About a week ago I was invited to speak after a showing of Iron Jawed Angels. I am very forthcoming about the movie; its ridiculous fabrications, the manipulative music and, most importantly, what the facts are. I spent a lot of time putting together an abbreviated PowerPoint with emphasis on the movie plot line. Since I was invited by a women’s studies group, I believed it would be an audience interested in the fight for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and the women who waged it.
When the movie was over, a history professor was introduced who was going to take questions. I was rapt. I never learned any of the things I know about the American Women’s Movement in a classroom and this was a welcome opportunity. She began to explain that films tell you what to think, that the facts are unknown because it is the past, that there is no way to know what they wore, how they behaved or what was their intent. She continued about the use of music that was not from that period and drew some conclusion about Hilary Swank as she was in Boys Don’t Cry – though never expressing any regard for Brandon Teena.
Ok, yes, I blew my lid. I raised my hand and said that I had been invited there to talk about the film. She said I could say a few words. I said that you could definitely know things about Alice Paul ~ you can talk to people who knew her, I would furnish the phone numbers. There are photos and letters and that the movie is based on a book, whose author is very much alive.
I struggled to set up my projector, computer and presentation. It was a packed room. I opened with, “I feel like I am in some alternative universe as I usually speak to feminists, activists, people who are interested in political action and social justice. I am not accustomed to addressing people who look at this as an art form with all the latitudes of artistic expression. The devices, fabrications and outright fiction in this movie are known and worthy of discussion."
“You are the sequel. That is both the good news and bad news. The worst thing the movie does is represent this information as if it is all done. Within three years of the passage of the 19th Amendment, Alice knew that women needed a lot more than the vote, they need to be explicitly included in the US Constitution. The job remains unfinished and the biggest problem we have is that most people think the ERA passed and that women are in the Constitution.”
I have seen the movie at least 12 times. I am beyond kvetching about the manufacturing of the boy friend, Doris Stevens stealing him, Alice implying that she could have him back when Doris is in jail. He comforts Alice saying that Doris is having “the time of her life,” and she will write a book. (I wish they had read it. It is real; Jailed for Freedom. It does make me freak to see Alice tying the boy’s shoe laces to a snappy rendition of “Ain’t she sweet.”
Ok, Katherine Leighton is fiction but serves a descent purpose giving voice to rich wives who risked their security and possibly losing their children by joining the movement . Ben is made up entirely which is particularly aggravating as he mocks Alice driving and finally gets her to take off her pink silk hat (oh barf). Why not talk about the actual men who supported suffrage? And why did they chose to portray Susan B. Anthony as sharing in the raising of Stanton’s children – her letters make it pretty clear – she wanted Elizabeth to stop with the kids and get on the road for suffrage.
Why not talk about Jeanatte Rankin, first woman elected to Congress, sole vote against the war and called for an investigation of the Occoquan Women’s Workhouse? Why not talk about the extraordinary women; Alice with a Ph D; Inez, refused at Harvard Law as she was female, earned a law degree at New York University.
And what is the harm? Ask Hillary Clinton. Strong women, brilliant women in a life long battle for human rights are infantilized, trivialized and sanitized only contributes to the castigation of opinionated, capable, aggressive, dedicated women. Someone tell Tim Gunn what he does when he (an accepted gay man) describes Hilary Clinton as “dressing gender-confused.”
So much was good about the story and, even, in the movie. Doris Stevens gazing at the State House ceiling at “the Apotheosis of George Washington,” in which women circle the heavens. The allusion to Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in watching Katherine Leighton hide her little leather bound journal of poetry. The brutality of the force feeding.
My favorite scene is Alice listening to the ghost of Susan B Anthony while placing her ear on Susan’s desk. I almost lost it when I stood in a room with Alice Paul’s desk. It is not done, it is a long, arduous relay of activists and visionaries. To the college kids I have the privilege to address I want to say - this one central message ~ As Alice’s desk whispered to me ~ YOU ARE THE SEQUEL.