Watching this movie will no doubt generate conversations about how we're doing right now with regard to gender equality in our society. The responses, of course, depend upon point of view. And the point of view here is from one of the “foot soldiers” in the English Suffragette Movement, a fictional character named Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan).
Maud Watts is an East London washerwoman in 1912. Her life isn't very glamorous. In fact, it's downright brutal. She started working at the laundry when she was still a little girl, because her Mother had died, and she never knew her father. She didn't finish school. She's married to a man who also works in the laundry, and they have a young son who's the love of her life. They live in a cramped apartment with other working-class families. There aren't many amenities in her life, and not much time for any recreation, either. She hands over her few shillings a week to her husband, and gets up the next morning and works all day again.
Maud hasn't much clue about what's going on in the outside world---none of it really affects her. But she's become vaguely aware of some rumblings within the ranks of the working women there. They agitating about the women's right to vote. Maud is too swamped with her daily life to worry about it much, but accidentally happens on a demonstration, where she recognizes one of the ladies from her work, and that leads to a conversation, which in turn leads to an invitation to a secret meeting.
Maud finds herself a little intrigued by this wider struggle for equality. She feels the oppressive control of the men in her life, from her scumbag-boss who routinely sexually harrasses his employees (OK, it's heavy-handed, but it underscores the point), to her tightly-wound husband, who feels that he's only doing his duty by being “the man of the house.” (This in itself is a topic worthy of some examination, but that's certainly not the focus in this movie.)
A turning point comes when Maud gets to hear the famous Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), who's advocating civil disobedience, because, she says, begging and pleading just hasn't accomplished anything. When Maud attends a clandestine rally, the police come and start beating them and arresting them, and suddenly Maud finds herself in jail. When she's released, her husband has no sympathy for her whatsoever; in fact, her incarceration is a public embarrassment to him (somehow he's failed as “the man of the house”). But the more difficult things become, the more determined Maud is, because she's beginning to feel the surge of emotion for representing a cause greater than herself. She's aided by some other like-minded, strong-willed women, especially the physician Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter, who, ironically, is the great-granddaughter of the Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Asquith). But it all comes at great personal cost.
Historically, of course, the Suffragette Movement eventually prevailed, but World War One slowed things down, and it wasn't until the 1920's that women were finally granted the right to vote in Great Britain. (It was 1921 in the United States). During the credits, there is a listing of when other countries granted women the right to vote (including, in 2015, Saudi Arabia).
Yes, this film will generate much discussion about women's equality in general, and the necessity of civil disobedience in particular. In the meantime, there just might be another Oscar nomination for Carey Mulligan.