Suffering Suffragettes – Women Do Laugh!

 

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from BBC archive – women in Lancaster

It is holiday time and I relaxed at the movies with my youngest daughter Mary Jane and two longtime friends and writing buddies, Barbara and Maureen.

‘Three generations watching Suffragette,said MJ, ‘coffee afterwards should be interesting.’ And it was!

MJ is 26, I’m 62, Barbara 78, and Maureen almost 80. Four women with varying degrees of knowledge about the ‘first wave of feminism’. Four women who have experienced very different lives and education. Women who have lived through legislative changes towards gender equality, and some profound changes in attitude.

Maureen and Barbara can remember WW2 and along with me, experienced restrictions and unfairness because of our gender. I joined Women’s Liberation in the 70s.

And of course, with today’s newspaper headlines, MJ can quite rightly ask, ‘How far have we really come?’

We wanted to come away from the movie feeling empowered and uplifted, although under no illusions that the struggle for equality and respect continues in 2016.

Instead, we left the cinema angry, sad, and with a list of disappointments about aspects of the script, the choice and performance of actors, and a storyline that tried to cover too many topics, too frugally.

Was Meryl Streep chosen to play Emmeline Pankhurst to attract funding? Her cameo role came across as wooden, the dialogue bland rhetoric and any personality buried under too many layers of period costume.

 

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BBC archives -Women’s Social and Political Union 1908

Criticisms aside, I hope people see the film, think about the issues raised, have conversations and initiate discussions – especially with fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and daughters.

Unless you deliberately seek information about the suffragettes, they receive a glance in history classes at school or are ignored altogether. Many universities no longer support Women’s Studies.

However, I’m at a loss as to what audience the film hoped for, because if it was to educate men (and new generations of women), I think it will fail to attract bums on seats.

If it is ‘preaching to the converted’ it disappoints.

If it is aimed at all women, or the general public, they should have placed more emphasis on success and focused on inspiration and the political journey.

At the end of the film’s action,  a scrolled list of various (not all) countries and the dates when women were allowed to vote is a lost opportunity. The list is not put into any sort of context to make it memorable. (A headline from a newspaper, or file footage of the achievement and public reaction against the dates would have been nice.)

Many women already know why the women’s movement developed and will go to see the movie to learn the history. They’ll seek a reason to celebrate, be entertained, empowered – there are so many women who were amazing at that time. Why the story had to be told through the life of a fictional character seems strange.

I was looking forward to a film celebrating the first wave of feminism and hoped for something as inspiring as PrideWhen that movie ended in the Kino Cinema there was spontaneous applause. The audience walked out of the cinema emotionally engaged, aware we had experienced something special;we  better understood and appreciated an important historical struggle, saw the best and worst of the human spirit.

I wanted that feeling after Suffragette. The courage and vision of those women not only gave me rights I enjoy today, but the inspiration and impetus to join the Women’s Liberation Movement when I started university in 1971.

I’ve been committed to telling and promoting herstory for years through my community involvement, my parenting, my writing, teaching, and social activism. All the issues raised in the film, including the right to vote (and why many women don’t) and wage inequality are still relevant today.

Meanwhile, domestic violence, especially the murder of women in the family home, a place where they should feel the safest, is the subject of a Royal Commission here in Victoria to grab people’s attention and effect real change.

Unfortunately, Suffragette is bleak and the sacrifices and gains the women made buried in a script that tries to do too much and tell too many important stories without giving detailed justice to most of them.

Why a fictional character when any number of women’s life story could have been told to make the same points?

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In the film, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) becomes a suffragette, not so much by choice but by a series of accidents: she gets caught up in a direct action campaign of window-smashing, is approached by a fellow worker who cajoles her to attend a meeting.

Suddenly, from a reluctant convert begged to join, she’s blowing up mailboxes and Lloyd George’s country manor. Instant radicalisation and a speedy character arc that leaves a lot of unanswered questions about personal growth and why such violence.

Suffragette is clear about the power of men and entrenched patriarchy – from the deviousness and duplicity of politicians and police, to the tyranny of husbands and employers, but it introduces subjects like sexual abuse and exploitation, domestic violence and the abrogation of women’s rights over their own children, money and property – huge social topics – depicted briefly and focused on a handful of women as if they are the movement.

