The politics of being a woman: by Romola Garai, Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff

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Stylist exclusively brings together the stars of Suffragette, Romola Garai, Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff to discuss the issues facing women today. 

Words: Helen Bownass Photography: Chris Floyd 

In the 100 years since the suffragettes fought for the female vote – facing prison, force-feeding, abuse and even death – not one film has told their story. Just think about that for a moment. Of all the thousands of millions of films that have been made since women over 30 got the vote in 1918, no-one has deemed it a story worth telling.

So it’s something of a bittersweet celebration that the story of those women is finally being bought to life on screen. Suffragette, out on 12 October, stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai. With the exception of actors Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson, the production is predominantly female. Abi Morgan (ShameThe Iron Lady, The Hour) wrote the screenplay, Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) takes on directing duties, while Alison Owen (Shaun Of The Dead and Saving Mr Banks) – mother of Lily Allen – and Faye Ward (Jane Eyre and Dancing On The Edge) produce.

The result is a shocking, powerful and hugely important testimony to what the women of the suffragette movement went through and gave up. It’s a story that has often been glossed over not just by the film industry, but by school curricula too. The film’s poignancy is owed to the fact that rather than focusing on the prolific names associated with the movement such as Emmeline Pankhurst, it magnetises the plight of the many thousands of ordinary, often working-class, suffragettes.

As Maud, Carey Mulligan, 30, plays one of those ordinary women, albeit a fictional character who joins pioneers Pankhurst (Streep) and Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) when – working in a factory alongside Violet Miller (Duff) – her eyes are gradually opened to the cause. It’s an experience akin to watching the film itself – leaving the cinema you’re almost ashamed not to have known more about the movement, not least when the final credits roll and a list recounts when women around the globe finally got the vote. Hands up who knew that it wasn’t until 1971 in Switzerland, while, of course, Saudi Arabia have yet to grant women the right to vote.

Deeds, Not Words – a slogan used by the suffragettes to incite civil disobedience to get their message heard – is a recurring motif throughout the film and a fitting theme for our covershoot with Mulligan, Duff and Garai – who plays Alice Haughton, an upper-class protestor. It’s a call to action, something that is just as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1912, when the film is set.

When the three are reunited at our shoot in a London hotel, they immediately pounce on each other excitedly; it’s been a while since they’ve been together. Their distinctive personalities quickly emerge. If we were to go all Spice Girls on them, Garai, 33, would be the opinionated one – “My husband told me not to talk over everyone else,” she laughs after our interview.

Duff, 44, the quieter, thoughtful but shrewd one and Mulligan, the one-who’s-not-as-serious-as-she’s-often-purported-to-be. “I’ve got a wonky mouth,” laughs Carey, when the photographer congratulates her on how well she does a serious face. “It makes me look sad.” As well as each having thriving careers across film, stage and TV, the three actresses have two other big things in common: they’re all notoriously private, choosing to shun the publicity of Hollywood.

Mulligan is married to musician Marcus Mumford. Duff is married to James McAvoy (the couple have one son), while Garai has a daughter with actor husband Sam Hoare. They’re also fiercely smart and passionate about women’s rights. So, how did reliving the ultimate female fight for equality impact on their own beliefs about womanhood today? We spent a fascinating hour with them discussing what it means to be a woman in 2015.

We felt incredibly emotional and also angry watching the film, was that akin to your experience?

Romola: I came out of the screening and was walking down Oxford Street and was like, “I really want to break some windows.” I just can’t f***ing believe that I have to pick up a newspaper and there’s congratulatory back patting about how far we’ve come in medicine, in technology, in engineering. I’m sorry, but in human rights we haven’t developed as a society the way we should. It’s such an important film.

Carey: It’s so true. I read the other day that there are three films being made about the Boston bombings, which is a valid thing for them to make a film about, but it has taken 100 years to make a film about human rights. During rehearsals I went to an exhibition at the Museum of London and the suffragette area was just half a bookcase. At the time it was blanked out in the press, denied and covered up. So much of the movement was made up of working-class women who weren’t educated and this has bled into how the story has been told.

Anne-Marie: I was taught about the suffragettes at school but no-one else seemed to have been. I was shocked.

C: We were brought up in a massively apathetic generation. I don’t think I had any understanding about how women got the vote and how important it was to use it. I’ve always voted but I don’t think I’ve ever felt particularly passionate about it.

Why has the film taken so long to make?

R: Martin Scorsese has not wanted to make a movie about the suffragettes as far as I’m aware. The film industry is sexist. There’s an inherent belief that if they make films that challenge the status quo then they’re not going to be financially remunerated for it.

