“Well-behaved women seldom make history” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
On August 26, 1920 the women of the United States got the right to vote. This did not come to be without the tireless efforts of many women, some of them known, some of them nameless. I am very grateful for the women who literally put their lives on the line to give me the right to vote, so I highly recommend the movie Iron Jawed Angels.
Iron Jawed Angels tells the story of two very brave women, suffragettes Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor). In the beginning of the film, the two have returned to the United States after spending time in England where they’ve been very involved with women’s suffrage. They soon join forces with Carrie Chapman Catt (Angelica Huston) and other seasoned activists in the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to help American women get the right to vote.
However, NAWSA finds Paul and Burns much too frivolous and rebellious. Paul and Burns are seen as way too radical for Catt and her cohorts when it comes to gaining women’s suffrage. Both young suffragists want a constitutional amendment for American women to have the right to vote. The older suffragists want to use a more conservative state-by-state approach.
Before long Paul and Burns break away from NAWSA and start their own organization, which they call the National Women’s Party (NWP). One of NWP’s goals is to oppose any candidate who is against a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.
After disrupting President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress after he refused to meet with the suffragettes to discuss the issue, Paul and Burns go on a country-wide speaking tour to drum up support for their cause. They join forces with influential people like labor lawyer Inez Mulholland (Julia Ormond) and political cartoonist Ben Weissman. There is even a strong attraction between Paul and Weissman, but she holds off on romance because she wants to devote her time to the cause.
While in San Francisco, Mulholland passes away. Paul is devastated. She feels guilty because she convinced Mulholland to go on tour with them even though she was seriously ill. Very depressed, Paul goes back to her family’s home. But soon Burns convinces her that she is desperately needed. Both ladies go back to Washington DC to further the cause.
The country is now involved in World War I. The idea of women getting the right to vote is seen as silly during war time, and public opinion is not favorable towards the suffragettes. While picketing on the sidewalk in DC, the suffragettes are arrested for the trumped-up charge of “obstructing traffic.” The suffragettes refuse to pay the fine and are sentenced to sixty days in a women’s prison.
While imprisoned, Paul goes on a hunger strike after being put in solitary confinement and denied any legal representation. The other suffragettes join Paul in the hunger strike, and later they are violently force-fed by the warden.
Paul starts writing about their experiences after a guard smuggles her a pen and some paper. One of the suffragette’s husbands, a prominent senator, is so horrified by the conditions the suffragettes are living in that he gets the word out. Formerly despised, the suffragettes are now supported by the American public who calls them “iron jawed angels.”
Despite her misgivings about Burns and Paul, Catt is impressed by all the work they have done in name of women’s right to vote. She convinces President Wilson to support women’s suffrage and soon the suffragettes are released from prison. After getting the appropriate amount of states to support the Susan B. Anthony amendment, American women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920.
Iron Jawed Angels is wonderfully acted and truly riveting. The story of these brave women is not very well-known but so important. And despite covering a very serious topic, Iron Jawed Angels has its lighter moments. In one scene, a young suffragette sees the cutest hat a store window and just has to have it proving one can be a feminist and a fashionista at the same time.
Iron Jawed Angels should be shown in American history classes. Every young woman and young man in America needs to learn this story. After watching this movie, you will never take the right to vote for granted again.