Why lesbian and bisexual women should see “Suffragette”

Sarah cites Ethel Smyth as one of the important figures who was also openly lesbian.

“She was always part of the leadership. She was a very charismatic woman and she wrote the song ‘The March of the Women’ and she was a gay woman,” Sarah said. “And she actually dressed often in male clothes.”

Ethel Mary Smyth

But others were less out, as being in same-sex relationships was considered illicit.

“It’s hard to know because, obviously, at that time it was so taboo and a lot of people would have been in marriages and not come out,” Sarah said. “But I think that what the movement offered was great—women were very alone and lived very solitary lives. There wasn’t any radio, there wasn’t any TV. There were newspapers but there no channels of communication. And what politics offered was a way of women coming together and huge camaraderie and often friendship, and that’s really striking in the accounts.”

It’s hard to know the truth about relationships women had with one another because historians were often flippant about the suffragettes, and some were quick to label some lesbians simply based on diary entries where they wrote that they shared a bed with another woman.

“There are accounts of women traveling the country and it says ‘And I laid down to rest with so and so.’ And this particular male historian said, ‘Well, they’re all gay,'” Sarah said. “That’s his way of being dismissive and, of course, that’s a horrible thing to do and a horrible way of treating them. They may have been gay, or they may have been sharing a bed because they didn’t have much money and they were traveling through different countries. So it may have been used as dismissing in a horrible way and hopefully that’s shifting now. Hopefully those characters in the movement, we can recognize them now.”

But those who were out, it seems, were accepted as a part of the suffragettes and not deemed a sort of “lavender menace” that plagued 1960s and ’70s feminism in the Untied States.

“It seems to be widely known that Ethel Smyth was [gay], and she was completely embraced by the movement so yeah, you don’t see any sign of [homophobia] in research,” Sarah said.

Sarah noted that Rebecca Lenkiewicz‘s stage play Her Naked Skin “explored a lesbian relationship in the movement, but what we decided to do in this film was rather than to explore the sexual dynamics of a relationship, we wanted to just explore the politics.”

“We have this relationship between Sonny and Maud, and that marriage was a way of exploring the power relationship between men and women. So the fact that he had control over her money, he had parental rights, we could explore all that within that relationship, which is why we kind of chose that path,” she said. And because it’s more about the power and politics, it’s hard to tell if Maud is, in fact, in love with Sonny, or if she’s ever been.

“Obviously it was a little complex because she was abused in the factory and so I’m sure Sonny offered her a way out of that, by the minute she was in marriage, she was safer,” Sarah said. “And he was a kind man, essentially. And so I think there was love there but I think that she outgrew him. I think she was stronger than him and she became involved in this movement and was a firebrand and he couldn’t cope with it so their love fell away at that point.”

As Maud, Carey Mulligan is in every single scene of Suffragette, and she’s incredible in the role. When I mentioned to Sarah that lesbians and bisexual women seem to really enjoy Carey, she laughed and said how pleased Carey would be to hear it.

“She’s a real woman’s woman. Firstly, she’s an out and out feminist. She’s a great friend to women. She really believes in women. She believes in roles like this,” Sarah said. “She’s very outspoken about sexism. She’s really on the side of helping women. And she’s also profoundly attractive.”

Carey Mulligan and Sarah Gavron"Suffragette" New York Premiere

Suffragette is truly a film about women who demand to be seen and heard, no matter who they were or where they came from. The movement was unifying, and the movie is, as well. I asked Sarah what she thinks LGBT people will enjoy about the film, she said, “They’ll love it because it’s a film about people you don’t normally see on screen. It’s a film about women fighting for their rights. It’s got lot’s of contemporary resonances. It speaks to people today who are fighting for inequality. It speaks to people who are marginalized. These working women, particularly, were marginalized and I hope it’s got lot’s of positive messages how women should be empowered, women should speak out, women should stand up for themselves and have confidence. All those important things.”

Every single woman and oppressed person everywhere.

Suffragette opens in theaters this weekend.