visit the suffragettes portion of the release: included are two comedy shorts and a range of actuality footage of suffragettes. It’s a fascinating, if frustrating, look at perceptions of the women’s rights movement in the early twentieth century.
Les Femme Députées | Women in Parliament (FR 1912)
First up is the Lux short Les Femmes Députées. Mmes Dupont and Dubois are suffragettes who spend their time canvassing the streets and speechifying, winning the minds of women and agitating for political rights.
There is another concern, though, which is the fact that the two ladies are neglecting their rightful place in society by not being home to cook for their men! This is a problem because they are married to dunces who lack the brain power to carry out simple everyday tasks, such as washing the dishes.
Luckily, the ladies don’t let the intense struggles of their menfolk interfere with their larger goal of ensuring political equality for women. Women in the street flock to them and their message. Who cares about ads for laundry soap when you could listen to a reality check about misogynistic oppression in society?!
The suffragettes also get together indoors to discuss the issues involved in tackling their lack of political representation.
And the husbands hang out in the park with their babies, wearing nursemaid sashes on their top hats. Awww, that’s nice. THE END.
Oh wait, there are several minutes of the film left. The suffragette meeting devolves into a slap-fight. Women: always with the bitchiness and infighting! Except when they’re naturally nurturing, or seductive harpies, or frigid ice queens. It’s hard to know which stereotype to adhere to sometimes. Anyway, the scene leads to Mme Dubois tending her resignation. She returns home to her uproaringly laughing husband and her baby, renouncing the suffragette cause.
‘Fun’ fact: French women did not gain the right to vote until 1944.
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The Pickpocket (US 1913)
The Pickpocket is a ‘Bunnyfinch’ comedy, starring the rotund John Bunny and the lean Flora Finch, who made a huge number of shorts together. Finch is involved in the suffragette movement, spending time at a suffragette club where she lectures to an eager audience.
“Where has my suffragette gotten to?” wonders Bunny. He is at home, where due to the absence of his wife at dinnertime, things are pretty wretched for him. For example, he must deal with difficult trials such as making himself a sandwich (a task that he does poorly) … and … drinking directly from a bottle! The cheek of women, honestly, making him undergo such horrors. What is the world coming to. Cats and dogs, living together … mass hysteria!
But Bunny has a plan to get out of the living hell in which he has found himself. He organizes a ruse whereby he gives his wife a false/stolen ticket to the theatre. Ha! Then she’ll get arrested and that’ll show her! And he and his assistant/secretary cackle like Bond villains.
So when Finch goes to the theatre, she is detained by the police. John Bunny’s moon face watches with glee through a convenient porthole as she protests angrily.
It gets worse. Not content just to watch his trap be sprung and see her proclaim her innocence, he actually tells the police to keep her under lockdown.
Once he explains that she is a suffragette, the policeman is of course fine with going along with Bunny’s plan. Meanwhile, his poor wife is quite understandably distressed, angry and frightened at being locked up.
She marches out of the cell with furious righteousness, but when she rings her husband (he’s drinking and smoking cigars and having a laugh with his friends at a bar), he tells her that he’ll only have her set free if she promises to leave the suffragette club.
Raaaage. Here is a Kriemhild GIF if you need it. In my mind, there is a lost ending to this film where Finch offed him out of sheer fury. Surely no jury would convict her.
Oh, and earlier in the film there was this gem regarding women and their insistence on having thoughts and opinions:
Women should be seen and not heard and their feeble female brains certainly can’t be trusted with trifles like independence or voting rights. Worst. WORST.
‘Fun’ fact: while several states enfranchised women in the 19th century, universal suffrage in the United States occurred only in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. However, Black women in Southern states faced obstacles in exercising their voting rights and did not achieve true suffrage until the 1960s.
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Let’s have some footage of actual suffragettes as a palate cleanser:
Suffragette Demonstration through London, 19 June 1910 (Pathé, FR 1910)
Emmeline Pankhurst banners! Yeah!
Note the ‘Votes for women’ sashes worn by many of the suffragettes. Edited to add: Mark Fuller informs me that the arrowheads carried by the women marching are the ‘broad arrow’ symbol used for convicts’ uniforms between the 1870s and 1922 in the UK. The women carrying them are ex-prisoners who had been imprisoned for their political beliefs.
‘Fun’ fact: limited voting rights were extended to the women of the United Kingdom in 1918; universal suffrage took another decade.
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Suffragette: Emmeline Pankhurst (Gaumont, FR 1921)
A close-up of the great woman, Emmeline Pankhurst née Goulden (1858 – 1928).
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This was a bit a depressing post to write, honestly – these two comedies, like other similar films I’ve seen, really brought home to me the negative popular perception of suffragettes in the teens. But there was a lot of support too, as we see from the marches, the protests; even in the fictional films, where many women take part in the women’s movement (even though they are ultimately punished for doing so). The suffrage movement had flaws, certainly, but let’s take a moment to remember the suffragettes who quite literally fought and sometimes died for the right to female political expression, respect, and independence. They are why I have and always will consider voting a feminist act as well as a democratic one.
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Les Femmes Députées [Women in Parliament]. France: Lux, 1912. Courtesy Lobster Films.
The Pickpocket. Dir. George D. Baker. United States: Vitagraph, 1913. Courtesy EYE Film Instituut Nederland.
Suffragette Demonstration through London, 19 June 1910. France: Pathé, 1910. Courtesy BFI National Archive.
Suffragette: Emmeline Pankhurst. France: Gaumont, 1921. Courtesy Gaumont-Pathé Archives.
All films available on the DVD set Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 | Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914, available from Cineteca di Bologna.