With the release of the eagerly anticipated film Suffragette due this autumn, I have been exploring the presence of the Suffrage movement in popular culture. I was not taught about the history of the movement at school. Indeed my only exposure to the history of the Suffragettes came in the form of Glynis John’s marvellous role as Mrs. Banks in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins. I struggled to recall any other portrayals of the movement that I had seen, and a quick perusal of IMDB demonstrated why. Including the forthcoming portrayal by Meryl Streep, I was astonished to find that Emmeline Pankhurst has only been depicted by six actors on screen, two of them being comedic cameos (Psychobitches, played by a male actor, & Up The Women (2013)). Even more astonishing to me was that a prime 1974 BBC drama, Shoulder to Shoulder, which charted the lives of the women involved in the early Suffrage movement, was almost forgotten to history. As Janet McCabe and Vicky Ball state, remembering this much loved yet much forgotten drama is not only about ‘reclaiming stories about the feminist struggle, but also about who has the power to tell them.’
As TVHeaven illuminates, when actress Georgia Brown complained to the BBC about the lack of meaningful roles for women in television drama their response was to tell her to go and find a series she would like to be in. Along with script editor Midge Mackenzie she discussed the possibility of doing a drama series based on the true story of the women’s suffragette movement at the turn of the century. Reflecting the determination that would be illustrated by the women in the drama series, Brown then cornered high-profile producer Verity Lambert at an awards ceremony and together the trio of Brown, Mackenzie and Lambert were given the green light by BBC bosses and Shoulder to Shoulder, the first realistic and non-condescending drama series to portray the movement aimed at winning the right to vote for women in Britain, was born.
However, according to Brown, even some 60 years after the suffragette’s were successful, there were still prejudices to overcome. Ideally, Brown and Mackenzie would have preferred the series to be written by women. But when they failed to secure anyone suitable, men took the writing roles. Each script was totally scrutinised and out went many popular held misconceptions, innuendos and untruths that Brown referred to as ‘the male point of view’. What was left was a powerful drama that depicted the intolerance and hardship that the women had to endure to make themselves heard above a prejudiced society. Harrowing scenes of brutality by the powers that be were starkly portrayed -such as Lady Constance Lytton being held down by prison warders as she is force fed by doctors shoving a tube down her throat to pump food into her. Women being beaten by the police, arrested en masse and publicly ridiculed led their originally peaceful protestations to take on new tactics as they took to smashing windows, defacing a nude Venus in the National Gallery and -in the case of Emily Wilding Davison, making the ultimate sacrifice by flinging herself in front of the King’s horse at Epsom racetrack and dying from her injuries. But the series also managed to cut a fine balance by also showing the private lives and the petty prejudices of the women involved, whilst acknowledging the brilliant speeches made and the unfailing courage that these women had. As Midge Mackenzie told TV Week, “They were very gutsy ladies who were treated with enormous brutality and who have been blatantly ignored by historians. I find it hard to understand why I wasn’t taught about this at school. The issues of the vote united women in a way that no issue had ever done before and is likely to again.”
“Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and a shattering of the glass ceiling and ability to change the script but from the inside—Lambert. This remembering of the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years later and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial. Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.”
The series has rarely been repeated on British television, despite being regularly repeated to US audiences, and was never released on VHS/DVD during the huge spate of BBC drama releases during the 1990’s/2000’s. Fortunately the entire series is available to watch on Youtube. I’d invite you all to indulge in this hidden gem, and to think about what its absence says about feminism and its history today.