Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lazy Movie Weekend: Use Thy Gumption*

"When you're young, when you've never done anything very much on your own, you imagine that it won't be that hard."
-Alice Paul

Earlier this week, several of the national organizers of the Women's March on Washington were arrested during a demonstration in New York. They were arrested outside of Trump International Hotel for disorderly conduct. It just so happened that it was also International Women's Day and they were participating in a Day Without Women demonstration. Supporters followed the women to the 7th Precinct singing songs and calling for their release. All arrested (13 total) were released later in the evening.

From left: Paola Mendoza, Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Bob Bland

I couldn't help but think of these women as I watched this weekend's Lazy Movie Weekend film, Iron Jawed Angels. The film looks at the women involved in the women's suffrage movement from the 1913 march during Woodrow Wilson's inauguration to the "Night of Terror" in 1917 and hunger strikes in the same year to the eventual passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote. At the center of the film is Alice Paul (played by Hilary Swank), a more radical suffragist (US - suffragist; UK - suffragette), who helped organize the 1913 march and would, along with other women, be arrested for silent pickets outside of the White House. Many saw the arrests as political moves by Wilson. The women were beaten and force fed in brutal ways during their incarceration at the Occoquan Workhouse (now the Workhouse Arts Center, an artist's collective).

Alice Paul is a fascinating part of the women's movement. She was a introduced to the ideas of women's suffrage early in life by her her mother, Tancie, who was a member of the National American Women Suffrage Association. Her family were Quakers and believed women should be educated equally (not just educated). Her grandfather was one of the founders of Swathmore College, where Alice eventually matriculated. She earned a degree in biology and was active in activities in college. She traveled to England and met the Parkhurst family, Emmeline and her daughters, who were central figures in the suffrage movement in England. It's from her English sisters that Alice becomes more militant. English suffragettes were known to throw rocks and break windows and heckle. During her time in England, Paul was jailed and became more radicalized in her belief in suffrage.

She returned to the US in 1910 and joined the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She would meet Carrie Chapman Catt (played by Anjelica Huston in the film), president of the association. The women never agreed on strategy; this would eventually lead to a split in the group. However, Catt sent Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Crystal Eastman to Washington to help organize the 1913 march.

The film is exactly what you would expect from a film made for HBO during the early 2000s, at the height of Hilary Swank's popularity (Million Dollar Baby came out the same year). It gets the history right for the most part and many of the characters depicted were real people who did the things they do in the film in real life. There are some random additions, which we'll get to in a few minutes, that are a bit much but ultimately work in the grand scheme of the story. Rather than my normal point by point LMW post, I thought I'd focus on bigger themes, things I enjoyed, and things I thought could have been left out of this movie. Grab some tea and settle in for Iron Jawed Angels.

