Meryl Streep has a powerful cameo turn in the just-released film Suffragette as Emmeline Pankhurst, England’s foremost militant advocate for women’s right to vote. The story is set in 1912 as English women decide they have no choice but to resort to blowing up mailboxes and hurling stones through department store windows to get the government’s attention. Ultimately many of the suffragettes arrested endured hunger strikes and brutal forced feedings. Suffragette is powerful and disturbing with its portrayal of women who suffer abuse and risk their lives for the basic rights of citizenship.
In my biography of American suffragist-turned-radical Marie Equi, I describe a visit of Emmeline Pankhurst to Portland, Oregon in 1916. England had been at war for two years. The United States had yet to join. Here’s an excerpt:
“In early June 1916, Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst stirred Portlanders with a glimpse of war on her country’s home front. For years the American press had vilified the aggressive tactics of English suffragettes – the smashed windows, harassment of government officials, and hunger strikes in prison – leaving many Portlanders expecting to be appalled by Pankhurst. Instead, the petite and cultured fifty-seven-year-old woman surprised them with her gentle manner and pleasant voice. She spoke with persuasion not stridency, and she addressed Portlanders’ beliefs about patriotism and their fears of what lay ahead.
Marie Equi never accepted Pankhurst’s argument for either preparedness or for the war. With her first vote in the presidential election of 1916, she marched for the supposed anti-war candidate – Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson – over the suffrage candidate – Republican Charles Evans Hughes. Months later Wilson took the nation to war.