ST ANDREW’S Halls in Glasgow had played host to many a headline act in its day, including Winston Churchill, The Queen and Bob Hope. The roof was never raised so high, however, than on the evening of March 9, 1914.

Due to the likelihood of arrest, the speaker, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, arrived at the venue hidden in a laundry basket. Standing on a platform festooned with flowers to draw the eye away from the barbed wire protecting the stage, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organisation at the vanguard of the votes-for-women movement, began to address the adoring thousands crammed into the hall. And then all hell broke loose.

Policemen, some of whom had been hiding in the hall for hours, pounced. As the officers, batons flying left, right and centre, tried to rush the stage to arrest Mrs Pankhurst, flower pots were hurled at them. A few women armed with clubs waded in to the fray. Blank shots were fired from revolvers. Mrs Pankhurst, seized by police, was dragged down the stairs head first. Bruised and bloodied, her dress torn, she was thrown into the back of a car and taken to the police station. Meanwhile, the police continued to lay into the women who were left.

Welcome to just another day in the suffragette movement. Intensely dramatic, alive with colourful personalities, laced with suffering and bravery, it seems like ideal material for cinema to draw upon. Why, then, has it taken 100 years for a major feature film in the shape of Suffragette to come along? One might almost think the movement still frightens the horses.

“Hasn’t it been a long time coming?” says Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum and author of The Hidden History of Glasgow’s Women. The last time the movement was portrayed on screen was on television, with the much-loved Shoulder to Shoulder airing on the BBC in 1974.

“People seem to be utterly blind to it and it’s a very significant part of our past,” adds King. “It’s a good part of our past as well. It’s a past from which a lot of people can take hope and inspiration. There are great stories there and few of them are told at all.”

Directed by Sarah Gavron, written by the Emmy-winning Abi Morgan and starring Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep (as Mrs Pankhurst), Anne-Marie Duff and Helena Bonham Carter, Suffragette opens in cinemas on Monday. The film tells the story of the movement’s later years through the experiences of Maud, a laundry maid, played by Mulligan. From first witnessing Duff’s character lobbing a brick through a shop window to being jailed herself, Maud stands for many a woman whose lives were transformed by the times. As if to make up for past tardiness in giving women the vote, the House of Commons broke with tradition and allowed Gavron to film there.

While one might think from the film that the suffragette movement was a London affair, Scotland, and London-based Scots, played crucial roles. There was Flora Drummond, “The General”, who rode a white horse at the head of marches. There was Marion Wallace Dunlop, descendant of William Wallace, who pioneered the hunger strike as political protest. Wallace Dunlop was eulogised by George Bernard Shaw, who called for a statue of her to be placed in Trafalgar Square. And there was Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, champion of the cause in Parliament, whose connections to the movement would turn out to be intensely personal.

The film opens in 1912. Women had been asking for the vote for decades to no avail. In consequence, the movement had split into the suffragists, who wanted to continue campaigning peacefully, and the suffragettes, who would famously deploy “deeds not words” to secure the vote. Those deeds ranged from marching and chalking pavements, to more serious actions such as burning down a stand at Ayr racecourse and Leuchars Railway Station. There was an attempt to blow up Burns’s cottage, and when the king came to Perth in 1914, a suffragette jumped on to the royal motor. As a contemporary report in The Herald recounts, Rhoda Fleming, 27, of 502 Sauchiehall Street, thereafter attempted to break the car windows. “She was dragged off by the police before she succeeded, and amid a wild outburst of indignation by the spectators who, but for the protection of the police would have roughly handled her." A woman did not have to be almost insanely courageous to be a suffragette, but it helped. A year before Fleming’s action, Emily Wilding Davison, force fed 49 times in prison, had laid down her life for the cause by stepping in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby.

Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline and granddaughter of Sylvia, is pleased the film focuses not on her famous relatives, as so much of the history does, but on a fictional footsoldier of the movement. “She can, and in essence is, any woman and therefore is every woman,” says Pankhurst. “Anybody can be her.”

While the WSPU is traditionally cast as a campaign by middle-class women for middle-class women, Pankhurst believes it went wider than that. “There were warts to the organisation. I don’t want to gloss over those, and I don’t want to say that a lot of the decisions weren’t made by middle-class women. But I think it would be historically wrong to label this a middle-class thing.”

In Scotland the cause spread far and wide. King, who was the curator of the People’s Palace in Glasgow from 1974 to 1991 and was the driving force behind its acclaimed collection of women’s suffrage artefacts, says the movement was more radical in Scotland, which was home to a strong, well-organised left, and it spread to rural areas too. “All the fishing communities were well engaged,” says King. “They went up to Orkney and Shetland and had branches up there.” Councils and churches put their shoulders to the wheel too.

“What didn’t happen in England but did in Scotland was you would get a lot of the local authorities making statements in favour of women’s suffrage, a lot of the ministers in different churches doing the same. The whole Church of Scotland seemed to be pro-suffrage at one time, they’d have ministers on the platform speaking for votes for women.” Also based in Glasgow, and supporting the cause, was the left-wing Forward newspaper, edited by the estimable Tom Johnston.

