Long Reads

Why Call The Midwife’s suffragette storyline is so incredibly important

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Kayleigh Dray
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Annette Crosbie as suffragette Clarice Millgrove in Call the Midwife

Warning: This article contains spoilers for BBC One’s Call the Midwife, so avoid reading on unless you are up-to-date with the show.

Think Call The Midwife is all vintage costumes, chubby-cheeked babies and jolly post-wartime sing-alongs? Think again. Ever since the first episode aired in 2012, the writers have made a point of featuring dark and deeply upsetting storylines – including the thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, rape, illegal abortions, contraception and homophobia.

So why do people still assume, all these years later, that the show is the perfect accompaniment to a cuppa and a slice of cake? The show’s creator, Heidi Thomas, has a theory.

Speaking to the Radio Times, Thomas says: “I’ve been in a state of mild rage for about seven years now. Because Call the Midwife – certainly in its early days – was often dismissed as being lightweight, fluffy.

“It was called TV Horlicks because it was about women.”

Thankfully, many have woken up to the fact that Call the Midwife doesn’t just pay lip-service to hard-hitting issues – it teaches us valuable lessons about them, too.  And, in last night’s episode, viewers were “moved to tears” by Annette Crosbie’s performance as an elderly suffragette.

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In the episode, Crosbie starred as Clarice Millgrove, a stubborn woman in need of treatment for a leg ulcer.

However, when Lucille (Leonie Elliott) arrived at Clarice’s home to attend to her leg, she quickly discovered that her patient was a hoarder – and not in the flippant, throwaway fashion that so many of us claim to be. Indeed, it quickly became apparent that Clarice, who had even been wrapping her own excitement in newspaper and shoving it up her chimney, was suffering from diogenes syndrome (DS).

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, DS is a behavioral disorder most often observed in the elderly. Symptoms include living in extreme squalor, a neglected physical state, and unhygienic conditions. This is accompanied by a self-imposed isolation, the refusal of external help, and a tendency to accumulate unusual objects. 

Naturally, Clarice’s hoarding had caused tension with council authorities, who were threatening to move her into a home. The condition also made it difficult for Lucille to bond with what she perceived to be a stubborn old woman. Over time, though, the young nurse came to see Clarice as a person rather than a condition. 

And, in a particularly tender moment, Clarice gifted Lucille a silver medal which revealed her involvement in the suffragette movement. 

Engraved with the words ‘Hunger Strike’, the medal was created with the Suffragette cause’s three distinctive coloured ribbons: purple for dignity, green for hope, and white for purity – the same colours which eagle-eyed fans noted Clarice wore throughout the episode.

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Tragically, Lucille couldn’t do anything to stop Clarice being moved to a home. However, she did manage to convince the fiercely independent woman to leave her property of her own free will, with dignity, rather than be forcibly removed by the council.

Naturally, viewers had a lot to say about the emotionally charged scenes, with MP David Lammy among those to comment on Twitter.

“This episode of #CallTheMidwife has got me in pieces,” he wrote. “Annette Crosbie as Miss Millgrove the old suffragette just so inspiring.”

Another posted: “#CallTheMidwife was such a powerful episode. It is a true privilege as a woman to go to the polling stations each time without any barrier to my freedom to vote, the Suffragette movement will forever be an essential piece of history that we cannot forget.”

“Well done to #CalltheMidwife for a very moving episode this evening. Annette Crosbie gave a terrific performance and brought the story of the suffragettes home in a way I’ve never felt before,” said another.

“Watching tonight’s Call the Midwife with my twelve year old daughter and its story celebrating the Suffragettes was breathtaking,” said another. “This was an inspired episode. Women can do ANYTHING.”

And still one more noted: “#CallTheMidwife should be shown in schools every week. Another powerful episode that educated and informed. Fantastic performances from everyone, especially Annette Crosbie.”

Last year, we celebrated the centenary of women’s suffrage and recalled all that the suffragettes had done in their battle to achieve equal rights between the sexes. However, while there are a number of TV shows and films which depict those who campaigned for women to get the vote, we usually only ever see them at the height of their activity. Think of Winnifred Banks (Glynis Johns) in Disney’s Mary Poppins, striding through her living room in that iconic purple sash and belting out the lyrics to Sister Suffragette.

“Our daughters daughters will adore us,” she says, “and they’ll sing in grateful chorus: well done, Sister Suffragette!”

Unfortunately, as many of us know all too well, this line is all the more poignant because so few ever consider the harsh realities endured by the suffragettes: the forced feedings, the humiliation, the psychological and physical torture. Emmeline Pankhurst, for one, described her own time in prison as “like a human being in the process of being turned into a wild beast”, and accounts from other women at the time can make for tough reading. 

And, just as is described by Clarice in Call the Midwife, many imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strikes to protest against the terrible conditions they were kept in: they contended they should be treated as political prisoners, not as criminals. Some were force-fed with rubber tubes pushed down their throats while their mouths were held open with sharp steel clamps (Sylvia Pankhurst admitted that the sense of degradation was worse than the pain of her gums, which were “always sore and bleeding, with bits of loose, jagged flesh”). It was also recorded that working-class women had feeding tubes inserted into their vaginas and anuses, often without washing between uses.

Is it any wonder, then, that the leadership of the Women’s Social and Political Union rewarded Suffragette prisoners with a range of military-style campaign medals? And that those who served terms of imprisonment with hunger-strike were, just like Clarice, presented with Hunger Strike medals at breakfast receptions upon their release, with silver bars representing the periods of rebellious fasting?

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Many people, to this day, remain unaware of the awful conditions faced by the suffragettes, and still less think about what happened to the suffragettes after they achieved their goal, although it has been reported that many went on to struggle from poor mental health as a result of the abuse they went through (in fact, a history of abuse is one of the triggers for diogenes syndrome).

Which is why last night’s episode of Call The Midwife was such a breath of fresh air.

To quote one viewer: “Loved that they showed a suffragette years after fighting for women to vote. It makes you think what they went through could have given them mental health issues later in life.

“I feel so proud and emotional to think what they went through so we can have the vote!”

Image: BBC One

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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