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The impact of Suffragette

Written by Steven Fielding.

Publicity for the movie Suffragette has not been exactly shy of linking the campaign for women to gain the vote before 1914, which it depicts, with the contemporary campaign for women’s equality more generally. Certainly many of those who have seen the film and have made their opinions known via the social media have described how inspiring they found its representation of a working-class women’s conversion to the cause of women’s suffrage. For some at least the past as dramatised on the screen has resonances for the real present.

But does watching Suffragette change how audiences think about gender equality today?

The impact of the media on attitudes has long been a matter of debate. There have been numerous American studies about how watching TV shows or films with political themes can shape how audiences think. The broad consensus of such work is that if a text’s message echoes opinions already held by viewers it can at least reinforce those opinions: but it can rarely transform an individual’s strongly-held view of the world if it conflicts with it.

I have written about the politics of fiction and am currently running a module on that subject for third years studying Politics. So I thought I’d run a modest experiment. All 73 students enrolled on my module were invited to watch Suffragette (for free, courtesy of the School of Politics).

A week before, I asked those who had signalled their intention to attend the film to answer some questions and asked the same questions of those 28 who watched the movie right after they had seen it. This was a very simple exercise designed to measure what was the effect of watching the film on certain attitudes of a particular audience. It was a self-selective, small and by no means representative sample of the country as a whole or even of the movie’s audience. But the results suggest something of Suffragette’s possible wider impact. The table below summarises the results.

Those who attended the film were already well disposed to feminism: 75% of men and women were prepared to say they were ‘feminist’, which is about double the proportion of the UK population as a whole. But it was not important where the respondents’ baseline was before the film: the point of the survey was to see where their attitudes went afterwards.

The film clearly shifted opinion in a more feminist direction – for both men and women. Already keen on the proposition that ‘the more women there are involved in politics the better politics will be’ the group was even more strongly in favour after the film. Similarly, scepticism that ‘a man could never represent women in politics as well as a woman’ was only reinforced.

However, leaders of the Women’s Equality Party might want to take note that while the film made respondents slightly more likely to vote for a party whose primary purpose is to promote the equality of women, the position remained broadly neutral.

It is also interesting that attitudes to political violence became less hostile as a result of the film, which showed Suffragettes blowing up things and breaking shop windows in a good cause.

Perhaps less surprisingly, the group considered that women gaining the vote was much more important an historical event than prior to watching the film – although interestingly this shift was entirely due to the male members of the group changing their minds. But the real surprise was that opinion that women would have got the vote without the Suffragettes demonstrating in favour of it weakened after watching the film – a point heavily implied by the movie.

This simple survey confirms the general consensus about what the possible impact of watching a film can be. Our sample of largely feminist students became somewhat more feminist after seeing Suffragette. If men started at a lower base than the women they all moved in the same general direction.

Of course Suffragette will have no impact on those who do not see the film. Exactly half my students are female but nearly three quarters who saw the film were female. And on the basis of the packed theatre at The Broadway cinema in Nottingham, which is where we saw the film that might be true of audiences across the country. The Broadway audience liked the movie so much they applauded it: but then they were probably already convinced feminists. I did not see Nigel Farage.

 Table 1

On a scale of 1-10 with 1 meaning ‘strongly disagree’ and 10 meaning ‘strongly agree’ rate the following statements

  M F T
  Before After Before After Before After
I would describe myself as a ‘feminist’ 75% Y 75%Y 75% Y 90%Y 75% Y 86%Y
The more women there are involved in politics the better politics will be. 7.9 8.3 7.8 9.1 7.9 8.9
There is no place for violence in democratic politics. 7.1 4.6 7 5.2 7 5
A man could never represent women in politics as well as a woman. 5.1 6.6 6 7.6 5.8 7.3
At the next general election, if one stood a candidate in my constituency, I would vote for a party whose primary purpose is to promote the equality of women in society. 2.6 4.1 5.3 5.9 4.4 5.4
Women gaining the vote on the same basis as men is the most important moment in British history. 4.3 7 6.8 6.7 5.9 6.8
Being an active participant in politics – beyond just voting – is important to the health of our democracy. 7.9 8.3 8.1 8.5 8 8.4
Women would have got the vote without the Suffragettes demonstrating in favour of it. 5.1 4.6 6.4 5.6 5.9 5.3

Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Screencap/Suffragette.

Published inBritish PoliticsGender Politics

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