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Waiting for Liberty

A Review of Iron Jawed Angels

“Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

This was the question stretched across banners in front of the White House, distributed on pamphlets, and spoken all over the country in the 1910s. Inez Milholland, an icon of the women’s suffrage movement, first uttered them. They were her last words before she collapsed, and soon died, while campaigning for women’s suffrage through the western United States. This is also the question that pervaded my mind as I watched the film Iron Jawed Angels.

A somewhat overlooked drama produced by HBO in 2004, Iron Jawed Angels chronicles the struggle of suffragists who fought for the passage of the 19th Amendment in the 1910s. It centers on the lives and efforts of the two leaders of the National Women’s Party (NWP), Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor). In vivid detail, the film portrays the hardships and triumphs of the activists who broke from the mainstream women’s rights movement and, using radical non-violent tactics, helped to acquire women’s voting rights. It depicts the internal struggle between the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), headed by Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston) and the NWP without demonizing either organization. Instead, the film shows the passion held by both parties for women’s suffrage. Far from being a dry documentary or a shoddily produced drama, Iron Jawed Angels is a brilliant and creative rendition of the critical struggle for women’s voting rights. Despite a few anachronisms and some slightly fictionalized situations (a minor romance plot is added, seemingly for wider audience appeal), writer Sally Robinson and director Katja von Garnier crafted a film that is a product of superlative writing, accurate historical research, excellent cinematography and direction, and passionate acting.

These events did not take place in a time beyond memory, but less than 100 years ago. Still today, the fight continues for justice for women in many sectors of life and in all countries. In the determined faces of the women on the screen before me, I saw the faces of women I have seen, pressing on for opportunities that are not available to them simply because they are women; they were the faces of women who long to follow God’s call into ministry, but are held back by their denomination; the faces of women who suffer great abuse at the hands of others, yet who are unable to break out of these patterns because they have been taught that a good woman is submissive; the faces of young women who are coming of age in a culture that tells them to use their sexuality to manipulate men, but to defer to them as well. And as I watched, I lamented with the suffragists, How long must women wait for liberty?

Early in the film, the landmark suffrage parade of 1913 is depicted. On March 3rd, 1913 (the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson) more than 5,000 suffragists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. Women from all areas of American society, from intellectuals to homemakers, actresses to farmers, walked Pennsylvania Avenue to call attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. This parade not only united women from across the economic spectrum, but also joined women across the barrier of race as African American women took part in the parade. At the head of the parade rode Inez Milholland, a lawyer who served as the face of the women’s suffrage movement and one of its most compelling orators until her death in 1916. In the film, as in life, Milholland (Julia Ormond) is both brilliant and beautiful, embodying the “new suffragist.” Clad in white and mounted on a white horse, Milholland lead the parade as a warrior for women’s suffrage. Behind her, the long procession of floats, bands, and thousands of hopeful women marched. Washington D.C. crowded with people gathered there for the President’s inauguration. Onlookers lining the streets pushed through police barriers and began to attack the marchers. Police did little to stop them. The film does not shy from depicting the violence of the attacks, as women are cursed at, pulled by their hair, struck across the face, roughly shoved, and kicked. The brutality depicted is in no way sensationalized; rioting at the actual parade had to be broken up by the military. Where the filmmakers did take liberties, it gave rise to interesting questions about the future. One frame showed young boys watching men on the street hurling empty bottles at the marchers and the next shows the same children flinging bottles and ducking under the barriers themselves to attack the marchers. Poet William Wordsworth once wrote that “the child is father of the man,” and the proof of this is the continued sexism that women face today from men who have been raised to treat women as their inferiors and to scoff at them.

The longer I watched the film, the more insistent the question asserted itself in my mind: How long must women wait for liberty? The film made me ache for the women portrayed, for the long struggle and terrible toll they endured in the battle for voting equality. I mourned as I watched them fight, knowing that some of them would never live to see the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, passed, and that most of them would not live to see the liberties that American women enjoy today. I further grieved the fact that, after their tireless efforts and the passionate labors of many reformers after them, women across the world are still fighting battles, public and personal, to attain their liberties. The infringements on women’s rights are numerous, but a quick scan of international news will reveal the bare minimum: in Eastern Europe, women are being sold into sexual slavery; in the UK, an exhibition by families of women who were murdered by their domestic partners tries to give closure; in Pakistan, women struggle to attain rights to property and inheritance… and the headlines keep coming everyday. How long must women wait for liberty?

Imprisoned for taking part in the Silent Sentinels, the non-violent NWP picketers who flanked the gates to the White House for over two years, Alice Paul used her time in jail to further advocate for women’s suffrage. Adopting a tactic she had seen successfully employed in the suffragist movement in England, Paul went on a hunger strike. Rather than let such a high-profile inmate starve, prison staff force-fed Paul through tubes in her nose and mouth, a process that caused severe pain and bleeding to Paul. When she refused to recant her advocacy of suffrage even after this torturous treatment, prison officials next attempted to prove Paul insane in order to discount her. This scene features perhaps the most compelling acting and writing of the film. Ordered to explain herself for her actions, Alice Paul (Swank), disheveled and bleeding from force feedings, pale and exhausted from her hunger strike, and resolutely determined replies, "You ask me to explain myself. I just wonder what needs to be explained. 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 under which you live. So do I." It was at this point that I wept. Is this not the cry of women across the world facing, even today, terrible persecution at the hands of unjust governments and perverse legal systems? In literature and journalism, film and art, women across the globe are joined in the solidarity of this cry for justice and for a voice.

Every woman should see this film, not only to appreciate the struggle of the courageous women who have fought on our behalf, but also to embolden them to be as radical in their pursuit of justice as their predecessors. This film renewed my fervor to see justice happen in this day for women around the world. The question of “how long must women wait for liberty?” was answered in my own heart as I watched the film. That answer is “no longer.”

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