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'Suffragette' star Meryl Streep: 'I don't want women's rights to be a women's issue'

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The actress talks with about women's rights through various prisms: the British suffragette movement as depicted in her new film; the courage of Pakistani activist Malala; and women in Hollywood.

Meryl Streep is known the world over as one of the leading actresses of our time.

In her work as a respected performer in Hollywood, Streep also regularly advocates for women’s equality — both on screen and behind the camera. That’s in keeping with her role in the upcoming movie, “Suffragette."

Streep plays Emmeline Pankhurst, a leader in the early 20th century movement for women's voting rights in the U.K. 

Frustrated by years of no movement from the government, the suffragettes — unlike the suffragists — resorted to vandalism and civil disturbances by blowing up mailboxes and burning down buildings to catch the attention of Parliament. 

The film was written by Abi Morgan, screenwriter of “The Iron Lady,” in which Streep played Margaret Thatcher. 

The Frame host John Horn recently spoke with Streep at the Telluride Film festival where “Suffragette” had its world premiere. 

Interview Highlights:

You have a relatively small part in "Suffragette,” but it's a critical part. How did this part come about, and what did you know about the character that you were going to play?

I knew very little about Emmeline Pankhurst or the British movement to secure the vote for women, but this is right up my alley. They sent it to me and I said yes, immediately. I mean, I was very honored and I also knew that Emma Thompson would be furious that she wasn't playing it. [laughs] Friendly rivalry.

These are a group of women who decided that peaceful protest wasn't enough. Why did they make that decision?

In England, they had followed the rules for almost 50 years — they'd submitted petitions in the time-honored way, politely got all the t's crossed and i’s dotted and they did everything properly and to form. They had a lot of support within the Parliament, but it just never passed. So when you say, Deeds not words, that referred to the strategy of breaking windows, destroying property — not violence to people, but to upsetting the apple cart. It also referred to deeds not words in terms of the Parliament: We don't want to hear how many men agree with us and believe that eventually all people should have the vote. We want it done. And so Pankhurst decided, made a strategic decision, to make some mischief. One of the things that she did, that she knew would get the Parliamentarians' attention, was she poured acid on some of the best greens on some of the finest golf courses around London. At the weekend, everybody in Parliament went off to golf and that was one of the things that got their attention.

This is a movie that unfolds around 1912 in England, but for a lot of people there's a modern relevance to this story about people that you are related to that didn't have the right to vote here. 

Yes, it sort of confounds me that 37 percent of qualified voters in America actually vote. It really concerns me because I know how hard-won those rights were. My grandmother had three children — one of them my mother — before she could vote in the school board election, or any election. She didn't really care who was president [of the country], but she really cared who was on the school board. She used to have to go to the golf course where my grandfather was, march onto the 9th hole and put a piece of paper in his hand with the names of the people she wanted [in office] because she was not deemed "constitutionally able" to make those kinds of decisions. There was no more brilliant person or interesting person than my grandmother. She's vivid in my life, so it's personal to me that she was thought of as less. 

I think it's easy for people to assume that this issue, or the broader issue of equality, has been resolved. But I know many people still think about how far we still have to go.  

Yes, women's civil rights have always marched behind every other group — ethnic, religious. Yet most of the supporters through the history of our country — even before women could vote — were the first abolitionists, they were the first workers for the rights of all laboring people. It's a fight that's not over, but I probably shouldn't say a fight. I think it should be an agreement. It should be an agreement within the human family that both sides are important, and it seems to be very very difficult to get that agreement. I'm not sure why, it really confounds me. 

Specifically within the business in which you work, there is a wide disparity with the number of jobs given to men and women to direct movies, and that goes down the line to leading roles, producers — you name it. Recently, you've begun a writers lab for screenwriters over the age of 40. 

Well, I'm getting a lot of credit for starting a writer's lab. I don't oversee the lab or anything. I'm just funding a writer's lab administered by Women In Film in the New York office to encourage this hope that in a spasmodic effort many other people will do similar things. The more those voices are heard, the more the landscape of choices of film and entertainment we'll have. Increasingly what's on our screens is our history, in a non-reading world, so it's important that women's stories and the things that interest them, concern them, confound them, are on our screens. It'll define us. 

Can women in Hollywood learn something from the Suffragettes? 

I'm not sure that these changes in my industry can be wrought by violence. I just think that somehow it's an interior change in the minds of men. I don't think you have to convince one woman that this is right, or needful. When you bring up anything that has the roseate cast of feminism to it, even the most enlightened men — even my husband — they kind of sigh. They're exhausted by this subject, because it's not their subject. But I want it to be, I want many many little boys to see this movie, and teenage boys and men. I don't want women's rights to be a women's issue. 

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