Last night, a roster of British acting talent processed down the red carpet at the Leicester Square Odeon for the premiere of Suffragette, a new film about the women’s suffrage movement written by Abi Morgan. Just as actors Romola Garai and Anne-Marie Duff began signing autographs, however, a loud horn sounded, and fifteen activists vaulted the fences around the red carpet to chants of “dead women can’t vote” and “we are suffragettes”.
The fifteen women locked arms and lay in a line along the carpet for around a quarter of an hour, despite early attempts by security to drag the women from the carpet. Eventually, one sister told me later, there seemed to be a “political decision” by the PR company running the event to allow the protest to take place – security even placed metal fencing around them at one point.
These women are members of protest group Sisters Uncut, who have staged a series of direct actions around the capital to protest cuts, in particular to domestic violence services. This protest, as one sister told me, was carried out to remind us that while women may have won the right vote nearly 100 years ago, “the struggle isn’t over – nearly two women a week are dying as a result of domestic violence and the government is destroying access to benefits, social housing and legal aid”. Hence the group’s battle cry last night: “Dead women can’t vote.”
Sisters Uncut takes the purple, white and green of the suffragette movement as their colours, and so the premiere seemed an appopriate place to demonstrate tactics used by the suffragettes themselves. “The suffragettes threw themselves in front of things at public events all the time,” one sister said. “They did what it took to get their message across – they didn’t have a lot of political or economic capital, but they made themselves heard,” another said.
Yesterday, the Sisters who lay on the carpet queued from midday to get their spot, and brought small sets of steps often used by press photographers to help them vault the fence. Once on the red carpet, they used “locking on” – a protest tactic where you link arms with the person next to you – to make it harder for security to move them. Meanwhile, other Sisters behind the barriers chanted and set off green and purple smoke bombs.
I asked one sister whether the protest was aimed at the film itself, and she said that the event was mainly chosen because it’s “very visible” and will get a lot of press (as of this morning, hundreds of media outlets have reported on the action). However, many of the sisters personally felt that the film could have made more of the non-white members of the suffragette movement. “It’s a massive shame that the producers decided not to include any of the black women who fought alongside their white sisters for the vote,” one told me. (My colleague Anna Leszkiewicz has written on the makeup of the suffragette movement here.)
The stars of the film were suportive of the protest in their red carpet interviews. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Edith Ellyn in the film, said:
I’m glad our film has done something. That’s exactly what it’s there for, if you feel strongly about something and there’s an injustice that you can speak out and try and get it changed. This is exactly what our characters would do.
Romola Garai, who plays Alice Haughton, agreed that the protest was a fitting response to the film’s message:
I haven’t spoken to them [the protesters] or seen their demands but I’m happy to see the suffrage movement is alive and happening.
The Sisters were pleased at the response from actors, though said the stars were less enthusiastic when picking their way around the women themselves on the red carpet. “At the time we tried to call some of them over to join us,” one told me, “but we didn’t get much of a response from them.”
Sisters Uncut weren’t the only demonstrators at the protest: members of 50:50 parliament, a campaign for equal representation which also uses the suffragette colours in their branding, turned up in Victorian dresses, hats and suffragette sashes. It seems appropriate that the premiere wasn’t just a celebration of how far we’ve come in women’s equality, but a demonstration of how far we still have to go.