It’s just Walt Disney making fun of us, guys.
Like most young girls of the 21st century, my first encounter with the suffragette movement came in the form of Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins. “Take heart for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!” Why was she wearing that adorable sash? Who cares! Who was Mrs. Pankhurst? Boring! Let’s fast forward to the chalk drawing scene!
Poor young Jessica. You’ve got so much to learn, the chalk drawing scene isn’t even the best that movie has to offer!
I digress. Let us now dissect the suffragette scene from Mary Poppins, shall we?
On it’s surface it seems like a wonderful feminist song, hailing the women of the suffragette movement as “crusaders” and “soldiers in petticoats”. But let’s take a look at the the world when this song was written.
In 1964 Mary Poppins was released. In 1963, the Feminine Mystique was published which, in many ways, began the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement. Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring, a biography of the Feminine Mystique, writes “It is difficult for modern American women, steeped in the power of positive thinking, to realize how pervasive negative thinking was for the women in the 1950s and early 1960s… Stereotypes about women were so prevalent that even those who consciously rejected the status quo and protested inequalities elsewhere in society seldom applied their political insights to their own experiences as women.” As much as we love to idolize and glamourize the 60s as a time of social change, the reality is that the changes for women came much slower than we think due to years of systematized inequality. You can even read of multiple laws which restricted women from a host of commonplace activities (i.e. buying property or opening up a bank account).
This was the decade Mary Poppins was created in, a decade steeped in sexism. Mrs. Banks is introduced to us as a bold and strong feminist, fighting for “political equality and equal rights with men.” But minutes after “Sister Suffragette” is finished we see the commotion that hits the household as Mr. Banks arrives home. Mrs. Banks shifts back into her role as submissive housewife. The joke of the scene is the juxtaposition between her seemingly strong willed personality, and the true reveal of her character when her husband is around. She hastily hides the suffragette sashes for fear it will anger him, because he’s the one who still in charge. This was a tip of the hat to the men of the 60s, reminding them they still held the power, regardless of any pesky feminist movement. It was saying “Women won’t really stand for this equality nonsense if you men are in control of your household.” Because that was the narrative of the early 60s guys!
I might be crazy, but I’m not crazy! I might be reading too much into Mary Poppins, but honestly- is that even possible?! I mean, don’t even get me started on the eerie possiblity that Mary and Bert are actually the British Bonnie and Clyde…