“They had no vote, no political clout, no equal rights. But what they lacked under the law, they made up for with brains, determination and courage.”
The amazingly recent effort of women to acquire the vote is an intriguing and powerful story. Rising to conscious expression worldwide in the mid-19th century, the pressing question was, “should the vote of only half the population count?” While a clear and obvious answer lay waiting in the wings, it took “brains, determination and courage” to make it a reality. Iron Jawed Angels, a remarkable film, brings to life the dramatic account of a second wave of suffragists in America. Hillary Swank, who plays Alice Paul, says about the movie’s theme, “It’s one of the great, untold American stories.”
In 1868 and again in 1878 in America, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton proposed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the vote yet were unable to get it passed. Organising the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), their efforts laid the foundation for the next stage. In the early 1900s, two valiant (and less well-known) young women come to the foreground to take up the fight. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Conner), originally meet in England, having joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (begun by Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of England’s most radical suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst) whose motto was “deeds, not words.” Having taken part in militant protests, arrests, imprisonment and hunger strikes, when the dedicated friends return to America, they arrive with the belief that the more militant strategies utilised in England are crucial to breaking up the lethargy surrounding the issue in America.
The film begins with Paul’s and Burn’s appearance on the American scene. They come to Philadelphia in September of 1912 to meet with Carrie Chapman Catt (Angelica Huston) and Rev. Anna Shaw (Lois Smith), who, heading up the NAWSA, have been continuing the work of the earlier suffragists. Catt is told that Paul, “a bright girl, from Swathmore with a doctorate from Penn” has returned to America to help women get the vote, after working on suffragist campaigns in England. Catt’s comment is “don’t bring me any radicals”!
In a tense first meeting, the “old” and “new” guards of the American suffragist movement come face to face. The NAWSA has been working long and hard on a state-by-state campaign, believing a federal amendment is impossible but Paul and Burns see it differently. While all are dedicated to the same issue, wanting women to be allowed to vote, it is clear there are dramatic differences in tactic, strategy, and vision. Eventually, it is agreed that the two energetic newcomers will go to Washington, DC and head up the Congressional Committee. Being told they need to raise their own funds, Paul and Burns leave to take up the job. Paul’s ambitious plan is to organise a parade, coinciding with President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
It is clear the younger women yearn for a new movement, a new image, and new results. Early in the film, they spot a stylish purple hat with a red feather in a storefront window. Flipping a coin, Burns wins, yet Paul later claims the hat, wearing it almost nonstop. Fighting the dated image of a suffragist as “a stout old maid with facial air,” they are determined to bring a new feminine energy to the movement. At a Washington fundraising event, Paul meets Inez Milhoulland (Julia Ormond), a successful American lawyer and longtime peace activist. In the lively conversation that ensues, they agree women have always been expected to “nurture the family, rock the baby, serve the dinner, serve society… serving, serving, always…” However, “the new suffragist is single, young, independent, educated, and very very beautiful.” Amidst much laughter, the persuasive Paul, intent on the movement gaining visibility, talks Inez Milhoulland into playing a dramatic role in the fundraising parade through Washington.
The next scene is of the beautiful Inez in breathtaking, angelic garb (“a warrior, a herald, Joan-of-Arc with 10,000 women following her”), astride a large white horse at the head of a stunning procession of women, riding on floats, carrying banners and marching through the DC streets. In the middle of the pageantry, a bottle is thrown, and then rocks, followed by an eruption of violence. Angry men yell at the women to go home to their husbands and families. Chaos ensues while police stand by offering little help. The next morning, Paul, Burns, and triumphant team, bruised and exuberant, are seen talking excitedly to Catt and Shaw about their success in making front-page news! The clear disagreement over tactic and response results in a deeper division between the old guard and these younger women so intent on forcing the issue of a constitutional amendment.
Paul’s next strategic move is not an easy one. Having been accused of illegally siphoning the funds gathered into a private pot, she and Burns see no other route except to form their own party. As she publicly declares, the National Women’s Party (NWP) is “…dedicated to the passage of the following constitutional amendment: the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, or any state, on account of sex.” The new party also pledges “unceasing opposition to any and all political candidates who refuse to support this amendment.” With this move, the lines of battle are pointedly re-drawn, signaling a direct attack against Wilson’s policies.
