By Katie Haegele | Leading suffragist Alice Paul Gr12 was first attracted to the cause by a flamboyant London street protester with a hurdy-gurdy and a monkey. Still an undergrad at Swarthmore, Paul was studying in England when she met radical feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, who was protesting for suffrage at a time when women were rarely permitted to give speeches in public. She caught the fever immediately. And a few short years later at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was earning a Ph.D. in social work, Paul began to formulate her unique strategy to put suffrage at the forefront of the American consciousness.
Iron Jawed Angels, the HBO movie about the final wave of the suffrage movement, opens after Paul had left Penn for Washington, D.C., in 1913. By then the fight for suffrage was already more than 60 years old, but it was flying under the radar. Under old-guard feminist Carrie Chapman Catt, the National American Womens Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was slowly but surely pushing for state-by-state ratification. Newcomer Paul wanted nothing less than an amendment to the Constitution. And because she used tactics like picketing and hunger strikes, she was considered the foremost radical for the cause.
Perhaps thats why the films director, Katja von Garnier, took such great painsand libertiesto make Paul (played by Hilary Swank, best known for her Academy Award-winning performance in Boys Dont Cry, in which she played a young woman posing as a young man) seem as sassily modern as the heroine of a chick-lit novel. Indeed, the first time we see Pauls coconspirator Lucy Burns (played as a likable upstart by Frances OConnor), the two are having a friendly squabble over a pretty pink hat in a shopkeepers window.
The film is correct in highlighting the 1913 event that debuted Pauls public persona: a parade up Pennsylvania Avenue that upstaged Woodrow Wilsons inauguration the next day. In Founding Sisters and the 19th Amendment, the book that inspired the movie, author Eleanor Clift says Paul raised more than $14,000 for the paradea remarkable sum at a time when the average annual salary was $621. Led by fellow suffragist leader Inez Milholland (Julia Ormond), dressed in white robes and riding a white stallion, the pageant drew the nations attentionas well as the ire of many men, whose mob violence ended up injuring hundreds of the marchers. Later, when Paul was thrown in prison for picketing a wartime president, she went on a hunger strike and endured painful and injurious force feedings. (The films title derives from the resistance of Paul and Lucy Burns to being force-fed in prison.)
But even though it has all this very real drama to draw from, Iron Jawed Angels dreams up a troublesome romance between Paul and a political cartoonist named Ben Weissman (Patrick Dempsey), too.
In reality, little is known of Pauls personal life. A modest and serious woman who was raised in the Quaker tradition, she kept few personal papers and only wrote letters that Clift, in her book, calls practical. The Weissman character is a composite, the only person depicted in Iron Jawed Angels who didnt actually exist, yet much of the films tension comes from their courtship, which is peppered with sitcom-style repartee, and Pauls decision to put her work before him. Its all very silly, and you can almost feel the films creators giddiness as they toss real details into the mix: We can have Doris Stevens steal Alices boyfriend! She was, like, a real suffragist!
Other personal details are so modernized, theyre anachronisms. For one thing, that blasted pink hat keeps turning up, both on Pauls head and in her conversations, serving as a signal of her femininity as well as an anachronistic nod to whats thought of today as post-feminismthe idea that a girl can love her lip gloss as much as her liberty. The films other style choices range from goofily feminine to downright lurid; believe it or not, Swank has a masturbation scene that is so horribly miscalculated its hard to decide if its offensive or just humorous.
Anjelica Huston is the stately, stuffy Catt, an old-school foil for Pauls progressive ideas, and eventually Paul breaks away from NAWSA to form a single-platform party. The film would have you believe that it was only their personal conflict that caused the rift; at one point Swank-as-Paul says wearily, I didnt intend to fight against other women. But according to Founding Sisters author Clift, Paul had something more fearsome up her sleeve: she wanted a party that would shake things up and, in Pauls own words, terrify the men in Congress.
To give credit where due, the movie doesnt shy away from the painful conflict between black and white activists in the movement, and it shows how Paul forced black women to march in the back of her parade to appease southern suffragists. Also, as it does with shows like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos, HBO makes use of interesting music and lovely art direction to tug at the emotions.
Most likely, the dramatized touches are meant to make Paul more real, or to show the sacrifices made for the cause. But theyre not only distracting, theyre unnecessary. For instance, the fictitious Weissman, the only non-monstrous male character in the movie, could have been replaced with historically accurate detailslike the fact that one in 20 marchers in Pauls parade were men, or that by 1913 there were 25 states that had mens suffrage groups.
As admirable as it is to remind viewers that the issues raised by Paul are relevant today, the films problems submerge its usefulness. Why play into the idea that viewers can only accept a stereotypical depiction that they recognize from Sex and the City? Besides, depicting Paul as a modern figure actually softens the storys edges. It would have been much more powerful to see her accomplishments in the context of her time. The story of a woman born in the 19th century who was far better educated than most men or women even today, a woman who was true to herself in a way thats unusual for any timethat kind of story would make a great movie.
Katie Haegele C98, a linguistics major when she was at Penn, now writes personal essays and reviews, and one of her short stories appears in the new anthology Women Behaving Badly (Paper Journey Press).
2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Books Award-winners Hahn, Hendrickson, and Stewart
Film Suffragist Alice Paul gets the chick-lit treatment
Interview Miracle director Gavin OConnor
Art Taking Penn arts and culture out of the box
Theater Othello at Annenberg