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.

Museum of the Sons of Confederate Veterans?

The Richmond Times-Dispatch is reporting that the Sons of Confederate Veterans would like to take control of operations of the Museum of the Confederacy:

Conditions at the museum have declined steadily for the past few years,” said Frank Earnest, state commander of the 4,000-member Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The current administration has brought the situation to near crisis.”  During a news conference today at the Confederate Memorial Chapel on Grove Avenue, Earnest said his group plans to meet with the museum’s board of trustees within a month to offer to take over the board and to discuss the replacement of the museum’s president and CEO, Waite Rawls.

I can see it now, special viewings of Gone With the Wind, Birth of a Nation, and Gods and Generals.

Why We Go To War

Last week my US History classes took part in a simulation that explored the reasons for American involvement in WWI.  I use a lesson plan originally published in the Fall 2002 issue of the OAH Magazine of History and fine tune it in ways that allow me to fit it into two class periods.  Students are divided into groups of two and each team is given a state to represent.  Each state has a list of facts that must be considered as the team debates whether to go to war.  For instance, the representatives of Massachusetts must remember that they have a large Irish population, the state has strong ties to England along with economic ties with the rest of the continent.   Wisconsin representatives must consider its Progressive history (Robert LaFollette was governor of the state), along with its German-American population and agricultural economy.  There are nine states in all from around the country that are represented in this simulation. 

We proceed year by year; students have a handout from each year that describes everything that has taken place both internationally and domestically.  Based on their own local concerns they must debate whether to declare war, and if so, on which side to join.  My students tend to automatically assume that Germany was the aggressor nation at the start of the war.  In addition, they assume that if the United States were to join the war earlier it would have to be on the side of the Allies – let’s forget that czarist Russia was aligned with England and France up to the 1917 Revolution.

The simulation usually goes as planned in that very few states are ready to even consider war until 1917 and even then they are wary.  With such a diverse set of interests between the states represented students gain some appreciation of how difficult it is to come to agreement over what to do about foreign affairs.  They ask if this is really our war or whether they can ask young men to fight and die for this specific cause.  The problem becomes more acute when after they’ve declared war in 1917 I ask them what they believe this war is about for the United States specifically.  The most common answers center on trade interests, but few are able to argue just how American involvement will improve the situation.  What is striking is how few of my students focus on "making the world safe for Democracy." 

To set us up for todays discussion I ask them to spend some time thinking of how they are going to market this war to the rest of the country.  How exactly do you convince the average American that what they most want to do is go off to the bloody battlefields of Europe and kill Germans.  Even with the sinking of the Luisitania and the Zimmerman Telegram they find it difficult to view Germany as a natural enemy.

Enter the Committee for Public Information and the work of George Creel. 

Saturday’s Strawman Argument

I have a soft spot in my heart for the Civil War Page of the Washington Times which is published every Saturday. The late Woody West gave me my first writing opportunity back in 1997 and I took full advantage of it. I had no idea what I was doing; however I learned a great deal and West was a pleasure to work with. I still read from time to time. Today I was treated with a “review” from the individual who asks us to rethink our understanding of the concept of friendship to include slaveholders. If only we could be so lucky in our lives to have such friends.

Today Richard Williams reviewed two recent releases that he believes force us to acknowledge that “Southerners have endured two never-ending accusations that, despite their inaccuracy, have made those from the region feel inferior because of their moral implications.” The first title is Bud Hall’s Den of Misery: Indiana’s Civil War Prison (Pelican Press) and the second is Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from the Slave Trade (Ballantine Books)

Williams doesn’t make any attempt to analyze the arguments contained in these studies. Rather he is content to frame his comments around a rather vague assumption: “However, with the recent release of two books, the truth finally is available to all who are willing to examine the facts objectively. What makes these two books so compelling is that they were written by Northerners.” It’s hard to know whether Williams is speaking for himself or the general public when it comes to describing these books as uncovering some kind of long-forgotten truth that has been suspended (one assumes) by those with nefarious interests.

In the case of the first title Williams seems completely oblivious to the historiography of Civil War prisons – both North and South. Perhaps he should be reminded of a few titles that explore in detail the conditions in Northern prisons. They include the edited collection Civil War Prisons (Kent State Press) by William B. Hesseltine. The essays go back to the 1950′s and Hesseltine’s own scholarship on the subject dates to the 1930′s. In addition there is Portals to Hell by Lonnie Speer and the newly-released book While in the Hands of the Enemy by Charles W. Sanders, Jr. (LSU Press). It is disingenuous to make claims about an entire area of historiography without any apparent understanding of the relevant literature. The problem is that further reading would detract from Williams’s initial claim that Southerners (and I assume he means white Southerners) have been the victims of a national lie.

