In Iron-Jawed Angels, the 2004 HBO movie about the fight for suffrage, Hilary Swank stars as Alice Paul and Anjelica Huston is Carrie Chapman Catt. They are in the fight for the long haul, much of the time against each other.
Catt leads the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and her veteran activists are in general conservative, stuffy, grey-haired, take tea at the proper time, and wear fashions from the previous century. They are committed to the fight on a state-by-state basis, and acquiesce to their support of the political establishment. In contrast, Alice Paul’s friends and followers are young, attractive, single, smoke in their lingerie, and playfully shop for modern hats. They have been trained in the school of the militant British activists, and launch demonstrations and pickets even in the midst of war. It is Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP), with its colorful personalities and daring deeds, that is portrayed as ultimately responsible for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
This is most definitely a movie of the twenty-first century, and its aim is to reinvent the suffragists. And on this count, it succeeds. The question is, though: at what cost? What is sacrificed in the makeover of this multifaceted struggle? And who loses out?
The most obvious answer is Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna Howard Shaw, and the NAWSA. The organization, its members, and its parent organizations had been fighting for suffrage since the Civil War (and before, in some cases). It was a major pressure group, organizing on a huge national as well as local scale, drawing together women’s clubs and even labor unions all over the nation. While it may have been the NWP’s tactics that generated enough publicity for Wilson to call for a vote on the amendment, it is in large part due to the wrangling of NAWSA that the amendment received enough votes to pass both houses of Congress.
Very little of this is portrayed in the film. Onscreen, NAWSA is a proper conservative organization that seems merely designed to hinder Alice Paul’s immediate struggle. In order to help the audience identify with the new suffragettes, the old ones are portrayed as women who do not want freedom badly enough. NAWSA may not have used the tactics that proved most successful, but they were an integral part of the fight. Apart from not giving veterans their due, it’s a problem because it reflects our inability to deal with complications. An organization and a movement can have good beliefs and also have questionable tactics, and it does not make them backwards.
Also losing out in this film are African-American women. There is a brief scene with Ida Wells-Barnett calling out Paul for sentencing black women to march in separate units in the parade. It has some great lines—“Dress up prejudice and call it politics? I expected better of a Quaker.”—but it doesn’t feel real. It feels short, thrown in, almost like we should applaud the filmmakers for writing it, be grateful that they tangentially threw in black women, who have been left out of the story for too long. Well, I’m not clapping, or throwing them a bone. Intersectionality—the dimensions of how various forms of oppression interact—is a serious issue that still plagues the feminist movement today, and the filmmakers failure to properly address it as a serious issue is indicative of that.
These criticisms aside, the film has some absolutely wonderful points. Its dramatization of the 1913 parade in Washington (though perhaps ruined by hip-hop music) is vivid, and the crisis after the death of Inez Milholland extremely real. The White House picketing scenes are full of a palpable tension, and the suffragists jail time is portrayed as brutal. The legal limitations of even upper-class women are shown quite personally through the scenes with Emily Leighton, the senator’s wife. The scenes where Swank is force-fed and then psychoanalyzed after she starts a hunger strike are especially hard to watch. At no point is their struggle trivialized, and I do appreciate that.
If I cannot forgive the filmmakers for brushing aside intersectionality, I can at least understand where they were going with highlighting the battle between the old and new suffragists. While historians seek to uncover the past, filmmakers seek to make the past relevant to the present. In this case, that means reaching out to young audiences, particularly young women. And in an era where feminism is still a dirty word in politics and in the media, who can blame them? Alice Paul and Lucy Burns probably weren’t half as concerned with women’s sexual liberation as they seem to be in this film, but I’m okay with that change. I am concerned with historical accuracy, but I’m also concerned with a good story, and identification.
Iron-Jawed Angels is a fantastic movie, and it should not be seen in isolation. This movie certainly had an agenda, and part of that agenda was to educate and remind women of the struggles that others went through to get us where we are today. A reminder not to squander our voice, our vote. It’s tempting to say that with political power, we’re obligated to support modern feminism. But Hilary Swank reminds us that we’re not, really. She doesn’t subscribe to the argument that women should vote because they’re morally superior. “That’s a nice fairytale,” she laughs. “I don’t have any illusions about women. There’s good and bad, just like men. I don’t know what they’re going to do with their vote, and I don’t care.” This is something the feminist movement today might take a lesson from.
Overall, this film needs to be the start of a larger conversation—about history, about Hollywood, about suffrage, about patriarchy, about feminism past and present. These discussions need to happen in the twenty-first century, and if they get started by drawing connections to the twentieth century, that’s fine by me.
Seen the movie? Want to see it? Have other thoughts? Feel free to share them in the comments below!