The right to vote – also known as ‘suffrage’ – was pursued by British female campaigners who became known as Suffragettes.
They exploited the emerging medium of film to aid their cause and echo the sentiment of the movement’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, who told them, “You have to make more noise than anybody else.”
Campaigning was both fervent and perilous.
Thousands of Suffragette supporters were jailed, suffering appalling treatment including force-feeding. At The Derby in 1913, Emily Davison ran out in front of King George V’s horse, Anmer. She died days later. Whether intentional or not, she became the Suffragettes’ first martyr. Unusually, the event was captured on film.
The Derby (1913)British Film Institute
Emily Davison’s protest, filmed by the Topical Budget newsreel cameras (1913).
1 min 45 sec extract
Miss Davison's Funeral (1913)British Film Institute
2 min 9 sec
Women's RightsBritish Film Institute
Years before Davison’s death, the portrayal of women’s suffrage on film was one of ridicule, typified by this 1899 film featuring men in drag.
1 min 8 sec
Suffragettes spread and amplifed their message through the new medium of film, which attracted up to 20 million cinemagoers every week.
Emmeline (also known as ‘Mrs’) Pankhurst, the movement’s figurehead, pioneered media manipulation with an instinct for stirring speech.
“You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else. In fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under if you are really going to get your reform realised.” Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913
Mass Meeting of Suffragettes (1910)British Film Institute
Trafalgar Square, London, 1910. The strategy worked, shifting the debate away from a simplistic battle of the sexes. Instead, power, politics and equality became the focus.
“Never lose your temper with the Press or the public is a major rule of political life.”
Mrs Pankhurst's daughter, Christabel, seen here in 1912, was just as media-savvy as her mother.
Chrissie White and Alma TaylorOriginal Source: British Film Institute
By 1911, representation of women in films was evolving beyond stereotypes. The Tilly Girls were disobedient hellraisers in a popular series of silent films.
By 1915 Alma Taylor was topping public popularity polls, ahead of Charlie Chaplin.
Milling the Militants; A Comical Absurdity (1913)British Film Institute
The battle-axe wife remains a staple of comedy, but this 1913 film has a twist, and shows that change was already in the air.
Women of this era had greater expectations than their grandmothers.
7 min 11 sec
The New Amazon (1915)British Film Institute
Suffragettes played a vital role during the First World War, and they did not wait for men to employ them.
They funded and ran field hospitals, crewed munitions factories and ensured continued recognition for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
Women's March through London (1915)British Film Institute
A vast procession of women, headed by Mrs Pankhurst, march through London in 1915 to show the minister of munitions their willingness to mobilise women’s ‘brains and energy’ for war service.
1 min 30 sec
Will There Be Women MPs? (1917)British Film Institute
By 1917, the Suffragettes had reframed the debate. Now, women could contemplate not only voting but also achieving representation in government.
‘All the Winners’ - And the Losers! (1923)British Film Institute
In 1918, the vote was given to women over the age of 30 who met certain qualifications. That year, the first woman MP was elected to the House of Commons.
37 sec extract from ‘All the Winners’ - And the Losers! (1923)
In 1928, all women over the age of 21 in the United Kingdom were given the vote.
The Suffragettes’ achievements were monumental and their story still resonates.
The movement is the subject of Suffragette, backed by the BFI Film Fund and screening as the opening film of the 2015 BFI London Film Festival.
Films from the BFI National Archive.
Visit BFI Player for 1,000s of beautifully preserved films, capturing 120 years of Britain on film.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October 2015 at venues across London, and includes the European premiere of Suffragette, backed by the BFI Film Fund.
The archive programme Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Film screens at the BFI London Film Festival and around the UK from October.
Slide 4 The Derby (1913)
Slide 5 Miss Davison’s Funeral (1913)
Slide 6 Women’s Rights (1899)
Slide 9 London. Suffragette Riots at Westminster (1910)
Slide 13 Milling the Militants; A Comical Absurdity (1913)
Slide 14 The New Amazon (1915)
Slide 15 Women’s March through London (1915)
Slide 16 Will There Be Women MPs? (1917)
Slide 17 ‘All the Winners’ - And the Losers! (1923)