A movie to see for Women’s History month (March) is Iron Jawed Angels, which documents the activities of Alice Paul, a Quaker, Swarthmore graduate and passionate supporter of the movement for women’s right to vote. Similar protests for the vote were occurring in London and Paul studied and lived there for a while, joining in the protests where she was jailed three times. On her return to the states, she formed a group of young suffragettes who were impatient with the slow progress of the conservative leaders of the National American Women’s Suffragette Association. This new group, the National Women’s Party, used the more radical tactics Alice had learned in London with marches, protests and a daily presence with signs and banners in front of the White House during Wilson’s era.
Often attacked by men during their protests, the police looked the other way and eventually Massachusetts and Pennsylvania sent members of their National Guard to form a barrier between the women and the angry men. This support was left out of the movie for dramatic reasons, I am sure!
Jailed on the charge of “impeding traffic,” a ludicrous charge when the women were backed up against the fence around the White House and the traffic was in the street, they began a hunger strike. There are horrendous scenes of force-feeding raw egg to the women, scenes that made me feel nauseous. Reports of this made it into the papers, embarrassing Wilson who eventually came out publicly in support of a women’s right to vote in 1917.
Many know of the dramatic scene in the Tennessee assembly when the vote was taken and it looked as though it would go down to defeat when a telegram was delivered to a young Harry Burn. The telegram was from his mother, urging him to vote to pass the bill. He did, ensuring victory by delivering Tennessee as the 35th state with his one vote.
A 2014 movie, The Suffragettes, documents the fight for the vote in England. If the movie is true to circumstances, the movement there seemed to involve many more working women rather than the more privileged women here in the States. The working women in the English mills were poorly paid, working conditions were abominable and in this movie, the women were subject to the whims of the boss. But then privilege is relative; you may have a nice home, plenty of food and a fashionable wardrobe, but if you are considered a man’s property, with no legal rights to your own children, then you are not free.
Once the vote was won, Alice went on to work for the Equal Rights Amendment, drafting the first version. The ERA needed the vote of 38 states by then, but only 35 states favored its passage; it’s still waiting out there, women…perhaps we should take it on. Alice lived to be 92; one can imagine her now taking on the lawmakers who decide on women’s’ health and access to care as though we were still their property. A quote from Alice that we can strive to change: There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it.