Why Remember Shoulder to Shoulder?

This post was written by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Vicky Ball, De Montfort University

Helena Bonham-Carter and Carey Mulligan recently marched through the corridors of Parliament agitating for female suffrage. It made the news. Not the protest. But because it was the first time that a commercial film had been shot inside the Palace of Westminster. In recreating what women did in that constitutional space to get the vote 100 years ago Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, brings that historic campaign back into public consciousness. While the struggle for emancipation shaped the political landscape in Britain in the early 1900s and changed irrevocably the position of women in society, it is a story that hardly ever makes it on to our screens; and it has been 40 years since we saw the suffragette movement last dramatized for television.

2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC miniseries, Shoulder to Shoulder, which focused on the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (1898-1918). It consisted of six specially written plays and it came about through the collaboration of three women, the actress Georgia Brown, filmmaker and feminist Midge Mackenzie and TV producer Verity Lambert. A sense of the public service remit pervades the series as Shoulder to Shoulder dramatizes particular events of the early suffrage movement, albeit from a decidedly socialist perspective. Its importance as a landmark BBC drama documenting the history of feminism and the emergent public voice of women is unquestioned. That said, the series seldom gets repeated and has never been released on DVD. This neglect prompts us to ask: why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep in the BBC archive?

Shoulder to Shoulder first aired on Wednesday 3 April 1974 at 9pm on BBC 2. It seemed an inauspicious start. Competing as it did with the extensively praised documentary series, The World at War, on ITV, and the popular ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series, The Family, on BBC 1. A quirk of scheduling has perhaps contributed to the amnesia, with the suffragette drama squeezed out of our collective TV memories as we recollect instead the ambition of the multi-award winning World War II series (still on television screens somewhere) and one of the first ‘reality’ shows in the history of television, which documented the everyday life of the Wilkins, a working-class family from Reading. What defined these shows at this moment in British television culture when BBC and ITV dominated was a focus on stories rarely told: ordinary people caught up in history; or those who had scarcely been given representation or a public voice on television before.

It is well known that Emmeline Pankhurst was alive to the importance of capturing the media to help shape her political message; and some of the W.S.P.U.’s preoccupations—with the media, penal reform and direct action—chimed in with Britain in the early 1970s. The IRA bombing campaign (with the Price Sisters on hunger strike in Holloway prison—and forcibly fed), industrial strife and economic crisis meant that the series carried more than a whiff of controversy.

Shoulder to shoulderBut maybe it was its feminism that lay at the heart of why Shoulder to Shoulder has been forgotten then and why we should remember it now. At the cast and crew reunion held at Birkbeck last Thursday both Siân Phillips and Angela Down, who play Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst respectively, admitted to knowing little about these women before making the series. While Phillips was politically active and involved in the trade union movement, she had no formal education about the Suffragettes.

She wasn’t alone.

Midge Mackenzie spoke often of how the project grew out of her experience of filming the Golden Jubilee of Women’s Suffrage in 1968, when she discovered the story of how women won the right to vote had been ‘almost successfully erased from the history books. The women who fought for the vote had vanished from our history,’ she wrote. ‘Their writings were long since out of print and their newspapers buried in archives’ (Shoulder to Shoulder 1988; ix). In good documentary fashion Mackenzie filled her book, which one feels was a response to the betrayal she somehow felt at having men write the TV series, with women’s voices—original experiences as expressed in the words of those taking part, from diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, as well as newspaper reports and the Suffragettes own publications, Votes for Women and The Suffragette.

The series, like the book, focused on the militant campaign; but these Suffragettes were by no means the only campaigners demanding enfranchisement. Shoulder to Shoulder (like all history) is a product of its time and, for example, it doesn’t address the contribution of other dedicated Suffragettes like Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to Parliament, or Charlotte Despard, an Irish-based campaigner and Sinn Féin activist, for as Irish revolutionaries it probably was not the right time for reassessment as the troubles in northern Ireland still raged. And the non-violent, but constitutionally minded, Suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, barely got a look in either. But then committee work and letter writing is far less televisual than the drama of arson campaigns and bruising clashes with the police. What is rescued and recovered is not random, but the fragility of remembering the complexity of our history adds to ignorance and concealment.

But this is no excuse to forget Shoulder to Shoulder. Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, offered a useful intervention at the symposium that followed the screening, when she spoke of using the Suffragettes to ‘measure new feminisms’ and of the importance of passing these stories onto the next generation, however difficult and contested. What the act of recovery from this entanglement of ‘official’ history and personal stories, public speeches and oral testimonies, teach us is that the fight for equality didn’t end with enfranchisement—despite what postfeminism would have us to believe.

Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and shattering the glass ceiling and able to change the script but from the inside—Lambert.

Remembering the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial.

Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.

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