Tuesday 25 July 2017

Mary Kenny... the truth about women's lib

Suffragettes were brave, glamorous and sometimes violent

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny
Meryl Streep is playing Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Meryl Streep can bring allure to any part she plays, and she'll undoubtedly be brilliant as Emmeline Pankhurst when the much-anticipated movie Suffragette comes out next month. It's the story of a group of women's suffragists, as they were originally called ("suffragette" was coined in 1906 as a word of disparagement, but it became a tribute), and it features a star-studded cast, including Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Brendan Gleeson and Anne-Marie Duff.

It should be fascinating, but whether it will tell the truth about the suffragettes is a different question. Historical movies are rarely strong on truth - from Calamity Jane to Braveheart, legend has always proved stronger than historical exactitude. Although sometimes the truth can be more interesting than the legend.

The Pankhurst family, for example, were extraordinary, but quite politically eccentric. Emmeline, the mother, began as a Liberal (and a supporter of Irish nationalism - the Fenians were a major influence in her teenage years), but became a patriotic Tory during the Great War. Christabel, her eldest daughter - who doesn't feature in the movie - was academically brilliant, but prone to hysterical claims: she developed a preoccupation with sexual purity and men polluting women with venereal disease ("Votes for Women - and Chastity for Men!" was her cry). But she lived long enough to be made a Dame, became a wandering preacher anticipating Christ's Second Coming, and died in California.

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