An empowered Maud rescues a young girl from the clutches of an employer who also abused Maud from twelve years old. She fought for this girl’s rights, but apart from a crying tantrum she lets a couple take her son after her husband puts him up for adoption because he can’t cope as a single parent.

The scene included to expose the lack of a mother’s rights but was a storyline that deserved longer exploration and didn’t gel with Maud’s feisty character.

Where was the sisterhood? The band of guerrillas Maud joined, would surely have stepped in. These were women prepared to damage property, suffer indignities in prison including barbaric force-feeding (the physical consequences down played in the movie).

If they couldn’t stop the adoption, they’d have encouraged her to kidnap the boy or at least make a public fight for her rights. Some of those women had money as well as influential husbands, who were not all anti suffragette.

Check out the Changeling, a movie on the profound power of a mother’s love, set in 1928 LA and based on a true story of single mother Christine Collins. A movie that tackles a host of social and political issues but never loses sight of the determination of a mother to get her son back. Ironically, 1928 is the year some British women get the vote – years behind the empire’s  ex-colonies.

This is another point of contention. There is not even a mention of the advances in other countries, no mention of our Australian hero Vida Goldstein, and no exploration of why British women had to resort to violence when Australia achieved voting rights with the help of the Women’s Suffrage Petition.

It wasn’t a documentary, but what exactly was the film when a key suffragette like Pankhurst is almost airbrushed out.

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Women’s Suffrage Petition Memorial Melbourne

Suffragette emphasises at the beginning how devoted Maud is to Georgie, he’s her only son, she adores him. Why would she not put the same effort and commitment fighting for him as she does to the suffragette cause? The Maud they created in this film would explore every avenue, would demand the others help.

Edith Ellyn (played brilliantly by Helen Bonham Carter), a radical activist, based on the real-life suffragette Edith Garrod, and her supportive and committed husband would surely have helped Maud. (There is a brief mention that Edith’s husband went to prison twice for the cause and he plays an active albeit almost silent part!)

In fact, Georgie and Maud are too clean and well-dressed for the average worker in 1912 living in the squalid housing around the industrial factories of London. the opening scenes show the drudgery and relentless labouring required in places ignoring basic health and safety guidelines.

Another niggling point is when Georgie has a cough and is taken to Edith and her pharmacist husband for examination and free medicine. Given some barley sugar he doesn’t say thank you. Maud would have admonished his lack of manners. I mean this is a boy whose father makes him salute and thank the King’s picture every night.  The class system in Britain ingrained politeness and courtesy towards ‘your betters.’

Another minor irritant was Maud’s husband accusing her of wanting champagne on a beer budget… really? Doubt if that was a common expression among laundry workers in 1912 – he’d more likely berate her for trying to copy her ‘posh’ friends.

Perhaps the biggest failing in the film is not offering some joy.

I know the times were bleak for women, but I also know when a group of women with a common cause get together, we laugh, we dance, we take the mickey – and committed activists look after each other. They would not have Maud sleeping in a disused church if she is one of the inner circle.

Where were the fun scenes reliving successful operations? The frenetic scenes preparing banners, making the sashes and placards – some visual relief from the drabness and oppression?

I have happy treasured memories of Women’s Liberation meetings, Union of Australian Women events and International Women’s Day celebrations and marches. Despite  critics  wanting to portray feminists as dour, frigid and bitter, the term sisterhood is powerful has a different connotation for most women.

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There could also have been more use of actual footage of the times for impact if the film was deftly edited like Selma. The actual footage used at the end of Suffragette is powerful and it shows the movement was a lot bigger than what the film suggested, but achieving the goal of the vote is years away.

In Suffragette, one scene comes close to showing camaraderie of sisterhood – when two of the characters (Violet and Maud) find a room to rent after a distraught Maud is locked out of home by her husband. The women sit on the ‘bed of nails’, which collapses accompanied by their giggles and laughter.

Women are adept at laughing in the face of adversity – gallows humour if you like – similar to soldiers under fire. The film lacked that important essence to take us on an emotional roller coaster – the audience needed to feel the ardour of these women, breathe their fire, be touched by their soul and sadness, but also their laughter, love, humanity and the solidarity that gave them the courage and spark to continue.

