Visible Women

Is Mrs Banks really a positive representation of the suffragettes?

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Anna Fielding
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She may be one of cinema’s most famous suffragettes, but is Mary Poppins’ Mrs Banks really the perfect role model? 

“Good evening, Katie Nanna!” says Mrs Banks as she bursts through the door of her home. “We had the most glorious meeting! Mrs Whitbourne-Allen chained herself to the wheel of the Prime Minister’s carriage! Oh, you should have been there!” She is high on political righteousness. Her domestic staff look somewhat overwhelmed.

For most of us, this scene, at the beginning of the film Mary Poppins, is where we meet our very first suffragette. She soon bursts into song, the rousing Sister Suffragette. “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats/Fearless crusaders for women’s votes,” she sings, fist raised high. 

It’s a good song: in the last couple of years you might have heard people singing it on various women’s marches, or been sent a YouTube clip from the film by a friend. But there’s a bit of 
a problem with Mrs Banks.

“She’s a bad mother (her children frequently go missing and she doesn’t seem unduly bothered)”

Blonde and round-eyed, pretty in pale blue, Winifred Banks is presented as charming, but she’s also portrayed as an absolute scatterbrain. She’s silly and flighty. She’s a bad mother (her children frequently go missing and she doesn’t seem unduly bothered); incapable of running her home despite having three servants 
(to whom she doesn’t listen, even when they’re trying to hand in their notice); and she lies to her husband about the extent of
 her political activity (“You know the cause annoys him!”). 

Her feminism is one of the reasons the family needs the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins to step in. Mary Poppins is set in 1910, and was released 54 years later in 1964. In the 1910s, the real-life suffragettes faced the same lack of respect as the fictional Mrs Banks. They were taunted with cartoons showing bleak, empty kitchens and sad children – politics had taken women away from their true roles and made them irresponsible gadabouts (“Everybody works but mother,” says one cartoon, showing a man at a washtub. “She’s a suffragette”). The suffragettes were portrayed as man-haters, not asking for equality, but superiority. They were the ugly girls, made bitter by men ignoring them.

“Her feminism is one of the reasons the family needs the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins to step in”

But years later, not much was different. We think of the Sixties as a time of social change, but most of feminism’s true gains occurred later. In 1964, abortion was still illegal in Britain, we were six years from the Equal Pay Act and rape within marriage wouldn’t be outlawed for another 30 years.

But there were stirrings. The contraceptive pill had been invented and women could begin to take control of their own fertility (even if British doctors would only prescribe it to married women).
 In 1963, American author Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, a book that was the first to detail the frustration and lack of fulfillment felt by many women in traditional roles and is generally credited as sparking second-wave feminism. 

In PL Travers’ original Mary Poppins novels, Mrs Banks is just incompetent when it comes to running a house (Mary treats her rather disdainfully). Mrs-Banks-as-suffragette in the film version is a product of 1964’s fears about strident women (and, perhaps, an all-male scripting team). 

Even the song, her most passionate moment, was dashed off quickly. According to the songwriters, brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, actress Glynis Johns thought she had the lead role. To stave off awkwardness Walt Disney told her she had a wonderful solo to sing and took her out for lunch while the brothers wrote, hastily. 

“Even the song, her most passionate moment, was dashed off quickly”

In 2018, we are 54 years away from the film’s release date and the Mrs Banks Problem is still alive. Women make up more than 40% of the workforce in at least 80 different countries. In every country where voting is allowed, women go to the ballot alongside men. But, as we fight for further gains, fight not to be harassed, abused, discounted and underpaid, the online retort, from the trolls and the men’s rights activists, is still the same: “Get 
back in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, b*tch.” (According to the website Know Your Meme, we’ve been dealing with this particular phrasing for the past seven years.)

There’s another issue to discuss, too. Rich, white and married with children, Mrs Banks is impossibly privileged. She gets her housemaid Ellen to pack a basket with rotten eggs to throw at the Prime Minster, but there’s no suggestion Ellen might stand alongside her. Today, high-profile protest still often comes from already-wealthy women, who have the money and time to spare. The appearance of the Time’s Up activists alongside Hollywood actresses at the recent Golden Globes is a move towards redressing this imbalance.

At the end of Mary Poppins both Mr and Mrs Banks skip out of the house to go fly a kite with their children, Jane and Michael. It’s 
a happy ending for the children, who now have attentive parents, and for Mr Banks, who is more in touch with his emotions and about to be promoted. But what about Mrs Banks? Her ‘Votes for Women’ sash becomes the tail of the kite
 as the family send it soaring. 

Has she abandoned politics in favour
 of her family? Perhaps, but it’s better to think she was sending 
the message “up to the highest heights” for the world to see. Winifred Banks might not be exactly how we’d like her to be now, but it’s good that she’s there at all, shouting ‘votes for women!’ in 
a film loved by generations 
of children. 

Well done, 
Sister Suffragette. 

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.  

Images: Rex Features