Film Review: When Women First Got Out the Vote

As today’s presidential candidates work hard to earn the much coveted women’s vote, one recent HBO movie told the story of how women got it in the first place. Here, Rini Cobbey, associate professor of communication arts and one of Gordon’s resident film critics, reviews Iron Jawed Angels, a contemporary dramatization of the final years in the U.S. women’s suffrage movement (starring Hilary Swank), and the first film in the fall Faculty Film Series around the theme, Elections and Presidents. It screened Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. in the Barrington Cinema to a packed house; up next in the series, Secret Ballot, Oct. 8.

“No Delusions”: Iron Jawed Angels

By Rini Cobbey, associate professor of communication arts

“I have no delusions,” Alice Paul claims in Iron Jawed Angels. Women voting will neither perfect politics nor cause chaos – because we are neither detrimentally different intellectually, nor a morally superior sex. We are adult citizens who for the simple sake of self-representation should be allowed to vote.

This seems obvious enough, but the inarguable bears re-presenting in historical context sometimes, against the relief of familiarity and relative ease.

In the Barrington Cinema Monday night Sept. 10, 2012, our Fall 2012 Faculty Film Series panel and a full audience agreed: what the 2004 HBO film Iron Jawed Angels gets right is retelling a forgotten reality, through highlighting the complexity of motivations and costs involved in uniting for a single goal. Representing varied socioeconomic situations, competing perspectives on the roles of women, and diverse political priorities, ultimately thousands of suffragists working for over half a century succeeded in gaining female U.S. citizens the constitutional right to vote.

This singular goal in the midst of a messy mix of people and a painful process is mirrored by the movie itself. The film is a little confused in its style and treatment of historic individuals and situations, but its driving purpose and achievement are undeniable. A contemporary film about an important historical development isn’t necessarily going to be the most cohesive, transformative piece of art and more than a woman voting necessarily redeems government. But it merits attention and is effective in achieving its potential to inform and evoke empathy.

Iron Jawed Angels follows the story of young leaders in the final years of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. It begins in 1912, exposing infighting amongst women and democrats, a constituency and political party otherwise perhaps assumed to be consistently aligned with progressive social values. Suffragette Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) leads a surrounding cast of activists in escalating social agitation. Manipulating media and political systems – all while wrestling with relationship drama on every level – our heroes change laws as well as, apparently, hearts and minds, from prison guards to husbands, sons, friends, and the president.

The film is filled with overt symbols, the subtlest of which stem from its title. The term “iron jawed angels” began in a disparaging reference by a senator to suffragists and came to be associated with not only women’s tendency to talk (or nag, original use implies), but also with the hunger strike which precipitated final popular and political shifts. “Angels” in contemporary cultural use may evoke benign beings characterized by innocence and preciousness. But of course a deeper, biblically influenced perspective recalls fierce message bearers, frightening and powerful in their presence. Jaws and angels gesture at the fundamental point of the movement and movie: voice.

Two scenes epitomize the strengths of Iron Jawed Angels. First, Alice Paul and her political partners stage a parade for women’s votes to compete for attention with President Wilson’s inauguration and arrival in Washington, D.C. Lawyer and peace activist Inez Milholland (Julia Ormond) leads the parade as a Woman on a Horse, her angelic warrior figure emblematic of the story’s pervasive paradoxes. Marching behind her are participants pointedly included to present a picture of diverse identities and priorities merging for one cause. Mothers and daughters, the highly educated, working class, leaders, grassroots volunteers.

Some are motivated because “a vote is a fire escape” – political participation means bringing about laws that affect life and death – while others come from physical comfort and safety, motivated more by self-respect. At one point, African American civil rights activist Ida Wells (Adilah Barnes), literally weaves herself into the mix, physically illustrating the coming together of sometimes contentious concerns as separate races and classes and all sorts of other striated identities march together, provocatively.

Edited with quick cuts and movements and overlain with popular 1990s music, the parade scene aggressively contemporizes an historic event with risky aesthetics.

The other most significant scene takes the film from the bright, promising energy of a parade to dark, horrifying torture as Alice Paul is force fed while on a hunger strike in prison. Again, the images are layered with music, this time the communal voices of other prisoners singing the popular gospel hymn from 1907, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The painful action provides an additional political and visual layer: refusal to have nutritious food given to her when not allowed to participate in her own choices or use her voice symbolizes Alice Paul’s rejection of even good laws imposed on her without a vote.

While I find these two key pieces compelling, other filmic choices feel inauthentic and disruptive. Modern aesthetics infused in a period piece, and historic events and people interwoven with fictionalized characters can work to create empathy and relevance in a young, open, but relatively uninformed or disengaged audience – or it can confuse or patronize an audience resistant to melodrama. Its value ultimately comes from two things: presenting to a contemporary audience a relatively recent political struggle we don’t pay that much attention to, and addressing the desire of women as whole, complicated beings (educated, working, ethnic, sexual) who want public expression to be a part of our role in society.

Conversation with a diverse audience at our recent screening suggests that for all its obviousness and unevenness, the film resonates. We know more what people did and said to bring us to our present state, a state we recognize as continuing some unresolved political and identity tensions. We ask now what remains to be agitated, where current abuses and injustice invite representation and action. And, perhaps, we will vote with increased urgency and gratitude for having witnessed the fight to ensure our right.


Comments are closed.