Silent film curator Bryony Dixon discusses how the suffragettes used film to promote their cause.
“Make more Noise!” was the rallying cry of Emmeline Pankhurst to the campaigners for women’s votes. The suffragettes’ strategy was simple but clever – the idea was to stand up at every public meeting or gathering and cry “votes for women!”. But how do you make more noise in silent film?
In an age when the moving image was beginning to really matter, the suffragettes had to make sure that they were not just heard, but seen. The newsreels were noticeably more neutral in their reporting than the print media. So newsreel cameramen were invited to all the big demonstrations and given privileged vantage points, while banners and placards were carefully placed for the cameras.
The first ever representation of a suffragette in a British film was in 1899, in a comedy where a pair of gossipy old women (played by men in drag) are the object of male ridicule. By 1913, the outrageous satire Milling the Militants again uses a suffragette as a stock comic character, but to more ambiguous effect. It was the licence allowed by comedy that freed film’s female characters, like the delightfully modern Tilly girls, to make one hell of a noise.
Some 25 of these films are available to watch now for free on BFI Player in the Suffragettes on film collection. Here are ten to get you started.
Women’s Rights (1899)
What looks like a straightforward (if cruel) practical joke gains an extra dimension when we know the title of this early comedy: this may be the first reference to the women’s suffrage movement in film. Characteristically, it’s not a compliment. The two gossiping women in their bonnets and shawls are clearly men in drag, while the two workmen scheming behind them hint that the campaign for women’s suffrage was seen as a middle-class concern.
Mass Meeting of Suffragettes (1910)
This two-shot newsreel fragment surveys the scene at a Votes for Women protest on Trafalgar Square during the summer of 1910, when suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies presented petitions signed by supportive menfolk of Britain’s towns and cities.
While it’s ostensibly a piece of non-partisan film journalism, it’s probably no accident that the newsreel company – Pathé Frères – chose to brand these peaceful campaigners ‘suffragettes’ (a label coined for activists from the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union) and so bring a touch of sensationalism to their reporting.
Tilly and the Fire Engines (1911)
Disobedient, mischievous and anarchic, the Tilly sisters lit up a popular series of film comedies in the early 1910s. In this episode, Tilly and Sally purloin a horse-drawn fire engine and take it for a joyride. Fixing the hose to a hydrant they proceed to drench their pursuers before awarding themselves medals for bravery. The film is sadly incomplete – having lost about half its footage – but it does retain the ‘emblematic shot’ at the end. This was a comedy convention in the 1900s and 1910s adopted from the music hall: the film closes with a close up of the performers, as if it were their curtain call.
Bolton Election Result (1912)
Was the Pathé newsreel unusually sympathetic to the women’s suffrage campaign? It’s certainly intriguing that it chose to highlight suffragettes’ contribution to the Liberal Party’s success in this 1912 by-election – something most newspapers overlooked. Polling day was on 23 November, and Liberal candidate Thomas Taylor took the seat on a 90 percent turnout, much to the annoyance of the Conservatives.
Suffragette Derby of 1913 (1913)
This newsreel footage captures a milestone event in the campaign for women’s suffrage: the trampling to death of activist Emily Davison under the hooves of the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. The film begins, much like any other of Derby day, with scenes before the off – bobbies having their luncheon and cars arriving at the scene, including the carriage of King George V, mobbed with onlookers. As the race gets underway and the riders round Tattenham Corner, the camera is trained firmly on the track. Emily steps out.
Emily died from her injuries a few days later. A hundred years on, her motives are still debated. Emily’s previous attention-grabbing antics included throwing stones at future Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and taking part in prison hunger strikes. She would have been fully aware of the scale of press coverage leveraged on the day and the presence of multiple newsreel cameras.
Miss Davison’s Funeral (1913)
Emily Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse at the Derby of 1913 and died of her injuries four days later. Her funeral in London at St George’s, Bloomsbury, attracts a huge crowd of mourners including suffragettes and suffragists in full regalia. The crowds are such that the police have difficulty holding them back. At her home town of Morpeth, where Miss Davison is buried, the procession is smaller and more intimate and our last view of her is being carried to the parish church on a flower-laden horse-drawn cart.
Milling the Militants; A Comical Absurdity (1913)
This fascinating silent comedy – released at the height of suffragettism – reflects both the increasing militancy of the movement and the public response to it. When his suffragette wife goes off to campaign, leaving him to babysit, Mr Brown dreams of becoming prime minister and concocting new laws to punish her and her kind. From this synopsis, you might assume that Milling the Militants is an anti-suffragette film. But a close look throws up some doubts.
Mrs Brown might cut something of a comic figure, but her arrest for ‘assaulting a policeman’ is – even in Brown’s dream – seen to be false. Her husband’s imagined punishments, meanwhile, are either absurd, disproportionate or brutally medieval (the stocks for ‘annoying cabinet ministers’; a ducking stool for hunger strikers), which surely elicits sympathy for the suffragette victims. By contrast, the dreamer’s own real-life fate – a bucket of water from his wife for falling asleep instead of looking after his children – is clearly richly deserved.
“Law Abiding” Suffragists (1913)
It’s hats off to women’s right to vote! Thousands of law-abiding activists from around the country come together in a cheerful demonstration of popular support for women’s suffrage. The celebratory mood of the gathering – and the unexpectedly large number of menfolk within it – may have as much to do with the presence of a newsreel cameraman as with women’s constitutional rights.
This peaceful gathering in Hyde Park in July 1913 was the culmination of a mass march to London from numerous cities across the country organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – a large and non-militant ‘wing’ of the women’s suffrage movement led by Millicent Fawcett.
Women’s March through London (1915)
At the outset of World War I, Britain’s suffragettes called off their campaigning for the vote and instead offered their help in mobilising women to work in munitions factories. This impressive rally was intended as a show of patriotic solidarity. Though not universally welcomed, it turned out to be a shrewd move, which helped the campaigners secure their prize in the last months of the war.
This story from the Topical Budget newsreel has lost its title card, which helpfully explained: “A vast procession of women headed by Mrs Pankhurst march through London to show the Minister of Munitions their willingness to help in any war service.”
Will There Be Women MPs? (1917)
For over a decade the Women’s Social and Political Union was the leading voice of women’s suffrage, although, as their slogan “Deeds not Words” suggests, their actions spoke louder. By November 1917 the WSPU had morphed into a more nationalistic body supporting the war effort. After posing for the newsreel cameras, as seen here, Emmeline Pankhurst took to the stage of Queen’s Hall London to launch the rebranded Women’s Party.
The Topical Budget newsreel used the occasion to ask a question about women in parliament, setting aside the matter of votes for women altogether. The following year would see developments on both fronts, with government Acts allowing women over 30 to vote and women over 21 to stand for election (but not to vote themselves!). Nancy Astor became the first female MP just two years after this newsreel was issued.