Iron Jawed Angels

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.

5 comments… add one
  • Sherree May 25, 2011 @ 5:46

    Hi Kevin,

    I saw “Iron Jawed Angels” a few days ago. It is an excellent film. Thanks for introducing it to your readers.

    As far as young women fearing the “label” of feminist, or fearing that they will not be considered feminine if they assert themselves–that is an old fear fueled for myriad reasons by some.

    First of all, we might redefine what it means to be “feminine”. I consider Golda Meir feminine, although I seriously doubt that many do the same. By that, I mean that Golda Meir was fully a woman, equally at home with running a nation and polishing her teapot. That she was not physically attractive by subjective standards set by Hollywood or by Madison Avenue is immaterial–or should be. Second, why are we even talking about this in 2011? Third, what is lost in talking about it, rather than in talking about the fact that women all over the world are still cruelly oppressed, raped, and murdered? Those are the problems for which we need solutions, not which eye mascara to choose.

  • LynnOuwen Feb 1, 2011 @ 4:02

    I only read this one post of yours and since it did not say the ages of the 11 ‘girls’ you sat through this movie with, I can only assume they were high school or younger. What I would like to know is if you received signed parental permission to view this film with these girls? Do their parents know that you had them sit with you through the viewing of the masturbation scene? As a parent of a 6th grade girl, this just shows me another reason we need education reform and school choice.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 1, 2011 @ 4:08

      Hi Lynn,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. The girls in question were all seniors in high school. No, I did not have them sign parental permission forms because I did not think it was necessary. The scene in question was not graphic in any way and it actually fit into one of the narrative threads of the movie, which was to challenge the popular notion that the suffrage movement was made up of lesbians and that the movement itself was un-feminine. I did leave the room for the roughly 60 seconds that you refer to in your comment so as not to make anyone unnecessarily uncomfortable. What I don’t understand is that out of all of the things you could ask me about in terms of how we used this movie in a class on Women’s History you would focus on this.

  • matthew mckeon Feb 27, 2007 @ 21:12

    There’s an interesting account by Lady Constance Lytton’s of her hunger strike in England: tactics that inspired Alice Paul. I xeroxed it from one of those “Eyewitness to History” books, but it probably on the web, maybe at Spartacus Schoolnet. Lady Constance had disguised herself as a working class woman, giving the name of “Jane Wharton.”

    A few years ago I taught at a girls high school, in Massachusetts. It was a residential school for girls with severe emotional problems. They found Lytton’s account very intense, partially because some of them wer bulimic and also they tended to identify with a woman being manhandled in an institutional setting, several having spend time either in hospitals or jail. I smiled when you quote one of our students as “pissed off.” Damn right, kid!

    About “Iron Jawed Angels” and the feminine feminists: Betty Friedan in “Feminine Mystique” recaps the woman’s movement to gain the right to vote and makes a point of describing the early leaders as “petite” or “dainty” to counteract the stereotype of a mannish feminist. Carrie Chapman Catt, in her lobbying efforts in Congress instructed her staff to be ladylike in their approach.
    Well, we’ve certainly come a long way from that kind of superficiality…oh nevermind.

  • GreenmanTim Feb 27, 2007 @ 21:03

    This is extremely interesting, Kevin. You may recall a post or two at my blog concerning my gr-great Aunt Esther Ogden who was part of NAWSA’s national leadership between 1912-1920. She gave my grandmother and her sisters a book in 1940 called Victory: How Women Won It that NAWSA published in 1940 and that might be an interesting reference for your class. I have a copy if you have trouble tracking one down. It was printed when the women’s movement included many who were concerned about opposing totalitarianism while also opposing war.

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