Dr Esther Breitenbach, a historian at the University of Edinburgh, believes nobody has yet done the kind of detailed research that would show the movement in Scotland was radically different from elsewhere. “What is important to say is that the movement in Scotland was extensive, it did engage working-class as well as middle-class supporters.”

The suffragettes had one tireless working-class champion in the form of Keir Hardie. Melissa Benn, writer, broadcaster, campaigner, honorary president of The Keir Hardie Society and contributor to the book What Would Keir Hardie Say, says Hardie was drawn to the cause because, quite simply, he believed it was right. “He absolutely recognised the force of the principle that if a certain group of men could vote that that should be extended to women in the same way.”

One key influence on Hardie, who was born illegitimate into bitter poverty, was his mother, who taught him to read and write. Later, he would see how his wife and daughters, and every other woman, were treated as third-class citizens when it came to the political process.

“But the other side of that was he was very influenced by the Pankhursts,” says Benn. He was impressed by “these strong, charismatic, attractive women. And maybe even a little overwhelmed or intimidated by them at the beginning”.

Emmeline had three daughters: Christabel, Sylvia and Adela. Hardie was to become particularly close to Sylvia, and there has been speculation that the relationship went further than friendship. Benn, the daughter of Tony and Caroline Benn, says: “My mother wrote a biography of Keir Hardie which looked quite a lot at his personal relations. While she is not definitive about them having a sexual relationship they clearly had a very, very close and intimate relationship.” In her book, Freedom’s Cause: The Lives of the Suffragettes, Fran Abrams says Sylvia saw Hardie as “part political hero, part father-figure and part potential lover”.

I ask Pankhurst what she thinks. “I don’t know whether they were physically lovers, whether they were very intimate, whether it was just a very close friendship. I don’t think anybody has given me conclusive evidence one way or another. There is no doubt that they were incredibly close and that she was very important to him and vice versa.”

Hardie took the fight to the Commons, where he drew attention to the suffering inflicted on campaigners sent to prison. The accounts of women hunger strikers who were force fed retain the power to shock. The British state, challenged by the campaigners, set out to break some butterflies on a wheel, and did. Elspeth King’s book relates what happened to Frances Parker, who was caught in the act of trying to blow up Burns’s cottage. She ended up in the notorious Perth Prison, where after three days of force feeding, the wardresses inserted a tube into her rectum. Worse followed at the hands of one woman guard who returned later and subjected Parker to “a grosser and more indecent outrage, which could have no other purpose than to torture”.

The film conveys well the fury which was directed at the suffragettes by those who opposed their aim. Antagonism took several forms, from state-sanctioned torture to the pamphlets from Lord Curzon, an early forerunner of Harry Enfield’s “Women: Know Your Limits!” character. “Women have not, as a sex, or a class, the calmness of temperament or the balance of mind … to exercise a weighty judgment in political affairs,” opined the good Lord.

The move to militancy, having split the campaign, might also be a reason for the gap between Shoulder to Shoulder (in which Fulton Mackay played Hardie and Sian Phillips was Emmeline Pankhurst) and Suffragette. Has the militancy made it a difficult subject for popular culture to embrace?

“It’s not difficult at all, it’s a very, very inspirational story,” says King. The actions of the women was nothing compared to the violence perpetrated against them, she says. “The violence is tokenistic. It’s the symbolic smashing of a few windows and the wrecking of a few post boxes and a few bombs that never hurt anybody because they always targeted empty property.”

Breitenbach sees the militancy as both inspiring and slightly problematic. “Certainly there was a lot of pillorying of militant action at the time. For second-wave feminists like myself, militants were quite attractive figures. They were heroic, brave, they stood up to abuse and put their beliefs on the line. For some of us the fascination with the militancy has also led to an overemphasis on it. It’s a double-edged thing.”

On balance it was the First World War, during which women kept the home fires burning and the factories and farms going, that was the key decider in winning some women (those over 30 who met the right property and other qualifications) the vote in 1918. The franchise was not extended to all women over 21 until 1928.

Just as the movement changed the lives of millions of women, so it has coloured the life of Helen Pankhurst. Her birth and upbringing in Ethiopia has led her to work with the charity CARE International, and when not over there she is in the UK campaigning for women’s rights. When Gavron first contacted her about the film, Pankhurst had just finished chemotherapy. As soon as she was able, she offered to help. If one looks closely at the film, in a scene set in the WSPU offices, one can see Pankhurst and her daughter Laura as extras. (The pair previously played suffragettes in Danny Boyle’s London Olympics opening ceremony.)

Pankhurst is well now, and her hair has grown back from the chemo. “Interestingly it’s grown back quite curly so I now look a bit more like Emmeline,” she laughs. Given what her own family went through with imprisonment and force feeding, and what happened to so many others, I wonder if she despairs on hearing some women today say they can’t be bothered to vote. At the May 2015 general election, turnout among women was 66 per cent according to Ipsos Mori. For men it was 67 per cent.

“I don’t want to sit in judgment,” says Pankhurst, “however I do want to hold their hands, take them to see the film, try to show them why in particular their vote is important. It is the less powerful who are less rewarded.”

Meanwhile, Trafalgar Square still awaits that statue of Marion Wallace Dunlop.

Suffragette (12A) opens on Monday.