Sunday, November 1, 2015

Making sense of political extremism: my view of "Suffragette" as a 21st century woman

Until last night, I had always envisioned the suffragette movement as organized marches, conventions, and disseminating numerous pamphlets. However, after watching "Suffragette" Friday night, I was introduced to a more violent stream of events than I had ever dreamed possible. After decades of peaceful campaigning for the woman's vote,  these British suffragettes resort to property damage on a grand scale: cutting telephone lines, shattering business windows, destroying mailboxes, and even blowing up a residence--nearly killing a housekeeper. Apparently, even Winston Churchill's face was slashed by a fuming suffragette. Indeed, these women had declared war on the government and the men who ruled them.

Were these women justified in their actions? As a woman who has all of the rights that they fought for, am I supposed to show some respect for the crimes that they committed? And if so, were the Ferguson and Baltimore riots justified? What about the Palestinian suicide bombers? In short, is there ever a political cause that authorizes the perceived disenfranchised to conduct property damage and even injure others in the process of making their cause go forward? Where, if at all, do we draw the boundaries?

As one averse to political extremism, I had a hard time watching this film. That being said, perhaps it is unwise for me to judge these women from my position of privilege and 20-20 hindsight. These women lived in a very different world with little to lose: they earned one-third less than their male counterparts, had less access to education, and enjoyed no rights to their property or even their children.

But perhaps the most disconcerting experience of watching the film was a realization that in some ways, our society is not that different from a century ago. The main character, Maud Watts, explains to a policeman that violence is "the only language men could understand." And today, commentators on the Ferguson and Baltimore riots explained that these riots and looting are "a language of the unheard." Indeed, extremist acts are still perceived as the only way to express frustration with the status quo. But rather than immediately placing blame on the disenfranchised, what does it say about our nation and media that will only turn its head when violence and rioting occurs? Would MLK or Gandhi's tactics be as effectual in influencing policymakers today? While I would like to say yes, I can't be sure. 

Though I am glad this film portrayed a more holistic view of woman's suffrage, I'm not entirely sure how to interpret these women's legacy. But, in a world like ours with groups that have been--and remain disenfranchised--I think this film reminds all of us to show a little more compassion to those who are overlooked. And if there is any semblance of injustice, people in positions of power have the responsibility to ensure that grievances are met and restitution is made.

Photo by Leonard Bentley.

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