Want to go and see a film about women campaigning for the vote in early Edwardian England? Well, I didn't – but I was wrong.
Sarah Gavron's Suffragette is an excellent film starring Carey Mulligan as Maud, a young mother who works in an East London laundry in 1912. The narrative of the suffragette movement is told through her fictional personal story. It is a device that works really well, including as it does a brief appearance of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and Helena Bonham-Carter as a somewhat explosive pharmacist. The Irish police detective Steed (played by Brendan Gleeson) is convincing and gives an insight into the methods that the police used – it is an astonishing fact that some of the police files were only opened in 2002. The movie as a whole is emotional and moving; there is plenty pain and pathos in the scenes where Maud is removed from her child, force-fed and finally at the Epsom Derby 'martyrdom' of Emily Davison.
I loved this film because it reminds us of how unjustly and wrongly women were treated in our society just 100 years ago. It is a powerful indictment and reminds those of us who are Christians why we should all be feminists.
Suffragette also got me thinking about why we still need Christian feminism today.
1. We need justice. "If you want me to respect the law, make the law respectable," says one of the protesters during a demonstration. It is a powerful reminder that our laws must be just. Christians must always campaign for what is right and fair, not just what personally suits or gives economic advantage.
2. There is still abuse and discrimination. The fight for women's rights is not over. It faces new dangers and threats as well as some of the old ones in new forms. For example, Maud's leering boss (played by Geoff Bull) is an example of the way that power is used for sexual exploitation. For all the advances of modern feminism, the sad fact is that women are more open to being sexually exploited than at any time since the Edwardian era. Slavery in the form of sex trafficking has returned to the UK, prostitution has been glamourised and prostitutes rebranded as 'sex workers', and child sexual abuse is prevalent. The objectification of women through hard-core porn has become universal. People are even allowed to kill a girl in the womb because of her sex. If that's not discrimination, I don't know what is.
3. We have forgotten our past and cheapened our democracy. What these women fought for once had great value, but today it is becoming increasingly demeaned. We live in a democracy where democracy itself and the right to vote is not as highly valued as it was by the suffragettes. We have trivialised and cheapened it, as we have trivialised and cheapened so much of our increasingly shallow and dumbed down culture.
4. The very concept of womanhood is under attack. Ironically there is another threat to the freedom of women which is increasingly coming to light – the notion of gender fluidity. Germaine Greer is apparently being banned from Cardiff University because of her transphobic attitudes. In some sense she has been hoisted by her own petard. The destruction of a biblical understanding of humanity will, if unchecked, lead to the destruction of humanity. The notion that we can change gender according to personal feeling is absurd, but that is the route we are going – where human gender as well as human sexuality becomes so fluid that both get destroyed. Gender and sexual fluidity is a profound danger to all of the human species; both male and female.
5. We need to rediscover the radical foundations of our society in the Bible. There is a scene in Suffragette where one of the women quotes at some length from the Bible. If I remember correctly it was from Revelation chapter 7. It was again a reminder to me that the Bible is the truly revolutionary book. It is precisely because we have the hope of heaven that we can seek for justice on earth. And that is why all Christians should be feminists, because we know that all humans, male and female, are made equally in the image of God.
Just as secular feminists have harmed their cause by not recognising the deeper truth that we are all equal because we are all made in the image of God, Christian feminists have sometimes missed the boat as well. There are those who will read the above, agree, and then condemn people like me who do not believe that equality means that women should be elders. For them, equality simply means that every person has the right to do the same as everyone else. I don't agree.
Our equality is based at a much deeper level, which then allows diversity in different spheres and allows for genuine gender differences. God made us male and female. Calvin Klein makes us androgynous. My fear is that those who choose to reject the Word of God on this issue in order to advance their perception of equality – and I accept that there are genuine Christian differences over this – will find that in so doing they are undermining the very basis of that equality.
The bottom line is that no one has the right to treat another human being as anything less than made in the image of God. That's true equality and true emancipation.