Is the end result what you hoped for?

C: I definitely felt proud and that it had been made the way we signed up to do it. That’s rare. I can’t say that’s happened many times before. Not that I’ve walked away from everything with a crushing disappointment but I have felt, 'that’s not the feeling I thought.’ But the way this film has been put together is the strongest version in terms of telling the story.

Could you commit an act of violence for a cause you believe in strongly, like the suffragettes?

C: Even walking into a gallery like the V&A and taking a knife to a famous piece of art is just terrifying – the bravery of those women! I’d like to think I’d have the guts to do it but you just can’t say.

A: You’d like to think you would.

Did it make you question yourselves then?

R: There’s nothing like remembering that people literally starved themselves to make you think, ‘How much am I really dedicated to women’s rights’. Is talking enough? But I don’t think it was the objectives of the suffragettes to make the next generation and other generations feel guilty. Their sacrifices were to make subsequent generations of women be happy and have fulfilled lives.

A: We’re made to feel useless and that our protests aren’t heard. I think that’s the great tragedy in the 21st century. We’re made to feel like we won’t make a difference if 500,000 people march for something.

C: It sort of feels like now, and I f***ing hate it, but the world has moved on so any sort of social movement or protest happens on the internet and Twitter. I work with War Child, the children in conflict charity, and we needed 5,000 signatures last year for something. I’m not on Twitter so had to go to a mate and say, “Can you ask all of your followers to sign this”, and overnight we had all these signatures from fans of this TV show. It’s a very safe way of being active.

A: It’s so fast-moving – protests are made and then tomorrow there’s another one so it becomes this cacophony of stuff. Nobody hears one single message, whereas if someone stood out there right now, took all their clothes off and said, “I’m doing this to stop pornography being available for 10-year-old kids”, we’d all listen.

We’ve been having the conversation about feminism for years, is it now the time to act?

A: Sadly, as a sex, we are prone to worry about being “polite” or preoccupied with not offending anyone, which can be a paralysing hindrance. Also, there is a very insidious notion that we should be grateful for what we have and not expect too much. The truth is that to be heard over the noise of all of that we need to shout.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing women today?

R: The gender pay gap. It’s absolutely crazy. How are we still having this conversation about equal pay? What you’re telling me is that a producer, somebody that I know and would socialise with, would make a financial offer to two different actors and make different offers according to their gender? I just think, ‘What the f**k?’ It makes me really angry. When you look at any industry that isn’t managed by the government there’s this massive gap. And then you’ve got to have awful conversations about how women are prepared to accept less. Let’s address this issue not by blaming women for not speaking up. How about we address this issue by highlighting the fact we still live in a deeply sexist society and how we’re going to ensure that doesn’t continue. [They all agree]

A: The fight for equal pay is potentially the most powerful act women can make as we, in the western world, live in a capitalist society where money is everything.

C: The Jennifer Lawrence thing was brilliant [the 2014 Sony email leaks revealed she had been paid less than her male American Hustle co-stars; since then she has become the highest paid actress in Hollywood] but because of the franchise films she’s involved in, her career operates on an entirely different level to most actresses I know. Two actors, female and male, of the same level in their careers should be paid the same, it’s ridiculous. I’ve always felt it’s a massive issue in our industry, but it’s a much bigger issue for people who are paid significantly less than us. When I made TV money for the first time, I was like – ‘Holy sh*t! I’m making more than a nurse who is working seven days a week flat out.’ The whole way through my career I’ve felt very privileged and at the same time you have to take into account that actually when compared to your male counterpart, you’re being mistreated.

Do you think there’s a way to make the workplace fairer?

R: I feel that quotas are the only way you can really force society to abandon their prejudices. The risk of employing people who might be 0.01% less qualified versus the improvement to the rest of your workforce. My personal take is that it’s the job of men and women to ensure men and women are properly represented and supported in the world and don’t suffer discrimination or sexual assault. Currently, it’s the preserve of women to defend their rights and that’s the fundamental problem.

And what can be done in Hollywood?

R: I’d like to work with more female directors.

A: Think about how recent it was that a female director won an Academy Award for the first time [Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker in 2009 – the first and only woman so far to win a Best Director Oscar].

R: They need to put funds aside for training women at drama school as directors…

C: When I filmed Far From The Madding Crowd, our female cinematographer operated a [really heavy] handheld camera on her own every day. It’s a big deal but it’s not crazy! Her vagina’s not going to fall off [all laugh].

