To: My precious nieces Eleanor and Addilene.
Hey. It’s Auntie Deb. I just watched this movie called Suffragette, and it made me think of you, so I’m writing you this letter.
You both break my heart with your goodness and your kindness. Ellie, your joy is infectious and your smarts are off the charts. Addie, the way you take care of your little brother is the most wonderful thing, and I envy your fearless spirit. I wish, for your sake, that we lived in a softer, kinder world. I wish we lived in a world as beautiful as you are – as beautiful as you deserve.
Someday you will be old enough to vote, buy a car, and order medicine if you need it. But did you know that your great-great-grandmothers couldn’t do that?
Grandma Ruby was born in 1918. When she was born, women couldn’t vote in the United States or in many places around the world.
Let me tell you a story about that.
In Suffragette, we meet young Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan, Far From the Madding Crowd), a London laundress working from sunup til late in the night to provide meager earnings for her small family. Between her job and her husband’s, they make do, but she spends very little time with her son, and most of her interaction with her husband Sonny (Ben Wishaw, The Danish Girl) is getting into and out of bed at the bookends of the day. It is 1912, and according to the film’s opening titles, women had been peacefully advocating for the vote for decades to no avail.
Maud’s routine is interrupted one day as she makes her way down a crowded street, and women all around her begin an organized riot, smashing rocks into shop windows and screaming for women to be given the vote. Like so many women, she is not initially drawn to these radicals for their ideas and goals; those seem impossible, too lofty, too scary, even. Rather, she is drawn to their passion and their community. This woman who spends her days washing under the eye of a lecherous foreman and her nights washing clothes for her own family is bone-tired. Slowly she is enticed by fellow laundress Violet (Anne-Marie Duff, Before I Go to Sleep) into the world of the Suffragettes, and she finds something to believe in. She starts to think, as she tries to explain to her husband, that there might be another way of living this life.
She loses much along the way.
Sweet girls, this is so true about life. As Maud’s husband is confused and shamed by her involvement with these scandalous women, your loved ones may some day be ashamed of you. Your passion and conviction will not always be understood by those who love you, it pains me to say.
Sometimes you will find you can’t be quiet about something anymore. My heart skipped a beat when Maud accidentally stumbled into her foreman’s office while he was taking advantage of a pre-teen girl who worked at the plant. Someday you, too, will notice someone being hurt, trampled, or silenced. You will have to decide: will I stay safe and quiet? Or will I take a risk and try to make a change?
And sometimes your conviction will lead to real suffering and loss. The British Suffragettes bore the burden of imprisonment, force-feeding, physical beatings, and public stigma. It’s hard to believe that dropping our opinions into a ballot box, something we do so casually every few months and years, took so much ink, blood, and screaming to accomplish. But it did. Women died for it, even.
Ellie and Addie, every road is different. I don’t know what your journeys will be, or what you’ll have to fight for. At one point in Suffragette when she is being questioned by Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson, Calvary) Maud admits, “We break windows and we burn things because war’s the only language men listen to.” I hope with everything inside me that your futures will be more peaceful, your paths more smooth.
But the future is always uncertain. I don’t know who you’ll become, or where you’ll end up. You may never read this letter (although Ellie, I know you read everything that crosses your path, just like your Auntie Deb). But I do have faith that our half of the human race will only get stronger. I have faith that your tenacity, your heart, and your ideas will spark goodness beyond what I can dream of.
So lead on, little girls. Lead on.