Advancing justice for women and girls and promoting their spiritual growth
Leaping from Our Spheres
-- The Blog of UUWF's Affiliated Minister

Female Heroes

Suffragette_posterThe headline on the Philadelphia Inquirer feature story by reporter Steven Rea says it all: “Female Heroes Fight for Change.”

His was not a piece about Super Girls or Wonder Women or any of the animated Disney princesses who are breaking welcome new ground in movies or television.

His interview with Carey Mulligan, star of Suffragette, focused on providing historical background for this lightly fictionalized account of the early 20th century movement to win the right to vote for women in Great Britain. The movie dramatizes the hard lives and extraordinary valor of the real women—rich and poor alike—that eventually led to universal franchise by 1928.

It took decades to get there. The first years of polite and peaceful pleas and timid protests, and the later ones marked by militancy modeled after tactics taken up by Russian revolutionaries.

Miss Mulligan‘s character is a laundry worker, wife and mother who denies being involved in the suffrage fight until the combined circumstances of her grim, underpaid, overworked, abused, disrespected and—more often than not—hopeless life trigger a rage in her that matches the collective rage of these plotters of rock-throwing, arson, and other acts of criminal—sometimes violent—defiance.

At least 1,000 women were imprisoned, staged hunger strikes, and were force fed. Their activism led to the loss of their marriages and the loss of their children. They were beaten by their husbands and by the police. As Steven Rea writes, a pivotal event both in the film and in the history of the movement took place on June 4, 1913 when Emily Wilding Davison, in an effort to capture the attention of the King, stepped in front of his horse while it was being raced at the Epsom Derby.

Her death from injuries sustained in her split-second decision to go over the safety barrier was called a suicide. It led to a funeral procession witnessed by crowds of Londoners and captured in newsreel footage that showed around the world. Despite this tragic boost to the notoriety of these fiercely determined women and their singular cause, it took until another 15 years for all British women to get the ballot.

These first wave feminists across the pond were not gentle, angry people (from the song by Holly Near), but rooted in righteous anger, which clinical psychologist Leon Seltzer described in a blog for Psychology Today as “the upside of anger.” Righteous anger, as he defines it, is the emotion associated with affirming personal worth and dignity—core Unitarian Universalist moral values. The feeling of injustice which comes from personal and social violations of our sense of honor and self-respect can lead, he tells us, to completely understandable, justifiable, and expressed anger. That, in turn, can lead to social change.

This kind of okay anger, that does not need to be eliminated or at least managed, has always been harder for women to access. Female therapists Deborah Cox, Karin H. Bruckner, and Sally Stabb, authors of the book The Anger Advantage, have studied the link between gender and anger. They’ve found that, for women much more than men, anger is still a dangerous emotion, a disadvantage in careers, relationships, and social action. We are still discouraged and thwarted, they tell us, from using the tool of anger for gaining what we need, for making a difference in the world.

Our make-believe female super heroes may well know how to fly, to leap tall buildings, tackle brutes, but can they really teach us—teach our daughters and granddaughters—how to own our anger, use it boldly in our search for full equity? I recommend Suffragettes as a lesson.

Leaping From Our Spheres

Rev. Marti KellerDon’t miss the “little gems full of both passion and facts” in the Blog of UUWF’s Affiliated Minister, Rev. Marti Keller.

UUWF’s Affiliated Ministry