“Iron Jawed Angels”: A Review for Instructors

Film poster for “Iron Jawed Angels”

I reviewed the historical drama, “Iron Jawed Angels,” a 2004 HBO Films production directed by Katja Von Garnier. The film tells the story of suffrage radicals Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) and their role in the fight for the 19th Amendment.  This is a story I teach, and many students report having viewed this film and being surprised by its story.  I accessed the film via Amazon Prime (it is not free online), and I’m reviewing it here for how it might be used in teaching.

Impressively the film takes on key themes in suffrage history: Women’s suffrage activists as political prisoners; generational conflict in the women’s movement; the role of radicals in the broader movement; whether or not any cause is as important as peace and war; and women of color in the movement. Suffrage historians are familiar with all of these topics. While not all these themes are equally well executed or accurate, there is plenty here to unpack with students.

The film does an excellent job of exploring the imprisonment of suffrage activists. The depiction of women suffrage activists as political prisoners is emotional, moving, and steeped in references to the American Revolution. One lawyer shoots down the idea that Alice Paul is insane because she is willing to hunger strike at risk to her health for women’s full citizenship by citing Patrick Henry’s famous quote: “Give me liberty or give me death.” This no doubt connects viewers to the long aspirational legacy of the Declaration of Independence. 

The prison scenes stay true to the primary sources by prisoners Lucy Burns (the notes she was able to smuggle out of jail) and Doris Stevens’s later book, Jailed for Freedom, regarded as the most significant insider account of the imprisonment and “night of terror,” when picketers were beaten and handcuffed [1:20:44-1:23:41].  This makes it possible (and useful) to teach this part of the film alongside the primary sources. Excerpts are available at “Silent Sentinels and the Night of Terror,” Blackbird Archive.[1]  Students can also pursue Stevens’s background, why she wrote the book, and who she was writing for. (Although she certainly wanted to memorialize the National Women’s Party’s (NWP) work for the vote, she was also working toward the next goal: the Equal Rights Amendment.)

The film’s creators exaggerate generational conflicts in the movement.  Von Garnier likely does so to make the struggles and personalities familiar to audiences.  There were conflicts and generational divisions, but there were also older women who joined Paul’s NWP and young ones who stuck with the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Moreover, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt’s opposition to the NWP never led her to publicly call the Silent Sentinels who picketed the White House “anarchists” and “draft dodgers” as the film would have it [1:26:20]. Her editorial against the pickets in Good Housekeeping was rather measured and focused on strategy. She did worry that the pickets would make other Americans “view woman suffrage today with hostile eyes” and therefore be a “disaster alike to suffrage and to the nation,” but it is likely that a woman-against-woman cat fight was deemed useful for the plot.[2]

The role of radicals in making the mainstream movement seem moderate is depicted well in “Iron Jawed Angels.”  Catt’s meetings with Wilson increase as the radicals turn up the heat.  And the scenes of soldiers heading to the front and the quotes from suffragists like Inez Milholland saying nothing was more important than stopping a war remind viewers of how hard it is to keep a movement for self-determination going as national attitudes shift toward supporting war. Finally, the inclusion of women of color is not always accurate, but to its credit, “Iron Jawed Angels” does raise the issue.

The role of women of color in the suffrage movement is included though it is fictionalized to streamline the story and relegated to the margins of the storyline. The film shows Black women marching in a segregated section of the famous 1913 Washington D.C. parade to underscore the racism in the movement, but it largely lets Allice Paul off the hook for the part she played in perpetuating racism, and it largely ignores the contributions of women of color to the movement. This is, in part, a historiographical phenomenon. When the film came out in 2004, it was well known that the national movement bowed to southern pressure and relegated Black women to segregated organizations. (It’s worth talking to students about how a film’s focus might shift in twenty years.) But recent scholarship shows that Native women, Black women, Asian American women, and Hispanic women marched in delegations from their states, their colleges, and their affiliate groups in the 1913 parade and influenced the ideologies and direction of the movement.[3]

