WOMEN'S RIGHTS (1899) film no: 2231
This is a short comedy film of two women, played by men, who have their frocks nailed to a fence. It was made by Bamforth and Company, Holmfirth, with the original film held at the BFI National Film and Television Archive.
Two women (played by men), in bonnets and shawls and holding up parasols, stand in animated conversation in front of a fence. They are then seen – as the camera remains in the same position – from the other side of the fence as two workmen creep up to the fence, pull the hems of their skirts through a gap in the timber, and nail them to the fence. (This is the first example of switching perspectives within a single scene with time continuity.) When the women discover their plight they try to get away hitting the men with their parasols and pull the fence down taking it with them as they pull away.
Women's Rights is one of several early films held by the YFA made by the Bamforth Company of Holmfirth in conjunction with the Riley brothers of Bradford. In this early period Bamforth & Co. Ltd worked with the Riley brothers of Bradford, over a three year period of 1898 through 1900, in a joint venture producing under the heading of 'RAB' films. They used a camera developed by Bradford cine inventor Cecil Wray (see Mellor, 1996; and Herbert, 1996, p 155). Bamforth started in business in 1870 as a studio photographer and began the production of magic lantern slides around 1883. James Bamforth was one of a small group of early British filmmakers, along with Cecil Hepworth, George Albert Smith, and Robert Paul, and the first to take the music hall tradition into film. They probably first started making films in 1898, although the film historian John Barnes questions the evidence for this (Barnes, 1996, p 67). For more on Bamforth see the Context for The Kiss In The Tunnel (1899).
Alan Burton notes that many organisations used magic lantern shows for propaganda purposes: commercial, religious, moral and political. For example, an illustrated political lecture by Isobella Ford of the Leeds Independent Labour Party, entitled ‘Socialism on Screen’, was presented by lantern to the Peckham branch of the Social Democratic Federation in 1892. Kember and Popple note that there were a series of films made on the suffragettes in the run up to the Second World War, with at least one of them where the women have the last laugh (Kember, 2004, p 51). The music hall tradition, where comedy interweaved with music, often lampooning what was happening at the time, is evident in this film. In fact a consulation of Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue will reveal that many films were made sending up the suffragettes, as well as many others in the public eye of the time.
Although the film predates the founding by the Pankhursts in 1903 of the better known Women’s Social and Political Union, the suffragette movement was already making some headway by the end of the nineteenth century. A series of Acts had improved the position of women in some respects: in 1857 women were enabled to divorce husbands who were cruel to them or who had left, and from 1891 this was extended so that women could not be forced to live with husbands unless they wished to. In the meantime, from 1870, women were allowed to keep money they had earned. The first avowedly feminist paper, the English Woman’s Journal, was established in the 1850s. The demand for votes for women was also gaining momentum. It had already been granted in 1893 in New Zealand, the first nation to do so. Yorkshire had a prominent role to play in this when the Sheffield Female Reform Association was set up in 1861 to push for women’s votes. John Stuart Mill had presented a petition in Parliament calling for inclusion of women's suffrage in the Reform Act of 1867, and in that same year Lydia Becker founded the first women's suffrage committee in Manchester. This led eventually to the launching of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, with Millicent Garret Fawcett as President, in 1897.
Just before this film was made, in 1897, a private members Women’s Suffrage Bill, put forward by Mr Faithfull Begg, gained a majority at the second reading but was eventually talked out – a blatantly undemocratic method still in use today. It was such continual blocking tactics that eventually led to the more militant, and headline making, tactics of the Women's Social and Political Union: beginning in 1905 when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted the Liberal politicians Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey at a political meeting in Manchester. Although the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave women over the age of 30 the right to vote, if they had property, it wasn’t until 1928 that women were given the same political rights as men. It ought to be borne in mind that although the idea of ‘natural rights’ has a long history, in 1899 the modern adoption of the concept of human rights was some way off: in fact not until after the Second World War with the founding of the United Nations and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, inspired by the American Declaration of Independence in 1776.
But in 1899 it was not just the right to vote that was an issue for women. There was a movement to contest the traditional conventions relating to women in every area of life. It was a time of revolutionary ideas across the entire social and cultural spectrum, and women were prominent in this. It led to Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe establishing the feminist journal The Freewoman in 1911; attacking marriage and advocating free love, communal childcare and co-operative housekeeping. Naturally this would have been perceived as a threat to many men, and so the usual stereotypes would be wheeled out in popular comedy – with our comedians trying to have their cake and eat it by presenting women supposedly both ‘nagging’ and discussing women’s right to vote at the same time! Bamforth’s made another comedy film on the suffragettes in their later period, Winky as a Suffragette (1914), and they feature in Finding His Counterpart (1914) – see the Context for Winky Causes a Small Panic (1914).
Thankfully, the argument put forward by the suffragettes that women were as rational as men, hardly needs to be made today. But the film demonstrates just how prejudice and common stereotypes produce and feed off each other: something that is still very much with us today.
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