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12th October 2015, 3:18pm
The true story of the suffragettes: historian reveals vital role of working class women
Suffragette film poster The battalion of working and middle-class women who helped secure British women's right to vote through the suffrage campaign should be as celebrated as the famous Pankhursts, according to the historical advisor to a major new movie.

Professor Krista Cowman, from the University of Lincoln, UK, said the new Suffragette film starring Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan, presents the story of the suffrage movement with historical accuracy by ensuring the contribution made by different social classes is recognised.

The term 'suffragette' refers to the activists in the British Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) fighting for emancipation in the early 1900s, who led the campaign for women's right to vote through the suffrage movement. The WSPU was famously led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, who have become synonymous with the movement, although scores of women from all backgrounds were involved.

Professor Cowman worked as the official historical advisor on the film from the pre-scripting stage to post-production.

"For the story to be believable and to have historical credibility, it was critical that the audience understood exactly what it was that motivated all sorts of women to risk their lives and personal freedom and go to prison," said Professor Cowman, a leading scholar in the history of the womenís rights movement, whose research includes detailed studies of  the militant WSPU.

"Through one of the filmís main characters, Maud, we see how difficult working-class womenís lives were in the period, but also how courageous they had to be to risk prison and their respectable status when respectability might be all that they had.  

"As a woman, Maud has few rights; she can't vote, and canít decide what happens to her own child. Yet at the same time other women in the film such as Edith who are middle-class are also struggling with inequality because of their sex. Many people still think that militant suffrage was either the preserve of a small number of wealthy women, or just Ďall about the Pankhursts'. The film should really disabuse people of this view."

As well as ensuring the diversity of the women's backgrounds were accurately portrayed, Professor Cowman also advised on areas including language used at the time, and clothing and costumes.

Among the many historical details incorporated into the film was the suffragette medals, which were recreated by the original makers, Toyes, using the original moulds. Even the letters and numbers sewn onto the jailed womenís  prison clothes accurately corresponded to the wing of the prison they were detained in.

Professor Cowman said she also hopes the film will encourage more women to make use of the right to vote by revealing how hard women of all backgrounds fought to obtain that right.

"It's so easy to forget that it really wasn't that long ago that women didnít have a vote," Professor Cowman added. "The events shown take place just over a century ago, but a timeline at the end of the film reminds the viewer's how it was much later that women finally achieved suffrage on equal grounds to men in other countries: indeed the 1918 legislation that gave votes to women in the UK was not inclusive, this didn't come until 1928.  

"Only 66% of women bothered to vote in the last UK general election. There are,  many women in their fifties who may well have had grandmothers who were in the suffrage movement or knew those who did. That first-hand knowledge of why the vote is so important is getting lost. Hopefully the film will make women think about how valuable the vote can be.  Women died to win this right for us."

Suffragette (certificate 12A) opens in cinemas nationwide from today (12th October 2015).

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