I recently attended a screening of , an important and excellently-produced dramatization of the early women’s rights movement. Based in early 20th-century Britain, the movie captures the dreary and limited life of working-class women. At that time, they had no authority over their own lives, or even their children’s, as men considered women to be inferior, feeble-minded, and too emotional to make sound decisions.
The film focuses on 25 year-old Maud Watts, a wife and mother of a young boy who works long hours in the dangerous and toxic conditions of a laundry, with a sexually lecherous boss, in order to contribute to the family’s financial survival. The female employees make 30% less than the men and work 30% more hours a day. With no education, Maud has no career options. She, like most women of the day, accepts her one-dimensional life of exhaustion, poor living conditions and a bleak future.
When Maude catches wind of the Suffragette movement, she is swept into the possibility of positive change for women with the right to vote. Suffragette Society leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, (the real-life Leader) encourages the activists to take aggressive action, like throwing rocks and detonating bombs, to make their statement loud and clear. Pamphlets and protests just aren't enough; militant tactics speak the language men understand. “I would rather be a rebel than a slave.” Emmeline Pankhurst exclaims. Empowered and inspired women, committed to in their mission to advance women, risked it all to push for change.
Protestors are beaten in the streets by police officers and many sent to jail. Maud is jailed several times. Subsequently, she leaves her job (after the boss rubbed up against her one time too many), is thrown out of the house by her husband, and loses her son, whom Maud’s husband adopts to a well-to-do couple. Still, Maud actively seeks equality and continues with the Movement by day, sleeping in a church at night.
Eventually, after years of meetings, demonstrations, hunger strikes and other activities, the Suffragettes of England see victory, and in 1918 women over the age of 30 are given the right to vote. Hallelujah! (Side note: similar activities were happening in the United States, where womens' right to vote was won in 1920.)
At the movie’s end, I felt a mixture of emotions: gratitude for our foremothers who so bravely and diligently fought (literally) for rights that we modern-day women take for granted, and great sadness for the agonizing sacrifices that these women made to help advance society.
I ponder; how many of us today are as tenacious to see a cause through to the end? Are we willing to sacrifice our comfort and safety to make a point and change a law? How long would we hang in there until we accomplished our mission?
And even bigger question: has the story come to an end? No, it hasn’t. While we American women think we’re on the same playing field as men, and we take for granted the right to vote, to work, to obtain an education and more, we are still lacking a truly equal footing in our society. Women make up 51% of the population, yet only 19% of Congressional members are women. Women still earn only 78% of a man’s salary, and women of minority groups earn even less than that. Domestic violence is still rampant, and beaten and raped women are often victimized by the court system. Women’s reproductive rights are eroding at a dangerous speed. Discrimination still prevails. And sadly, many men still have the notion that women are inferior.
CNN reported on women in the world and the U.S.'s faltering on our quest for equality, and you may be shocked at our place in the world on equality, domestic violence, maternity leave and equal pay. We are not the most advanced nation.
Luckily, new blood is stepping in to revive the quest for equal rights in the United States. Bettina Hager, the Director of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Coalition, is breathing new life into the movement to pursue equality in every way. The ERA was first introduced to U.S. Congress in 1923, but the 1982 Amendment died when too few states voted to pass it. Bettina and many other young leaders are taking the torch to further solidify equality in our nation. CNN provided a story on Bettina's quest “to help pass and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed addition to the U.S. Constitution that would explicitly protect women's rights and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.”
Many celebrities, including Meryl Streep, supports the ERA and uses her visibility to an advantage to bring the ERA back into our consciousness. In fact, recently many of Hollywood’s leading ladies have been advocating equal pay for women. Sharon Stone, Patricia Arquette, Jennifer Lawrence and others are using their celebrity voices to make changes that benefit all women (and their children).
If you're hearing the call to become an activist for equality – or for any cause - here’s what you can do.
- Educate yourself and become aware of people and organizations that support equality
- Become a member
- Sign petitions
- Join in on actions that strive to make a point. For example, modern-day Suffragettes gathered at the movie’s London red-carpet premier in early October to protest domestic violence.
If you hear a serious calling to become a full-time activist, WikiHow.com offers a step-by-step program on How to Become an Activist.
Most of all, hold in your heart gratitude for the many women in history who have made it possible for us to vote, go to school, choose our careers, choose whether or not to have children, and enjoy the many freedoms that we take for granted today. Let’s not forget the sacrifices these brave and tenacious women made for us.