Lärm schlagen: Die Suffragette im Stummfilm

various, 1899 - 1917

English Appalling behaviour, noise, clamour and violence are not usually traits associated with the British female. But, for fifteen years at the beginning of the 20th century, these fearless ladies battled with the authorities and society at large to make themselves heard. This coincided exactly with the development of the film so that entire struggle is captured for us, giving the lie to the conventional wisdom that female emancipation was a result of war-time changes and that life began for the girls with the bob and short skirts. Looking at the actual films of the suffragettes and of the comedies of the time – which are full of bright sparks like the Tilly girls who gleefully disobey Society's strictures – one might come to believe that the post-war films exhibit signs of a backlash. Certainly, women as film-makers and comediennes did not have the freedom in the 1920s that they had in the pre-war period.

This selection of films is a refinement of a strand of suffragette films at the Bologna festival in 2008 (part of a wider project to examine the work of women film-makers in the silent era) and a programme called Bad Girls of British Silent Comedy which I presented at London's National Film Theatre in 2002. The idea has been to look at the history of the suffragette movement on film and to juxtapose that sometimes brutal actuality (the most shocking is a film in which suffragette Emily Davison throws herself under a horse in front of the camera) with the anarchic and joyful activities of comediennes in the pre-war years. The juxtaposition tells an interesting story.

We start our programme at the turn of the century and trace the activities of the sisterhood up to the Great War when some British women were, at last, given the vote. Simultaneously, we will see how the unruly girl-children of early film comedy asserted their right to do what the hell they liked. It is in comedy that we can see clearly the boundaries of what was normal (i.e. good behaviour), acceptable for a comedy (quite bad behaviour) and what would happen if the women's demand for freedom actually happened (mostly dressing in men's trousers and role reversal). The licence allowed in comedy also introduces other elements which are associated with the characteristics of the medium of film ? voyeurism as well as an emphasis on physical action, violence and destruction. Film also privileges the young and beautiful, for whom anything is forgivable, and makes monsters of middle-aged matrons. Had the real suffragettes been gorgeous young things, might they have found their way to Parliament easier? What is revealing about these films is that we can see that women were already acting differently and expecting more freedom than their grandmothers. As ever – change in legislation is an official acceptance of a status quo not an instigator – it was not the 1918 Act that made British women free but fifteen solid years of atrocious conduct on their part. Bryony Dixon Curator of Silent Film, British Film Institute, National Archive

1899, 1906, 1910, 1909, 1912, 1911, 1913, 1914, 1915, 1917
Silent Film, Short Film
Focus: Freedom