  • The history is solid. The film is told in chronological order and starts with Alice and Lucy's arrival in DC to help organize the 1913 march (although they call it a parade). We see events escalate to the US joining World War I and the movement through the various moments in the suffrage movement I've talked about above. Alice eventually does break away from NAWSA to form the National Woman's Party (NWP), a more radical group who picket outside of the White House for a solid year. There are a few things that didn't happen that are more for drama than anything else, including the appearance of Patrick Dempsey as Ben Weissman, an illustrator for The Washington Post who is not a real person. There are some inaccuracies, but not enough to be problematic. The three things that I think are important to note: 1. The 19th Amendment wasn't ratified until 1920, not in the immediate aftermath of Alice Paul's imprisonment in 1917. 2. Alice Paul didn't organize the 1913 march; she was involved but not solely responsible for the march. 3. Men were involved in the suffrage movement. Ben is the only sympathetic male character in the whole film. That's not how it worked just as today where there are lots of men who are feminists or involved in promoting women's issues. I think it's important to note this because allies are important and I'm so tired of these movements being characterized as "man-hating" in an attempt to discredit them.
  • The modern music... I get it, using modern music in a historical film is edgy and fun and creates a sense connection between the past and present. Used well, it can be very powerful. It's not as powerful here but at the very beginning of the film and during the 1913 march when "Everything is Everything" by Lauryn Hill starts playing, I can't help but think this feels a bit like a late 1990s/early 2000s girl power movie. I don't think that was the intention but that's sort of what happens. It also made me think of the moment at the Women's March in January where Alicia Keys appeared and sang "Girl on Fire" and it was crazy. A Sarah McLachlan song makes an appearance as well; I'll get to that momentarily.
  • Ida B. Wells. Ida B. Wells did participate in the 1913 march along with other African-American suffragists. The scene between Paul and Wells (played by Adilah Barnes) is perfect. The suffrage movement and the later feminist movement have always had a hard time dealing with race and women's rights. I'm of the belief that if you believe in women's rights, you believe in all women's rights. What's great about this scene is that Ida B. Wells calls them out on their exclusion, "Dress up prejudice and call it progress" are her words to Paul and company. Wells didn't want to march separately from the Illinois contingent. Rather than doing so she waited until the group passed her on the street and then moved into the march between white participants. This is how it happened. It's a great moment in the film although it doesn't remotely address the long struggle with inclusion the women's moments has had long after the 19th Amendment was ratified.  
  • There's a love story. Because of course there is. Alice Paul never married but she did have affairs and companions. She focused her life on her cause; after the passage of the 19th Amendment, she went to work trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment (1923) passed, earned three law degrees, and worked in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. This is a movie, though, so we can't just have a story about a bunch of real women who fought for their (and our) rights. Enter Patrick Dempsey as Ben Weissman (a fictional character) who says things like "Were you the smartest girl in your class?" to Alice and eventually teaches her to dance and drive a car and almost kisses her. This, of course, is set to the soundtrack of "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" a Sarah McLachlan gem from the album of the same name. Alice doesn't really have time for Ben or his adorable son (yep, there's a cute kid) but she does have a little sexual awakening of sorts because of him while this song is playing so there's that. Alice and Lucy have a few conversations about love and marriage and being politically active; they struggle with the same things women today do when it comes to having strong opinions or being a feminist but also wanting love. As Lucy puts it, "All the men I meet are idiots or are terrified of me." Preach, sister.
  • The police, the Occoquan Workhouse, and the blind eye of the public. The women who marched in the 1913 march knew there was risk involved. The police chief could not (or would not depending on the history you read) ensure their safety on the route. Lucy's (played by Frances O'Connor) impression of the chief is one of the funnier moments of the film. The police turned their backs during the march as spectators, mostly men, began to taunt the marchers and eventually, broke barricades and physically attacked the women. Later, when Lucy and other women are arrested outside of the White House and taken to the Occoquan Workhouse, the brutality they're shown is accurate. Lucy Burns was, at one point, forced to have her hands handcuffed above her head while in a cell because the guards realized she would not go quietly. Later, Paul, Burns, and others would be jailed again (this time with no real charges brought against them) and eventually force fed after they go on a hunger strike. This is depicted in the film and is one of the hardest parts to watch. In the lead up to these scenes, Alice is questioned by a doctor at the request of the DC Commissioner (they were trying to declare her insane since that's the only reason a woman would want rights and starve herself). She says this to the doctor: "You asked me to explain myself. I just wonder what needs to be explained. Let me be very clear. Look into your own heart. I swear to you, mine's no different. You want a place in the trades and professions where you can earn your bread? So do I. You want some means of self expression? Some way of satisfying your own personal ambitions? So do I. You want a voice in the government in which you live? So do I. What is there to explain?"
  •  The Senator's Wife. Tom and Emily Leighton are fictional characters but are here to represent a very real part of suffrage at this point in time: women who were married with families who wanted to be part of the movement but didn't know how to do so without losing their families (again not too far off from what some women still feel today about being political or having a job). Emily falls into the movement, donating money and then being more visible in her support. Her husband, a senator, finds out and of course does exactly what a dude at this time in history would do: he takes their children away from Emily and implies that he will have her declared unfit. It's in this moment that Emily decides to dedicate herself fully to suffrage for her children. She's eventually arrested with the group. Tom comes to see her in prison and it's through him that the word gets out that Alice is being force fed and abused. I love this particular plot line. There's so much of it that still resonates today and maybe is even more heightened in the politically charged world we live in. 
  • War is declared so we can't protest anything else...apparently. One of the things I love about the pickets during this time was that the women used Woodrow Wilson's own words against him as they protested. He brought the US into World War I with speeches about protecting liberty for citizens abroad and the suffragists would use those speeches to question his motives at home. The women were heavily criticized, including criticism from NAWSA, for protesting during the war. People equated their protests with not caring for about the sacrifices of the men fighting. Inez Milholland, who rode the horse at the head of the march in 1913, would ask in her last public speech, "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" After her death,while on a speaking tour in support of the NWP, Milholland's question would also be used to protest Wilson, the war, and his lack of interest in women's suffrage. Eventually, Wilson would change his support. He considered it a "war measure" to support suffrage. The film depicts Wilson's change of heart as a solely political move, after he is heavily criticized for the treatment of the women in prison as well as their use of his speeches in protest.
  • The 19th Amendment was only passed because of a note from mom. This is actually true. Harry Burn, a representative from Tennessee, changed his vote to support the amendment at the last minute. He received a letter from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn. She was a supporter of Carrie Chapman Catt and encouraged her son to do the right thing and vote for ratification. Burn's vote broke the tie and led to the amendment being ratified. It's a great little footnote on the passing of the amendment. 

Back in December, I received a Jailed for Freedom pin from a women's group as a thank you for presenting to them about the museum. The pin is a commemorative pin in honor of the 1917 arrests of Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and their fellow suffragists. I wear or carry this pin with me every day to remember the women who came before me and worked so tirelessly for basic rights. I wear it every day to remind me to rise above the comments from others that my support of women's rights and my protests against the 45 are unpatriotic and that I should simply be happy with what I have. I keep it with me to remember that I am in fact an adult lady who can do things and that scares a lot of people.

*A quote from Susan Cunningham, a professor at Swathmore College. She was fond of saying this to her students.

Day Without Women image
1913 March image
1917 picketing image 
Alice Paul Institute  
Other images by me

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