While President Wilson is embroiled in problems regarding trade and foreign policy leading up to an inevitable entry into WWI, the women of this newly formed party are asking, “What will you do for woman suffrage?” Milhoulland, one of the party’s key inspirational speakers, challenges Wilson repeatedly: “How long must women wait for liberty? We declare our faith in the principles of self-government, that woman, irrespective of her race, was made first for her own happiness with the absolute right to herself, and to all opportunities life affords… We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all civil and political rights of citizens of the United States be guaranteed to us and our daughters… forever.” It is in the middle of this speech that an exhausted Milhoulland collapses and soon after tragically dies of pernicious anemia. A withdrawn and tearful Paul later cries out to Burns, “It’s so unfair that anyone should have to die in a fight that shouldn’t even have to be a fight.”
Another character, Emily Leighton (Molly Parker), plays an equally significant role as a (fictional) Senator’s wife. A devoted wife and mother (with “no head for politics”), she is transformed into a political activist who sees firsthand how crucial the issue is. Her husband, embarrassed by his wife’s participation in fundraising efforts and White House protests, takes away her access to a household account and threatens to keep “his” children from her. Leighton’s smoldering shock and fierce anger at this unconscionable move are palpable. The confrontation sets her over the edge. Later arrested and imprisoned, she willingly joins the hunger strike, suffering the consequences of prison mistreatment. When her husband visits her and sees the affects on his wife, he is anguished. Her ringing statement makes clear what is at stake: “I am only here for my daughters.”
The women begin staging regular protests at the gates of the White House, intent on forcing Wilson’s hand, continuing these even after the US entry into the war. Protesting a wartime president is a bold and dangerous move, leading to public outcry, violence against the protestors, and arrest. The trumped-up charge is “obstructing traffic”! Refusing to pay the $10 fine (“we haven’t broken any law”), the women are imprisoned in the Occoquan workhouse in Virginia and immediately declare themselves “political prisoners.” The response is brutal. Eventually Paul is arrested, and initiates a hunger strike. Transferred to the “psychopathic ward,” the prison psychiatrist, instructed to gather evidence of her insanity, eventually comes to the conclusion Paul is suffering no delusions, that she is in fact mentally competent and fiercely dedicated to a just cause. When the presidential delegation resists his diagnosis, he responds: “for women… courage is often mistaken for insanity”
Continuing her hunger strike, Paul is brutally force-fed a number of times. In a chilling scene, we witness a ferocious assault on her personhood, her dignity, and her cause. Word gets out (with the unlikely help of a woman guard and Leighton’s husband) of the prison mistreatment, torture, force-feeding and general brutality towards these women who have done nothing wrong (by this time, 218 have been imprisoned). Sentiment turns, as it always eventually must, towards support. The President finally agrees to back a constitutional amendment and congress approves it. On August 18th, 1920 the state count is taken. One superb moment occurs when Senator Burn from Tennessee, about to vote against the amendment, receives an urgent note from his mother, requesting that he change his position! He does so, and the motion carries. On 26th the 19th amendment, giving American women the right to vote, becomes constitutional law.
This blazing story is about endurance, fierceness, love of justice, friendship and teamwork. Towards the end of the film during the proceedings in Congress, Carrie Catt, the elder stateswoman, and Alice Paul, the younger warrior, look at each other and nod. It is clear that what could never have been accomplished by one has been brought to fruition by a multitude of iron-jawed angels, all moving in the same direction.
Note: Prior to this historic moment in the USA, Australian and New Zealand women had the vote (1893), as did the women of Finland (1906), Norway (1913), Denmark and Iceland (1915), Russia (1917), Austria (1918), Germany (1918), United Kingdom (1918), Latvia, Poland, Estonia (1918), Netherlands (1919), Belgium (1919), and Belarus, Luxemburg and Ukraine (1919).
Written by Jennifer Friedes
Directed by Katja Von Garnier