Iron Jawed Angels, the women’s suffrage movement, and social change

Yesterday evening I was among 50+ people who saw the 2004 movie Iron Jawed Angels at West Chester University.

I think even someone who (though everyone should) didn’t care much about the issue–women’s right to vote, and justice in a broader sense–would recognize it as a great movie with compelling acting. It is not at all, as I had expected, a documentary, but a dramatic rendition, a bit in the Lincoln vein, of a period in US history that needs to be remembered for what we can learn from it today.

Iron Jawed Angels

And at the end of both movies, we have the satisfaction of seeing that rare event of what is now known as the “inside the Beltway power structure” taking a stand for human rights:

Amendment 13 – Slavery Abolished. Ratified 12/6/1865.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction….


Amendment 19 – Women’s Suffrage. Ratified 8/18/1920.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Both amendments were ratified by Congress in a wartime context and (after much agonizing) promoted by presidents who were attacked from all sides and ended up assassinated (Lincoln) or incapacitated in office (Wilson). That shows how hard it is to get things done in our nation’s capital!

Many people see US history as some sort of inevitable advance of progress. But in this country, women won the national right to vote (after gaining full rights in 15 of the then states) not just by hard work and political organizing but by sacrificing personal lives, picketing, and suffering antagonism and physical attack from bystanders, police, and prison guards.

Yes, they were sent to prison for exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. These First Amendment rights are like a muscle: if we don’t use them, they atrophy:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Thankfully, Alice Paul and her suffragist colleagues used those rights. Among other things, the movie is full of lessons to people today who aim to change the status quo. And basically, methods haven’t changed much, except that women probably would have won the vote faster if they had had social media to spread their message (and particularly those horrendous prison mistreatment scenes which, in the movie, one character reveals to her husband by a good old-fashioned note handwritten on a piece of paper).

The women’s suffrage movement had been prominent since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. West Chester, incidentally, played a role. Per the Chester County Historical Society:

1852 Pennsylvania Woman’s Rights Convention held at West Chester’s Horticultural Hall, the first such meeting in the state.

Horticultural Hall is part of the Historical Society (the handsome Thomas U. Walter building to the north of where you enter CCHS at 225 N. High Street).

The movie begins in 1913, two years after an industrial fire in New York City that killed almost 150 women, mostly young immigrants, which galvanized both the American labor movement and the women’s suffrage movement. I wrote about the fire and the PBS documentary in “The 1911 Triangle Fire / PBS / American workers,” 3/1/2011.

Alice Paul, who took leadership of the more aggressive wing of the women’s right to vote movement, was only 28 when the movie begins. But she already had experience (including 7 arrests) in the British women’s suffrage movement; and she is a good advertisement for a novelty of her time, an advanced formal education for women:

Alice Paul received her undergraduate education from Swarthmore College, and then earned her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Paul received her law degree from the Washington College of Law at American University in 1922.[2] In 1927, she earned an LL.M, and in 1928, a Doctorate in Civil Laws from American University. (Wikipedia)

Paul went to the right college for her, as an activist-minded Quaker woman: Swarthmore was founded as a coeducational institution by Quakers in 1864.

I thought of another great American who was, like Alice Paul, way out ahead of his time and helped his time to catch up: West Chester native Bayard Rustin, an early leader of the civil rights and gay rights movement (see “Bayard Rustin exhibit at CCHS ,” 2/12/12) and exhibit at Alice Paul’s alma mater (see “Bayard Rustin at Swarthmore College,” 6/3/12).

Can we learn from these great figures who changed our country without holding elective office? Of course, but we need to be aware of our times.

The period around World War I, when Paul came to prominence, had great unrest, with the burgeoning workers’ rights movement, high immigration from areas of turmoil like eastern Europe, and strong socialist and pacifist movements.

The period around World War II, when Rustin emerged as a progressive activist and leader, was also one of upheaval and consciousness of the role of women and minorities, including in the military.

What of our own time: what are the conditions within which today’s Pauls and Rustins can flourish and lead? I don’t know, but I do know that a high level of education and historical thoughtfulness has to be part of it.

If we are looking for challenges today, among many others: the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed by Alice Paul in 1923, still hasn’t passed through our political system into the constitution.

About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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4 Responses to Iron Jawed Angels, the women’s suffrage movement, and social change

  1. Pingback: Iron Jawed Angels, the women’s suffrage movement, and social change | progressivenetwork

  2. Pingback: The 1911 Triangle Fire, other disasters, and progressive eras | politicswestchesterview

  3. Pingback: The 1911 Triangle Fire, other disasters, and progressive eras | politicswestchesterview

  4. Pingback: Collaborative take away #3 Women’s Suffrage – HIST281 Group 1

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