I think the first time I heard about suffragettes was when I was nine and went to see Mary Poppins at a cinema in Leeds. In the story (you all know the story, right? Based on PJ Travers’ book of the same name?) Mrs Banks, the children’s mother, was always gadding off to one Suffrage Union rally or another, trilling: ‘Votes for women!’ as she adjusted her big hat and kissed her two children goodbye. I seem to remember not really taking her very seriously. Mrs Banks’ character (played by Glynis Johns) was portrayed as scatter-brained and frivolous, her ’cause’ a hobby she indulged in, much to the annoyance of her exasperated husband and neglected offspring.
A still from the film ‘Mary Poppins’ with Mrs Banks (centre) heading off to another rally in her lovely hat and WSPU sash of wrong colours
Anyway, there’s a new film out which gives a more realistic version of the part played by women in Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Suffrage and Political Union Party. It’s not a young children’s film like Mary Poppins but it’s rated 12A, so perfect for showing in secondary schools. It’s called Suffragette and stars Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham Carter.
A still from ‘Suffragette’. Maud (Carey Mulligan) is in the centre of the picture with Helena Bonham Carter on the right.
It’s a timely film, coming as it does almost a century after women in England were finally given the vote. Timely because it graphically illustrates the struggle these women endured and the unfair pay conditions they were agitating against during the early twentieth century. Timely because we still have a long way to go to gain full equality for women, both in the workplace and the home. Look at Malala, shot by the Taliban in Pakistan for blogging about the right for girls to have an education as well as boys. This was in 2012, by the way, not 1912.
Less dramatically but equally as telling is what’s happening in toy shops, clothes shops and book shops in the UK these days. All this ‘pink’ stuff for girls and ‘blue’ stuff for boys rubbish. If this has passed you by, hundreds of examples of what I mean can be found on the Let Toys Be Toys website; a website that shouldn’t need to exist but I’m glad does. Check out the covers of the colouring books (below). Tiny illustrations with hearts for girls (because only girls can love?) and swords for boys (because only boys are soldiers?). Are you kidding me? I thought we’d moved on from all that? This kind of indoctrination is so harmful, for both boys and girls. We need to live together, sharing the world and facing all aspects of it equally. Boys should be able to play with dolls without being called sissy and girls can climb trees and fight without being called ‘tomboy.’ End of.
See, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about! Stop it, publishers. Stop it right now!
The ‘There’s a book for that’ Bit
Two books on suffragettes I can highly recommend are Polly’s March by Linda Newbery and Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.
Now, if anyone can make history come alive for younger readers, it’s Linda Newbery* and Polly’s March, part of the wonderful Usborne Books Historical House series, does that superbly. In the story, twelve-year-old Polly is curious about the new tenants in the top flat at 6, Chelsea Walk. When it turns out they are campaigning for rights for women, she wants to help them but this brings her into direct conflict with her stern father.
Read an interview with Linda Newbery about Polly’s March here.
Suitable for Y5 and above
Graphic novelist Mary Talbot has outdone herself in Sally Heathcote Suffragette.
This graphic novel is brilliant for KS3 and anyone who wants a potted history of the movement in comic strip format. The story follows Sally Heathcote, a maid to Emmeline Pankhurst, who sees the fight for women’s votes from all aspects. There’s a useful chronology of the real events the story is based on at the back of the book, too. Here’s a great review of Sally Heathcote from Page 45, the brilliant indie bookshop in Nottingham I go to a lot.
*For other great writers of historical fiction for children see also Adele Geras, Celia Rees, Catherine Johnson, Penny Dolan, Mary Hoffman, Ann Turnbull and many more – all who can be found on the excellent History Girls blog.
PS: While there are plenty of books about girls doing ‘boys’ things (check out my Girls FC series for a start) but I’d like to see a book about boys who are feminists/do ‘girls’ things and are not mocked or called ‘gay’ for it. Any suggestions?