Williams applies the same level of analysis to Complicity and seems to revel in the authors own conviction that they have discovered something new about the history of slavery in the North. He quotes the authors at length:

We have all grown up, attended schools, and worked in Northern states, from Maine to Maryland. We thought we knew our home. We thought we knew our country. We were wrong…. Slavery had long been identified in the national consciousness as a Southern institution. The time to bury that myth is overdue. Slavery is a story about America, all of America. Together, over the lives of millions of enslaved men and women, Northerners and Southerners shook hands and made a country.

These comments fit perfectly into the working assumptions of the reviewer and of course go unquestioned. There is little doubt that the general public assumes that slavery was specific to the South, but that does not in and of itself provide a sufficient reason to conclude that this is a subject that has gone unstudied. Williams emphasizes the book’s focus on New York City, but is he aware that one of the most comprehensive exhibits on the city’s connection to the “peculiar institution” recently opened at the New York Historical Society? There is even a wonderful companion book edited by Ira Berlin that includes a number of first-rate essays.

The final few sentences do not disappoint as the reviewers own prejudices shine forth: “Complicity is thoroughly researched, heavily footnoted and generously illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawing, maps, charts and documents. Unfortunately, the book has been largely ignored by many in academia and the mainstream media. But perhaps the rest of America will, like the authors, soon admit they were wrong about who should share the blame for slavery.” I assume that according to Williams the book has been ignored by academics because they wish to steer clear of the fact of Northern slavery. As I stand here typing this post I look to my left and notice at least four shelves of books about the history of slavery and race in the North. The books cover the colonial period through the twentieth century. All of them have been published in the last thirty years and most of them are authored by academic historians who teach in Northern schools.

A note to reviewers: Take the time to analyze the content of the book’s argument and refrain as much as possible from using the review to further your own agenda – especially if you are not familiar with the relevant historiography.

“Mystic Chords of Memory”: How Americans Have Commemorated and Remembered the Civil War

I am pleased to announce that registration is now open for the 13th annual Civil War conference hosted by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I was honored to be asked to take part by historian and conference organizer Mark Snell.  The conference will take place between June 21-24.


"Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn."  Most Americans don’t give a damn about the Civil War either, but many who do have a manufactured memory of what has been called the "crucible" of American history.  How has popular media manipulated, portrayed, or romanticized the Civil War?  How did the war’s veterans, post-war politicians, and interest groups remember the war or reconstruct its memory?  Why does the Civil War still conjure sectional, class, and racial tensions?  Why has a red, white, and blue flag, garnered with stripes and stars, evoked such emotion through the years?  This fascinating period of history still inspires debate and consternation, as well as admiration and respect.

During this long weekend of study and learning, we will focus on the forces which interacted to develop modern memory of the American Civil War.  Expert historians will help us to examine how perspectives have been shaped over more than 140 years of input and adaptation by various groups and schools of thought.


John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, will be with us for the entire weekend to guide the learning process and contribute his expertise during talks and tours.  In his keynote lecture, he will identify and elaborate upon some of the variables that account for conflicting memories of the Civil War — using the battle flag controversy as the primary case study for that analysis.  John will also chair Sunday’s ever-popular panel discussion, during which much insight and wisdom flows, some questions are settled, and others are ignited.

Kevin M. Levin teaches history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and hosts a blog called Civil War Memory.  His extensive background in history and philosophy has given him searing insights into the idiosyncrasies and the implications of Civil War history and memory.  In his talk, "The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory," Kevin will examine the ways Southerners reinterpreted this pivotal episode during the Battle of Petersurg throughout the postwar.  Memories of the Crater and Confederate Major General William Mahone proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, and the drive towards national reunion.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we more clearly can understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

William Blair is Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and Professor of American History at Penn State University.  Blair’s presentation, "The Politicization of Memorial Days," places the development of memorial holidays, Emancipation Day celebrations, and other remembrances in the context of Reconstruction politics and race relations in the South.  His research examines these civic rituals and demonstrates that the politics of commemoration remained far more contentious than has been previously acknowledged.  Blair’s analysis shows that some festive occasions that we celebrate even today have a divisive and sometimes violent past as various groups with conflicting political agendas attempted to define the meaning of the Civil War.

Thomas Clemens is a renowned expert on the Battle of Antietam and the editor of the Ezra Carmen papers, a post-war compendium of recollections by the soldiers who participated in the battle.  Leading the tour of Antietam National Battlefield, Tom will combine his knowledge of the battlefield and the memories of the battle’s participants to comment on the formation of battle legacy, commemoration, and interpretation.

G. Kurt Piehler is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee.  During his presentation, he will recount American efforts to commemorate wars by erecting monuments, designating holidays, forming veterans’ organizations, and establishing national cemeteries.  Kurt’s experience with history and memory is extensive, having worked previously gathering more than 200 interviews with military veterans for the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II.  He is author of Remembering War the American Way.

Click here for the Registration Form