Two scenes stand out – a riot revealing the brutality of the police and onlookers and the tense scene where Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of the King’s horse. The film suggests it was deliberate suicide, yet this is debatable, especially when you look at archived footage.

Personally, I’d love a film to be made on the life of Emily, beginning with that horrific media grabbing action and then showing her journey. How and why she became a suffragette. And why so few people actually know or care about her life, preferring to define her by that one action.

We need to inspire more women and men to question how far we have come and the structural changes needed for equality and basic human rights.

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Respect and Gender Equity To End Family Violence

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Earlier this year, Janice Munt, the former Member for Mordialloc, and now an advisor to the Hon Fiona Richardson MP, Minister for Women and the Minister for Prevention of Family Violence, addressed the Southern Branch of the Union of Australian Women meeting at Mordialloc Neighbourhood House.

Although only June, a cold snap in mercurial Melbourne broke records. Winter already taking its toll on members’ health, but the chilly weather suited the topic as we gathered to hear a sobering, informative speech about family violence and what the current State Government is doing about this tragedy.

Janice’s introduction forthright, “this will not be a light and fluffy speech – rather a plethora of facts and information, particularly newly released statistics from police.”

She rightly referred to family violence as the “most pressing, urgent and pervasive scourge” our community faces. We are well beyond crisis point, “the system having failed too many women, too many children, too many families.” 

Fortunately, since the Andrews Government announced the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Minister and her team have been working like women possessed consulting and researching people and groups touched by family violence. The consultation includes the large chain of public authorities impacted by family violence: hospitals, courts, schools, and all associated departments.

Janice shared the following shocking statistics from the Victorian Police:

  • 68,134 family violence incidents attended by Victorian Police in 2014
  • Children were present at 34% of family violence incidents attended police in 2013-4
  • Family violence incidents have increased by 8% between 2013 and 2014.
  • Since 2010, family violence incidents have increased by 72%
  • In 2014,  29 family violence incident-related homicides recorded in Victoria.
  • In 2013-4, family violence incidents represented 41.7% of all crimes against the person offences in Victoria.
  • Intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death and disability and ill health for Victorian women aged between 15 and 44 years.
  • Women are more likely than men to have experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15 (25% of women compared to 14% of men).

Statistics for the City of Kingston (the local refuge for this area being the largest in Victoria) are just as frightening with the following recorded Family Violence offences:

2011:     865
2012:     1025
2013:     1229
2014:     1331
2015:     1297

The National Community Attitudes Survey of 2013 indicated that attitudes that justify, excuse and minimise violence against women persist in a significant proportion of our community.

  • Nearly 1 in 5 people believe a woman is partly responsible if she is sexually assaulted while drunk or affected by drugs
  • More than 1 in 5 think the violence is excused if the perpetrator later regrets it
  • Up to 1 in 5 believe there are circumstances where women bear some responsibility for the violence
  • Nearly 8 in 10 agree it’s hard to understand why women stay in a violent relationship

The same survey measured community attitudes towards gender equality:

  • Up to 1 in 4 believe women prefer a man to be in charge of a relationship
  • Up to 1 in 4 consider men make better political leaders than women
  • Up to 28% of Australians endorse attitudes supportive of male dominance of decision-making in relationships, a dynamic identified as a risk factor for violence against women and children

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In 2009, the annual cost to Victoria’s economy of violence against women and children was estimated at $3.4 billion.(An estimate based on the National cost of $13.6 billion!) This cost includes all the associated services: police, courts, hospitals, refuges, counselling, relocation, housing, interrupted employment and schooling.

In Australia, on average women suffer a 19% pay gap and as we heard from Robyn Dale at a previous meeting, this is rising.

Robyn was the Director of the Union Research Centre on Organisation and Technology. (URCOT, Participation, Research, Innovation.) In 2004-5, URCOT’s research examined the extent and causes of gender pay inequity in Victoria and identified some options for addressing the continuing pay differential between men and women.

Robyn concluded that Australia still has one of the most sex-segregated workplaces, with gender discrimination built into their DNA.  Before Workchoices, it was estimated it will take 73 years to close the gender gap and there have been no real gains since Workchoices. Women’s pay has stagnated.

