As we continue to mark International Day of the Girl here on The Window, we wanted to take a closer look at the fight for equality and the incredible strides that have been made over the past hundred years. In Focus Features’ newest project, Suffragette, we see the story of a young working class-woman who joins the fight to make her voice heard. Set in 1912 Britain, the film is a moving drama that will empower all who are striving for equal rights in our own day and age. And with stars like Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, and Helena Bonham-Carter, the narrative is told with moving conviction that is sure to resonate with all who see it. We had the pleasure of chatting with director Sarah Gavron about the process of working on the film, the incredible tale of bravery it portrays, and the fight that continues today. Click on the trailer above and read on for Gavron’s insight behind the film.
The Window: You’ve been vocal about the underrepresentation of women in the film industry. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like working on Suffragette with so many amazing women?
Sarah Gavron: Normally, there are hardly any women working on a film; less than ten percent of films per year are directed by women. On this film, not only did I direct, but the writer and two producers are also female along with many heads of department, including our production designer, location manager, casting directors and many others. Plus the ensemble of women in front of the camera. It felt like a gift. There was a great sense of camaraderie, and I think that was partly inspired by the suffragettes themselves.
What initially drew you to this story and script?
I was amazed that this story had never been told on film. It’s such an incredibly important part of our history. It changed the course of history by paving the way for today’s more egalitarian society, certainly in Britain and the States. But there are parts of the world where women are still fighting for basic human rights.
It felt important to resurrect the women who started the fight and to remember how hard-fought for the vote was. But also, it seemed to resonate with what’s happening around the world today with regard to activism and gender inequality. The issues around the pay gap and sexual abuse, issues of surveillance—the film felt very relevant and timely.
Speaking of egalitarianism, in the film, women of all classes participate in the movement and view each other as equals while fighting for their equality. How do you think this relates to the women’s rights movement of today?
The film focuses on a group of working women, and the unusual thing about the suffragette movement of the time was that, even though Edwardian Britain was very divided in terms of class, the movement brought together women of all different walks of life. We focused on working women because they’re so often in the shadows, but they really sacrificed so much. They were foot soldiers in the fight and were at the vanguard of change. It felt like an accessible way into the story, through the eyes of a working woman who had no platform and no entitlement, but who journeyed toward activism. We wanted to tell the story of the everywoman.
From all the stories of suffragettes and the movement, how was this particular narrative crafted?
The movement for suffrage took place over more than fifty years and involved thousands of women, so we spent more than six years researching to come up with a script that told the beating heart of the story. We narrowed it down to one year, 1912-1913, where the movement was very active and the women turned to civil disobedience because they were so frustrated after 40 years of peaceful protest and had achieved nothing. We also focused on this one group of working women from East London. It was very exciting because we felt like, by being very specific, we could get to universal truths and tell a story that would connect with women and men all over the world who are fighting inequality today.
While Suffragette tells of the fight for equality for women in Britain, women in America had a similar struggle. How do you hope American audiences relate to the story?
There are many resonances, I think, for American audiences. The two movements were quite distinct in some ways and quite connected in others. The suffrage movement in the States worked state-by-state, with Wyoming being the first to grant women the vote in 1869, and in 1920, it was given nationally. But not, of course, to indigenous populations. African and Afro-Caribbean men and women also had to deal with complex issues surrounding the vote. There are many more complications in terms of the story of race in America, which wasn’t the story of suffrage in Britain because there wasn’t the same level of immigration at the time. It wasn’t until later in the century that we became the diverse Britain of today.
What’s been most exciting about showing this film to both British and American audiences is that they’ve had similar responses as far as being inspired about their own agency and power to change by connecting with the film and relating it to its modern-day equivalents. Whether you view this as relevant to women in parts of the world where they’re fighting for basic human rights, or whether it’s a story about how you achieve political goals, it seems to be connecting over and above the very specifics of the story.
Suffragette opens in theaters nationwide on October 23rd, but you don’t have to wait until then to be inspired by the fight of women around the world. To learn more about the film, the ongoing struggle for equality, and how you can join the cause, check out the film’s site. The fight’s not over!