This film tells the story of the lesser known National Woman’s Party (NWP) led by Alice Paul which broke form the larger National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to pursue more radical tactics to gain women the right to vote.
When I saw this movie almost 13 years ago, I was unreservedly dazzled by it. I loved that it told a little known story. I loved that it blended modern music with its historical setting. I loved that it starred pouplar, beautiful, young actresses.
Today I have more mixed feelings. I particularly dislike how it distorts history – mainly because I believe it didn’t have to and still tell a compelling, relevant story. However, I still love that it tells a story that most people don’t know. For that alone, I think it’s a worthy film despite its many flaws.
I’ll start with the film’s strengths:
The film accurately portrays the violent resistance to women’s suffrage. It also portrays, with a fair amount of accuracy, the truly radical-for-the-time strategies these younger suffragettes employed to achieve their goals – namely passive resistance. The film is particularly strong in its final third when it shows what exactly these women endured so that scores of future American women could be full citizens under the law. These women were illegally held in prison and brutalized simply for asking to be taken seriously. I will be forever grateful for their sacrifices, and I will never take my right to vote for granted.
Now, the film’s weaknesses:
First, I dislike how it paints the ‘old guard’ (NAWSA and Carrie Chapman Catt) as the mustache twirling villains and totally diminishes their massive efforts to get women the right to vote. Catt wasn’t perfect. She was a brilliant orator who sometimes used her silver tongue to sway racist southerners to her cause. But she was also a tireless organizer and excellent fundraiser. Her intellect, tact and diplomacy absolutely played a critical role in finally getting the 19th passed. The funny thing is that Catt is portrayed as the villain not for her racism and questionable tactics, but for being an old buttoned-up fuddy-duddy staunchly opposed to change. The truth is that these younger suffragettes (Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, etc.) were absolutely standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, and it annoys the crap out of me that the filmmakers didn’t pay them a little more tribute.
Second, I loathe the made up romance between Alice Paul and the newspaper man. Why? Was it contrived to humanize Paul and assure modern audiences that she wasn’t some radical man-hating lesbian? What’s worse, it seems like an excuse to include an edgy masturbation scene. To be clear, I’m not against masturbation OR female sexual pleasure, but the MPAA sure is. That means this film is NR – Not Rated – which makes this film pretty much off limits to the very audience it’s endeavoring to reach! Furthermore, Paul is reported to have dated a bit, but the truth is that she devoted her entire life to this cause, and she never had a single romance like the one depicted in the film. The film ever so slightly touches on the elusive idea of women ‘having it all’ being an impossible dream for women, but it doesn’t explore it in any real depth.
Third, I hate how it glosses over the suffrage movement’s issues with racism. I’d honestly rather it ignored the issue altogether than do what it did – which was to lamely include a couple of token scenes between Ida B. Wells and Alice Paul. The truth is that the suffrage movement of the 1910s absolutely buckled down and tried to distance itself from controversial issues (such as racial equality). It used both racist and, yes, even sexist! tactics to achieve its goals. The way the film dances around this demonstrates our inability to deal with contradiction and complexity in our historical heroes. Just as the abolitionists of the 1800s could earnestly fight for ending slavery *and* still hold horrifically racist views, suffragettes could be passionately dedicated to one social justice cause while completely ignoring (or even spurning) others. AND THIS STILL HAPPENS TODAY!!! Why are we so afraid of nuance?
I realize I’ve listed and elaborated on far more weaknesses than strengths, but I still believe that the strengths are redemptive enough to give this film significant value. This move simply must be combined with other resources AND discussion about this topic.