Not surprisingly one of the main supporters of Workchoices was our recently deposed Prime Minister, Tony Abbott whose attitude to women was often questioned by the media:

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Finances are commonly used to exert dependence; therefore, women risk and fear homelessness and destitution if they leave the family home.

The National personal Safety Survey of 2012 indicated:

  • 1 in 3 (34%) of Australian women have experienced physical violence
  • 1 in 5 (19%) Australian women have experienced sexual violence
  • 403,200 women (aged over 18 years) experienced physical violence in the last 12 months
  • 102,400 women (aged over 18 years) experienced sexual violence in the last 12 months.
  • 1 in 4 Australian women had experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner
  • A woman is killed in Australia almost every week by a partner or ex-partner.

 Sadly, these statistics have not improved in 2015!

In 2013-14, Victorian women comprised over half (52.9%) of all victims of crimes against the person, 79.2% of sex (non-rape) offence victims and 90% of rape victims.

Female victims of crime against the person increased by 4% in 2013-14, whereas male victims decreased by 1.5% in the same period.

The increase in crimes against the person (females) since 2012-13 includes:

  • 6.8% increase in homicide
  • 3.4% increase in sexual assaults (non-rape)
  • 7.9% increase in rape
  • 4.2% increase in assaults
  • Women are more likely than men to have experienced partner violence: 16.9% cf 4.5% men

The shocking statistic that an estimated 67% of women have NOT been in contact with the police after their most recent incident of physical assault by a male should alarm us all.

Plus the horrific statistic that 27% of women who present to the Royal Women’s Hospital are currently being abused by their partner, many for the first time while they are pregnant. Women are particularly vulnerable when they are pregnant!

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A recognition that gender inequality is the leading cause of violence against women – the evidence base developed by the Victorian Health Promotion in 2007 and supported by the World Health Organisation, underpins approaches to violence prevention by governments and agencies in Victoria and nationally.

Janice dispelled some of the myths and misunderstandings about family violence by explaining:

  • It is women and children who bear the heaviest burden and it is men who are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. Women are usually the victims, many of the statistics for men come from same-sex relationships. Pets are at risk too!
  • Gender inequality and poor gender stereotypes are the fundamental drivers of family violence. Countries (particularly Scandinavia and Northern Europe) with greater equality have fewer rates of family violence.
  • Victims don’t leave because they are fearful of the lives of themselves and their children. Statistically they are at the most risk when they leave a relationship.
  • We need to ask why the perpetrator is not held to account, what will be done to stop causing the harm, and if behaviour doesn’t change then, he should leave.
  • Family violence thrives under a cloud of shame and secrecy – it needs a bright light like the spotlight being shone on the RC church and its abuse of children. We must believe, not blame the victim!
  • The tragic death of a woman at the hands of her partner needs to treated in the same way as the tragic death at the hands of a stranger – it is murder.
  • Our societal attitudes towards women and children and our cultural attitudes towards violence contribute to our national shame. Our culture must change, not just the laws.

We all have a role – not just those who suffer or have suffered.

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The Andrews Government has put in place the Royal Commission to conduct a root and branch examination of our system. There is $40 million, set aside to hear from victims and service providers and a commitment to implement all recommendations. Already hundreds of people and organisations have put in submissions and Janice encouraged those present to do so or spread the word to others.

Extra emergency funding has been made available for duty lawyers, children’s counsellors, crisis accommodation and transport, service providers, crisis lines and support agencies. A Family Violence Index has been announced working like the Consumer Price Index.

All indicators for examination: police reports, hospital admission reports, impact on children from education reports, data about homelessness, court costs, working days lost, police referrals to family violence services, and the variation of community attitudes to family violence.

A baseline established of the real cost to the Victorian economy and ministers can go to Treasury and get funding for the relevant programmes.

The cause of family violence is a bad attitude towards women and support of gender inequality. When males treat females as inferior, or limit their capacity to live their lives the way they choose, it encourages some men to bully, using physical power to dominate and control.

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There is hope the royal commission will encourage the resourcing of a  world class prevention system in Victoria to stop family violence.

