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American Suffrage Movement in “Iron-Jawed Angels”

HBO’s Iron-Jawed Angels offers a vivid, if fictionalized, look at the history of the American suffrage movement in the early 20th century. The struggle for the constitutional amendment guaranteeing female enfranchisement faced considerable opposition from within the suffrage movement as well as without. White and black activists from different social backgrounds had to wrestle with presidential opposition and the threats to their health and life, although World War I proved to be an unexpected benefit to the movement.

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One of the main obstacles that Paul and Burns faced in their struggle for a constitutional amendment was the cautious and apprehensive approach taken by President Wilson. The main reason for this presidential opposition was likely the fact that Wilson’s Democratic Party had “no record of cultivating female support,” meaning that their concerns were largely alien to his political platform (DuBois & Dumenil, 585). As a result, in the 1916 election, NWA activists urged female voters to vote against Wilson until he “promised actively to back woman suffrage” (DuBois & Dumenil, 594). This mutual opposition made Wilson vary of the suffragettes’ cause.

Still, Wilson’s decision to bring the USA into World War I proved instrumental in promoting female suffrage, if indirectly. First of all, as the film showcases, his opposition to universal suffrage put him into a politically vulnerable position in this new context. He was fighting to support democracy in Europe yet, at the same time, denied his country’s own citizens their democratic rights, which was not good for his public image. Secondly, women proved themselves patriots, supporting the mobilization and war effort as well as they could, which granted additional credibility to their cause (DuBois & Dumenil, 603). Finally, drafting thousands of men into the armed forces caused a great demand for workers in blue-collar and white-collar sectors alike. Women proved up to the task, showing that they could do men’s work and, thus, deserved equal rights.

The movie does a great job of portraying Paul’s, Burns’s, and other activists’ willingness to risk their health and lives in pursuit of their ideal of liberty. It becomes especially clear in the section when they are sent to Occoquan Workhouse for their activism and have to endure cruel treatment at the hand of the workhouse’s personnel. The same willingness to risk reputation, health, and life in pursuits of liberty and justice is prevalent throughout America’s history in many people and political movements. One can safely say that Paul and Burns continued the honorable traditions going as far back as Anne Hutchinson and Crispus Attucks.

The movie also aims to represent the suffrage movement as diversely as possible, although within the limits of historical plausibility. The film depicts both white and black activists, ranging from Paul and Burns to Ida Wells. It also hints that women from different social backgrounds, including both white-collar and blue-collar positions, supported the movement. In fact, when Anna Shaw first appears on the screen, she wears a blue shirt, as if to hammer home the blue-collar associations. Asian American women are notably absent from the film, but it makes sense, considering the historical context. At the time of the movie’s events, the Chinese Exclusion Act was already in full force, and the Pacific Coast states passed restrictive laws, such as California’s 1914 Alien Land Act, to discriminate against the Japanese and Koreans as well.

To summarize, Iron-Jawed Angels provides an interesting glimpse into the history of the women’s suffrage movement in America. It outlines the political contest of the struggle, including President Wilson’s partisan opposition to universal enfranchisement and the impact of World War I. It also highlights the willingness of the activists to go to any length for their ideals of liberty and aims to portray the suffrage movement in a diverse yet historically accurate way.

Reference

DuBois, Ellen Carol, and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. 5th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019.

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