A century on from the British suffrage campaign, feminists are still told that being pleasing is the best strategy for their success – and it’s still not true
Monday 28 December 2015
The new film Suffragette, released in Australia on Boxing Day, begins with female activists smashing London shop windows and bombing the partially completed home of the chancellor of the exchequer. It dramatises the militant actions of feminists from 1905 until the outbreak of the first world war, as they sought the right for British women to vote.
Edwardian women appear genteel in photographs, but the tactics of the suffragettes transgressed feminine expectations of the era. Suffragettes disrupted debate in parliament and struggled with police in violent marches. One famously slashed a painting of a naked woman in the National Gallery and another even came at Winston Churchill on a train platform with a riding whip.
With England more than a decade behind New Zealand, which had granted women’s suffrage in 1893, it was clear that polite and reasoned requests for women’s political rights had not worked. Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffrage movement, explained that unruly activism was essential:
If the general public were pleased with what we are doing, that would be a proof that our warfare is ineffective. We don’t intend that you should be pleased.
Despite the sustained campaign, full suffrage for women was not achieved until 1928. More than a century on from the British suffrage campaign, the message that being pleasing is not the optimal route to political and social change remains just as pertinent.
Increasingly men are informing feminists that they would be more successful if they made their politics more palatable. The UN’s HeforShe campaign, launched by the unthreatening Emma Watson, is often heralded as a positive way to involve men in work toward gender equality.
Both the idea that feminism needs to be appealing to men and that men should be central to its progress are anti-feminist ideas in themselves.
Regardless of their approach, feminists have always been characterised unfavourably for their social goals, looks, and refusal to defer to men.
Mocking cartoons of suffragettes showed them beating men to the ground with umbrellas or standing over their husbands and forcing them to clean the house. These caricatures took issue with the way that women’s demands for the vote seemed to be upending the natural order in which men were physically dominant and women were best suited to domestic work. Others lampooned the unattractiveness of suffragettes: they were drawn as old, dowdy and either lacking in teeth or suffering from pronounced overbites.