  • There’s been an 82% increase in family violence since 2010, but the data based on crime statistics offers an incomplete picture
  • High-risk groups(Aboriginal, rural, CALD) are not receiving the necessary services
  • The cost nationally anticipated to be $15.6 billion by 2021
  • Family violence a factor in 50% of substantiated child protection cases
  • Family violence connected to 35% of homelessness services
  • Family violence is 40% of Victoria Police’s work in crimes against a person
  • 284% increase in intervention order breach cases in courts over three years.

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Already these ten gaps identified:

  1. Poor data collection of the scale and breadth of the problem
  2. Lack of consistent and sufficiently resourced prevention frameworks and programs
  3. Limited understanding of the short and long-term impact on children and youth
  4. Poorly resourced and underinvestment in responses as demand for services grows
  5. Inconsistent and poorly tailored responses for high-risk groups and specific cohorts, including failure to be culturally responsive
  6. Weak legal consequences failing to hold perpetrators to account
  7. An inaccessible and complex justice system; victims don’t always feel safe
  8. Lack of integrated response model; insufficiently robust governance structures
  9. Barriers to sharing information
  10. Challenges to working with the Commonwealth Government

The Federal Government spent $30 million on an advertising campaign and wanted half of that from Victoria, but the Andrews Government’s Royal Commission will ultimately be of more benefit.

The needs are:

  • Talking about issues and solutions and changing attitudes
  • Integrated services, and better training for those responding, effective governance making systematic use of data to support decision making, sharing information to support early intervention, crisis response and perpetrator accountability
  • A one-stop “shop” for victims with access to multi-disciplinary professionals and services – strengthening and rolling out conventional risk assessment tools – an entire workforce in family violence system trained to identify and manage risk in a similar ways
  • Reform of court system so victim and perpetrator don’t use same door, same waiting area – innovative justice actively avoiding the re-traumatisation of victims
  • Affordable housing, with public and private, strategies for emergency accommodation. Victims must be able to leave violent situations quickly. Opportunities to use legislation to ensure third party organisations overlay their hardship criteria and policies with a family violence lens
  • Make perpetrators more visible and accountable, have early intervention strategies that converge policing, health and legal services for perpetrators. Strengthen and follow-up compliance with orders
  • Shine a light on bureaucrats, professionals must lay cards on the table and ensure responses are not public servants covering their arse
  • A whole new approach, not just more money and resources – a whole of government family violence education agenda. An integrated community care model with high-quality specialist family violence expertise
  • Good decent men have to speak up and challenge the misbehaviour and bad attitudes of other men in their circle – community education program for prevention – schools, workplaces, health centres, community sports centres
  • Acknowledgement of the spectrum of disrespect for women and that discriminatory societies breed family violence

No more defending the status quo!

The Government’s aware this is not working and will refuse to shy away from the problem – a bright light will be shone, and solutions found. The Royal Commission’s task to provide practical recommendations to overcome failures in the system.

  • Gaps addressed and opportunities to improve seized
  • Currently, the focus is on response to victims, not enough on holding perpetrators accountable and stopping them repeating violence
  • Focus now on the legal lens – but the impact is often to compound pain, trauma and fear
  • Currently, not using technology to its fullest capacity (warning systems, like mobile phone Apps etc.)
  • More needs to be done to free victims financially and lessen the impact of bureaucracy
  • Delivery of a tailored response
  • Currently, victims bearing the burden of complex system – ease of navigation must be improved
  • Need to mobilise the many loving, decent men to change collective behaviour
  • Educate men in ways to stop the violence
  • Gender equality at the heart of family violence solutions
  • There must be a change in behaviour and attitude – crude, sexist remarks against women one end of the spectrum, family violence at the other
  • International evidence shows that societies that have inequality built into their laws and cultural norms will have higher levels of violence against women and children.

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Janice affirmed that it is the job of government to help people understand the connection between gender inequality and family violence.

She asked the meeting to reflect on all those lost and the thousands of women living in fear in their own homes.

Daniel Valerio’s bruised, sad, little face gave us mandatory reporting in Victoria. Rose Batty gave family violence a voice. We must now examine our broken system and put forward practical measures to end the violence.”

The meeting was stunned by many of the statistics Janice shared and questions and discussion followed. This is an issue the Union of Australian Women has consistently raised and thought about. Members praised the Andrews Government for the decision to have a royal commission and voiced optimism that at last we may see the current broken system, fixed.

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