Last week my Women’s History class viewed the movie Iron Jawed Angels which focuses on Alice Paul and Nancy Burns and their work to help bring about 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Overall I enjoyed the movie and more importantly my students enjoyed it.
In 1913 Burns (right) and Paul (left) convinced the leadership of the National American Womens Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to set up an office in Washington D.C. and push for a federal amendment. One of their first organized events was a march down Pennsylvania Avenue on March 3, 1914 – the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Paul required black suffragists from Howard University to march at the back of the parade, and the parade itself ended in violent confrontation with protesters. Within a few weeks the suffrage amendment had been reintroduced in the House of Representatives after seventeen years. One of the more controversial decisions made by Paul was to ask women in western states who already possessed the right to vote to refuse to vote for candidates who did not support the amendment; this led to a break with NAWSA and the founding of the National Women’s Party (NWP) in 1916. That same year NWP members traveled throughout the western states to convince women not to support Wilson’s reelection. During WWI the NWP campaigned openly against the war by protesting in front of the White House and using the president’s own language of “making the world safe for Democracy” against him. Protesters, including Paul and Burns were eventually arrested for violating a traffic ordnance and jailed. While in jail both women took part in a hunger strike – tactics which were learned and utilized while in England. The work of the NWP and NAWSA eventually led to the passing of a constitutional amendment and ratification by the states.
The movie did a few things that I really like. Arguably the most important theme in the movie is that it portrays women as feminine. I was very surprised when I introduced this class last year only to learn that a substantial number of my female students were turned off by the idea of studying “manly women.” The movie attempts to correct this bias by including scenes of women putting on make- and getting dressed. There is even a scene where Hilary Swank (who plays Alice Paul) is enjoying a hot bath while thinking about a certain male newspaper cartoonist. I won’t go any further and I have to say that it was just a little uncomfortable as I watched this with 11 girls. That said, I pointed it out the next day as a way to correct some of these assumptions about the suffragists that continue to shape our perceptions. The music was also very effective. While the movie utilizes the sounds of the time a modern groove kicks in when the characters are engaged in suffrage activities. My guess is that the music is suggestive that these women are ahead of their time or modern.
Some of my students were clearly moved by the story; in fact one student let the entire class know at one point that she was “so pissed off.” The scenes involving the forced-feeding of Alice Paul while in jail were difficult to watch, but it is important for students to understand what was involved in the steps that led to the right of women to vote throughout the nation. All in all this is an excellent movie for high school students. I do think it is important to frame the movie around a selection of primary sources and a rich historical context that helps viewers understand the difficulities and challenges that these women faced.
Today we examined the experiences of black middle class women at the turn of the century. I want to make sure that my students have a broad understanding of women’s history, to understand that their stories look very different depending on race and class.