Film & Television

This Week, ‘Remember the Ladies’

Since 1971, August 26 has been designated Women’s Equality Day. The date was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In fact, had last year not found America’s communities quarantining at home, the country would have celebrated 100 years of women’s suffrage. Like so many other events of 2020, it had to be postponed or observed virtually.

The Nineteenth Amendment reads:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Although it was proposed in 1914, and finally ratified in 1920, the amendment, which runs a mere 28 words, was the fruit of a century and a half of labor. Some early American colonies allowed women to vote, but as the nation unified, those rights were quickly stripped away. In 1776, future First Lady (and eventually First Mother) Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar (SIC) care and attention is not paid to the Laidies (SIC) we are determined to foment a Rebelion (SIC), and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

The Second Continental Congress did not, however, ensure the rights of women, and it was more than 70 years later that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention. 

In 1869, the territory of Wyoming passed the first woman suffrage law, and Stanton, along with Susan B. Anthony, founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Eventually, the organization fell under the stewardship of Carrie Chapman Catt, a protégée of Anthony, who increased its size and influence. 

Two younger suffragists, who had worked with Emmaline Pankhurst in England, joined the American fight in 1910. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were impatient with the slow progress of Catt and her colleagues. Rather than work persuasively state by state, they demanded a federal constitutional amendment. Their more dramatic tactics made use of the media, first staging a parade in Washington to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, and later organizing the “Silent Sentinels” who stood with banners outside the White House six days a week for two years. More than 2,000 women took part in this act of solidarity and peaceful civil disobedience. Popular sentiment turned against them as the U.S. entered World War I, and many of the women, including Paul and Burns, were arrested and incarcerated in a Virginia workhouse, where they were beaten and force-fed. Although this was certainly a shameful chapter in our nation’s history, when the protesters’ brutal treatment came to light, it helped sway public sentiment back to their side.

Finally, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 19, 1920. Famously, the vote came down to one man, Tennessee’s Harry Burn, who had been anti-suffrage until a note from his mother urged, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! … be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

Paul, who reportedly was not a woman to rest on her laurels, moved on to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. As we’ve mentioned here in the past, that amendment has never become law.

However, Thursday is a day to celebrate progress — and, perhaps, to think about how we can continue to ensure that every American citizen has the opportunity as well as the right to vote. Here are some ways you might want to observe Women’s Equality Day, from the comfort and safety of your couch.

The Fight for Women’s Suffrage: Looking Back, Marching Forward was created by Suffrage100MA last year to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s being added to the U.S. Constitution. Through an engaging multimedia approach, it offers a glimpse into the suffrage movement, from its start in concert with the abolitionist movement in the 19th century to ratification 100 years ago. In addition to scholars, students, and actors, the 30-minute film includes commentary by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Congresswoman Katherine Clark, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and many others.

For a somewhat (or maybe mostly) fictionalized account of Paul’s and Burns’s fight, watch Katja von Garnier’s 2004 movie Iron Jawed Angels, which stars Oscar-winners Hilary Swank and Anjelica Huston, along with a fine cast, including Frances O’Connor, Julia Ormond, Vera Farmiga, Lois Smith, and Margo Martindale. The film, which earned what the industry calls, “mixed reviews,” is at first a bit silly (Swank’s Paul seems just as interested in her new pink hat and a budding romance with a Washington Post cartoonist as she is with voting rights). But once the women are arrested, the scenes become a powerful and deeply moving protest of their truly subhuman treatment.

A better film is Abi Morgan’s Suffragette, although it centers on England’s suffrage struggles rather than the movement in the United States. Also benefiting from a terrific ensemble — including Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Carey Mulligan, and Romola Garai — Suffragette is powerful and complicated, darker for the main part than Iron-Jawed Angels, but ultimately inspiring.

Finally, for a very creative — and tremendously entertaining — take on Alice Paul’s story, spend a few minutes watching 2013’s Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage (Inspired by Alice Paul) on YouTube. A clever and affectionate parody of Lady Gaga’s Grammy-winning video, the short film was created by Soomo Publishing, written by Emilia Fuentes Grant, and stars Meredith Garrison as Paul.

These are just a few of the ways you might commemorate Women’s Equality Day. However, the best and most important way to honor the work of Paul, Burns, Catt, Anthony, and so many other brave female trailblazers is to go to your local polling place on Tuesday, November 2, and exercise the right they won for you.

You can stream The Fight for Women’s Suffrage: Looking Back, Marching Forward online here. Iron-Jawed Angels is available on HBOMax. Suffragette is available on Netflix. And Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage (Inspired by Alice Paul) can be watched on YouTube.

 

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  • pat allen August 24, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    What a wonderful way to remind us of the difficulty that women in America had in obtaining the right to vote. There are so many frightening distractions and so much polarization in our country now that we must not forget to value this priceless opportunity to be heard by casting our vote at all levels: local, county, state and national.
    I truly adored the Gaga Bad Romance followed by the video Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage (Inspired by Alice Paul) can be watched on YouTube. Thank you so much Alex for your note perfect combination of wit and wisdom.
    Dr. Pat.

    Reply