“Iron Jawed Angels’s” treatment of suffragist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett highlights this marginalization of women of color. In one scene, Wells-Barnett appears at the Congressional Union office, demanding a place in the D.C. parade with her Illinois contingent (not in a segregated section at the back) [11:20-12:19]. In the film, Wells-Barnett and Paul meet face to face, and although Wells-Barnett has the opportunity to explain that women’s rights were not women’s rights without Black women, Paul’s comment that “I understand” never happened and likely would not have. In reality, white women from the Illinois delegation appeared at the D.C. office and pled Wells case, and it was another Black woman (Nellie Quander, president of Howard University’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority) who addressed Paul directly about Black women’s role in the movement. Quander had written to request a fitting place for women in the parade lineup, and Paul had ignored her letters. The AKA women  “arrived at Paul’s parade headquarters” and “were received coolly and told they needed to register for an appointment, but every time they tried, they found that the registry clerks happened to be out of the office.” Although Anna Howard Shaw urged women of color not to be dissuaded from marching, segregated sections and media messages not to march at all sent conflicting messages. Ida B. Wells, as the film shows, was told to march with the Black delegates in a separate section. She did not line up at the beginning of the parade but stepped into the parade into her rightful place with the Illinois delegation.  In the end, Paul’s unwillingness to engage Black women is excused in “Iron Jawed Angels.” When she sees Wells-Barnett step into the parade route (an action Paul was highly unlikely to witness), she smiles as if this is the appropriate move.[4] The treatment of race in the film allows for a token character (Wells-Barnett) to stand in for all Black women, minimizing the dynamic role they played in their own suffrage societies and in the national movement. This is worth talking through with students.

Image from the Chicago Tribune of Ida B. Wells marching with the Illinois delegation in the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C. at https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/teaching-justice-ida-wells-suffrage-procession.htm

If one has time in the course plan to fit the entire film (at over two hours this is difficult), it opens up lots of opportunities to discuss suffrage and the director’s choices. (The prison scenes are worth showing separately.)  Introduce the film after having students read suffrage documents about the silent sentinels and their imprisonment. Before viewing the film, ask students to think about whether or not the women were “political prisoners.”  They will need to think through definitions of this term and compare them to other political prisoners they are familiar with. Next, watch the film. 

Thought questions include:

  • How do younger and older women in the movement relate to one another?  How common are these kinds of divisions within organizations and movements?
  • How important were radicals to the movement?  To what extent did the radicals bring negative attention to the suffrage movement and to what extent did the radicals make politicians willing to negotiate with the moderate wing?
  • How are women of color in the movement depicted?
  • Why do you think the NWP decided to continue their pickets during World War I?

To interrogate accuracy (something that is hard to do when you are just learning about a topic), I’d ask students to investigate one figure (or character).  The students could research main figures like Alice Paul or supporting characters like Doris Stevens, Anna Howard Shaw, Emily Leighton (who students will find out is made up), or Ida B. Wells to investigate the accuracy of the depictions.  Student groups could each investigate a different character, sharing with the class what they uncovered. In the process, students can ask their own questions about the historical accuracy of the quotes, ideas, and events surrounding their character. Since the film creates composite characters, it’s important (once students have shared out the inaccuracies that they uncovered) to talk about why directors make choices to fictionalize historical stories.  I hope they begin to ask if we gain an understanding of the human past through streamlined stories that help us understand historical choices through fictionalized but well-developed characters, or if we lose understanding because of liberties directors take with plot and character.

[1] “Silent Sentinels and the Night of Terror” Blackbird Archive 17, no. 1 (Spring 2018) at https://blackbird.vcu.edu/v17n1/gallery/1917-suffrage/intro-page-night-of-terror.shtml

[2] Carrie Chapman Catt, “Why we did not picket the White House ,” Student Digital Gallery, accessed May 25, 2023, https://digitalgallery.bgsu.edu/student/items/show/12735.

[3] Cathleen D. Cahill, Recasting the Vote How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); and Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (United States: Basic Books, 2020).

[4] Cahill, Recasting, 102-107.

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