Amy Poehler has campaigned for women to be asked more stimulating questions on the red carpet than what they’re wearing. Has that changed the way actresses are viewed?

A: If only! Unfortunately, we can be our own worst enemies. Young women, especially, buy literature that covers these events and focuses on this superficial information. Boycott them and read Stylist instead!

Body shaming is also still rife…

C: You see horrible magazine covers all the time – someone’s had a baby but they’re looking too fat or someone’s had a baby and they’ve got their body back too quickly and all that b*llocks. It’s an irritant. If you can avoid it in your own life that’s great but you do see it, all the time, every day, everywhere.

A: And it’s not just limited to people in the public eye, that’s the tragedy. You’ve got all these terrible websites where young girls can post ‘Am I Ugly?’ pictures of themselves and have millions of idiots responding saying “yes”. Terrible.

Romola, you’ve protested about…

R: Everything [all laugh]. 

Which cause is particularly close to your heart right now?

C: What’s p*ssed you off lately?

R: What, today? [laughs]

C: I was reading something this morning that said if you read one negative thing you then need to counter-balance it with three positive things otherwise you’ll become a sad person. I read the The Guardian and was like, ‘Oh God’, so I googled ‘news websites with only good news’ and I found this website that is just stories about people being lovely and just doing nice things. Sorry Romola, I cut you off…

R: Campaigning wise, I’ve been working with a group called Raising Films who highlight how difficult it is to be a parent in creative industries with the lack of support for parents. It’s a big thing for me how mothers can be discriminated against after maternity leave. Have you found that having children yourselves has affected the roles you take?

A: Absolutely. There are compromises, but there should be for both parents, but sadly in most relationships they don’t go that way. R: When you say to directors you have childcare problems they act like, ‘Oh, well, can you just make that problem go away.’

What other causes are close to your hearts?

A: The thing that upsets me is the way we report and discuss child abuse. It feels it’s become so graphic that there’s an element of titillation and I find that hugely objectionable. Having a child, if I put the radio on in the morning, they will describe situations in detail. How do we address it?

Do you worry about bringing up children in that world?

A: As a parent, your objectives should be to be the person you want your kids to be so you can set a good example. I happen to have a husband who is a feminist.

R: And pornography is not sex. You want your kid to understand sex and to have a great sex life. Pornography is a completely different thing. It was designed for men and it has permeated female culture. It’s mad that kids can look at porn. The best way we can protect girls is to educate them. Education of boys is a really important part of that too.

What about the recent Bill Cosby case? Is the media asking enough questions about abuse?

R: Pretty clearly from that case no. The media is a reflection of society’s views. If people weren’t disinclined to believe women who say they’ve been sexually attacked I don’t think it would happen so much in the media. That’s a bigger question about authority. If we believe that women have less authority than men, when two people tell a story you’re more inclined to believe the male version of events, and that’s a huge problem for women. That goes beyond what the suffragettes fought for. I don’t think that generation of women perceived how ingrained in our society the misogyny was.

Is there enough representation of women in politics today?

A: That’s always no, isn’t it? We should be better represented.

R: It’s a massive shame the Leveson Inquiry did not push the issue of women’s representation further. It was an absolute farce. To take a woman in the running to lead the Labour party and have a conversation in the national press about what she is f***ing wearing – like, “No!” That is what the suffragettes stood for. Those are our modern-day fights. We can’t have more female politicians in an environment that penalises them for being a woman. Why would someone want to be a politician if that’s what they have to face? There has to be a way we can pick up on that and force the government to regulate the way women are represented.

Who does inspire or influence you?

C: I hold in the highest regard the women who work in the [care] home where my grandmother [who has Alzheimer’s disease] lives in Wales because of the dedication they have to each individual. Every time I go there I am completely blown away.

A: I know a couple of mothers who have disabled children. They are remarkable. Over the last five years it has become increasingly difficult – benefits have been removed and they’re just getting up in the morning and dealing with that. There are so many heroines who aren’t household names.

R: I was going to say [American actress] Brit Marling but now… [they all laughs]. It was so inspiring to me the first time somebody said to me, “Oh, she’s an actress and she directed three films.” I was like, “What? Actresses can do that?” She tore up the rule book.

A: Laura Bates is extraordinary. Her Everyday Sexism project is beyond brilliant – shocking and upsetting at times but she has such commitment. The most important thing to be teaching young women today is that their strengths, dreams and powers are limitless. Dare to be and do everything.

Suffragette is in cinemas nationwide from 12 October.

Last two images: Rex Features

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