Today, less than 24 hours since the tragic events in Paris, I went to see a film. It is about a person who commits acts of violence and ends up becoming complicit in a highly public suicide committed by a particularly militant member of the cause. That person has been radicalised by colleagues and charismatic speakers, driven further and further away from family, and losing their job in the process. A major contributing factor to their radicalisation is the abuse of power by the executive arm of the state, whose members should be protecting the marginalised rather than subjecting them to torture and degrading treatment.
That film is Suffragette.
I’ve seen at first hand the devastating impact that terrorism and violence has on the victims and those around them. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of loss at first hand and seen friends who have witnessed violence at first hand struggle to come to terms with it. Those are effects that last for years, blighting families and leaving lifetimes worth of trauma. And at its worst, that violence perpetuates a cycle of further violence that it can prove difficult to break. I understand why people feel they have to resort to violence and terrorism (particularly when there appear to be no other options open to them) but it is not something I could ever support or condone.
I watched Suffragette with mixed emotions. As a passionate feminist (albeit an imperfect one, striving to be better) I have always been proud to be part of a long tradition that includes the Pankhursts and Emily Wilding Davison. Their work secured the vote, paving the way for other developments like equal pay and sex discrimination legislation, giving all of us – men and women – greater choice about how to live our lives.
It’s easy to romanticise things like the suffrage movement. With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight we see the legitimacy of their aims because they coincide with our own social attitudes and values, which have been shaped by their success. They become some of the founding myths of contemporary society, key parts of our culture. Tales of struggle and sacrifice are always stirring, particularly when seen through the soft-focus lens that comes with the distance of time. We like to imagine ourselves in a heroic role, striking blows for freedom. But those stories, attractive as they are, conceal real suffering affecting real people.
Without standing directly in the shoes of those forced to make difficult choices about the best way to address the issues facing them, shedding the values of our contemporary society, it’s difficult to pass judgement. But can I in all conscience associate myself with a movement that resorted to criminal damage and violence in support of its aims? Would I have been a suffragist, peacefully campaigning for the vote, but achieving little? Or would I have been a suffragette, out smashing windows with my toffee hammer in the name of equality?