Learn about six real-life women (plus one man) who fought for the right of women to vote.
Born to a poor family in 1872, Mitchell grew up resenting unfair treatment such as being made to darn her brothers’ socks while they got to relax. However, as an adult she initially considered the fight for female suffrage a middle-class issue: as there was a property requirement for voters, expanding the franchise would do little for women like her.
Instead, Mitchell, who’d worked as a domestic servant and seamstress, devoted her energies to the Independent Labour Party — until she came to feel that the ILP was more focused on universal male suffrage. By 1904, Mitchell had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, the group headed by Emmeline Pankhurst whose members became known as suffragettes.
After disrupting a political meeting in 1906, Mitchell was charged with obstruction and given a three-day sentence. Working-class suffragettes with family obligations often found spending time in custody to be difficult — unlike most middle and upper-class women, they had no servants to handle cooking and cleaning while they were away. Mitchell was no exception to this rule — though her husband was a Socialist, he ignored her wishes and paid her fine so she could leave jail after one day. As she noted in her autobiography, The Hard Way Up: “Most of us who were married found that “Votes for Women” were of less interest to our husbands than their own dinners. They simply could not understand why we made such a fuss about it.”
Mitchell left the WSPU in 1907 — in part because she was hurt that Pankhurst didn’t visit when she was recovering from a breakdown — but continued to fight for suffrage with the Women’s Freedom League.
The real-life character of Emmeline Pankhurst, portrayed by Meryl Streep, appears in Suffragette. Though Pankhurst is seen on screen for just a few minutes, she’s a symbol of inspiration for many of the film’s characters — just as Pankhurst inspired suffragettes in real life.
In 1903, when she was a 45-year-old widow, Pankhurst founded the WSPU, whose slogan became “deeds not words.” In her work for the group, she gave speeches that encouraged militant action. She declared in 1913, “Militancy has brought woman suffrage where we want it, that is, to the forefront of practical politics. That’s the justification for it.”
Between 1908 and 1914, Pankhurst was imprisoned 13 times. She would be released after going on hunger strikes, but the police pursued her again once her health had recovered. This cycle only ended with the advent of World War I, when Pankhurst directed WSPU members to support the war effort. In 1918, after the war, Pankhurst was pleased to see women granted limited suffrage.
Barbara and Gerald Gould
In Suffragette, Helena Bonham Carter portrays pharmacist and bomb maker Edith Ellyn. Unlike other characters in the film, Ellyn has a husband who also wants women to get the vote. One real-life couple who both supported female suffrage were Barbara Ayrton Gould and her husband Gerald.
Barbara, who’d studied chemistry and physiology at University College, London, became a member of WSPU in 1906 and was a full-time organizer for the group by 1909. Barbara and Gerald got married in 1910.
Gerald supported women’s suffrage with actions like writing a pro-suffrage pamphlet entitled The Democratic Plea. In March 1912, Barbara participated in an attention-grabbing bout of smashing store windows in the West End of London (it’s a rock-throwing demonstration that sets Carey Mulligan’s character off on her suffragette journey in Suffragette). After this, Barbara spent time in prison; in 1913, she went to France for a time to avoid being rearrested.
Frustrated by WSPU leadership, Barbara left the group in 1914. However, the Goulds didn’t abandon their quest for women’s suffrage: On February 6, 1914, they were among the founders of the United Suffragists, which welcomed both men and women as members. That group ended its campaign when 1918’s Representation of the People Act gave women limited suffrage.
Helena Bonham Carter told Interview magazine that she found inspiration for her character in suffragette Edith Garrud, who was born in 1872. In fact, it was Bonham Carter who wanted her character’s name to be Edith in order to honor Garrud.
While protesting, suffragettes often faced harassment and attacks, both from the police and members of the public. But thanks to Garrud’s martial arts instruction, which she was offering to suffragettes by 1909, many learned how to defend themselves with jiu-jitsu.
In addition to “suffrajitsu,” as this training came to be nicknamed, Garrud also organized a protective force — called “The Bodyguard” — to keep Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragette leaders safe and out of police custody. Besides their martial arts skills, women on protective duty learned to wield clubs they kept hidden in their dresses.
Unfortunately, Bonham Carter has said that much of the jiu-jitsu in Suffragette had to be cut due to story considerations. However, Garrud’s fighting spirit definitely remains part of the film’s DNA.
One target of suffragette ire was chancellor of the exchequer David Lloyd George, another real-life character who appears in the film. In February 1913, suffragettes bombed an empty house that was being built for Lloyd George; Suffragette shows this attack.
The actual perpetrator(s) of the bombing were never found — instead Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested after declaring, “The authorities need not look for the women who did what was done last night. I accept full responsibility for it.” However, police considered Olive Hockin one of the prime suspects.
Though Hockin wasn’t charged with the Lloyd George bombing, police raided her home in March 1913 after a suffragette paper with her name and address was found at the site of an arson attack on the Roehampton Golf Club. Inside her apartment they found a “suffragette arsenal” that included acid, a fake license plate, stones, a hammer and wire cutters.
Police reports from the time also show that Hockin had been kept under close surveillance. This mirrors a plot turn in Suffragette, as police start keeping watch on Carey Mulligan’s character.
Emily Wilding Davison
Like Emmeline Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison is a real-life figure who appears in Suffragette. Also like Pankhurst, Davison’s actions ended up having a great impact on the women’s suffrage movement.
Davison, who was born in 1872, joined the WSPU in 1906, and soon was devoting all her energy to the fight for suffrage. Her militant actions included attacking a man with a whip when she mistook him for David Lloyd George, stone throwing and arson. (Davison has sometimes been labeled as one of the suffragettes who bombed Lloyd George’s house in 1913, but records indicate the police did not view her as a suspect.)
Davison was jailed nine times for her militancy. During her time behind bars, she was subjected to 49 force feedings (many suffragettes were force fed when they started hunger strikes in prison). In an article, she wrote that these feedings were a “hideous torture.”
Davison’s last militant act took place at the Epsom Derby in June 1913. There, she ran in front of, and was subsequently trampled by, the king’s horse; she died a few days later. Davison’s true intentions have been debated: Some feel she wanted to become a martyr, others believe she only aimed to make a statement by placing the suffragette colors of purple, white and green on the king’s horse. The facts that Davison had a return train ticket in her purse and was planning a vacation in France indicate she didn’t intend to commit suicide, but there is no definitive answer.
Whatever Davison’s motivation, her death was a watershed moment for suffragettes. Their movement received worldwide attention and 6,000 women turned out for the funeral — Suffragette even incorporates archival footage of women trailing behind Davison’s coffin.
Women and men were finally granted equal voting rights in the United Kingdom in 1928.