Angels Made of Iron

Here’s a tonic for the misery many of us feel these days when we hear the news from Washington. Rent “Iron Jawed Angels,” an HBO film made in 2004. I came late to the party — I’d never heard of it — and when I recently saw the Netflix copy on my friend Nance’s table, I thought it was a porno movie, or maybe something weird about a cult like the Hell’s Angels?

To my shock, it was one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Halfway through it, Nance turned to me and said, “Every woman in America should see this.” Every man too, I said.

Hilary Swank and Anjelica Huston star as suffragettes who literally almost died to get the 19th amendment passed in 1920 giving women the right to vote. Think of it — that was less than a hundred years ago. When my mother was born, women could not vote.

I’d read about the suffragettes but hadn’t known what they had to go through. When they gathered in front of the White House holding banners, they were beaten by gangs of men and thrown in jail on charges of “disrupting traffic.” One woman arrested was the wife of a U.S. senator who opposed giving women the vote. When he came to see his wife in jail and asked how she could abandon her two daughters, she replied, “Those two girls are the reason I am here.”

In prison, the women went on hunger strikes – a decade before Gandhi did – and were strapped down and brutally force fed with tubes down their throats. (This was before the I.V.) Finally, President Woodrow Wilson was shamed into proposing the amendment, which passed by only one vote!

It was humbling to see that a right we take for granted – a right many don’t bother exercising – was passed by a smaller margin and with even more virulent opposition than Obama’s health care plan. And, when Medicare was enacted, Ronald Reagan denounced it as “socialized medicine” and demanded it be overturned. Every attempt to move forward creates an equally strong backlash.

The film is riveting and charming, brilliantly performed by Swank and a string of award winning actresses from Huston to Lois Smith and Carrie Snodgress. The young suffragettes – gutsy, funny and utterly determined –reminded me of the women with whom I went to Afghanistan last fall. And I knew, had we been alive then, we would have been out there on the streets with the suffragettes. I doubt I would have gone to jail and starved myself. But that’s what it took – a small band of radicals willing to risk their lives to move the giant sleeping middle over the line.

If you had lived during that era, where do you think you’d have stood on women’s suffrage? What unsung movies can you bring to our attention?

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28 thoughts on “Angels Made of Iron

  1. Bruce Nygren

    Like you, Sara, I'm not sure what I would have done. Yes, we all got hosed down and tear-gassed in the 60's, but jail scares me.

    The courage of those women puts mine to shame.

  2. Lynne Spreen

    Oh, this is such an AWESOME film, because it reminds us of how we women were seen as NOTHING, NOTHING, in the view of the law, and this wasn't that long ago. And then what our sisters went thru to win the vote, and now we don't even use it!!! AAARGGH.

    But anyway, what would I have been willing to do? Hide and complain, probably. Alienate my friends, who wouldn't see the point and would think I was too intense. And insufficiently feminine.

  3. Anonymous

    I am a woman whose civil conciousness has bloomed late in life. In my youth I was completely under the control of my father and first 2 husbands. Now married for the third time to a man who wants a free-thinking, independant ME, I have blossomed into a vibrant, engaged member of the human race.

    If I had been in my 50's when the suffragettes movement occurred, I would have lent my considerable creative skills, my voice, my time and any money I had to push the effort forward in spite of the consequences.

  4. Gini Maddocks

    Women sufferegettes… from whence hippies came, methinks.

    It seems that grandparents and great grandparents often have more clout with kids than their parents in many ways. Maybe it's easier to idealize someone older or maybe the natural cycle is to rebel against parents and not so much with the grand ones.

    For whatever reasons, we influence our grandchildren and great-grandchildren in ways their parents cannot. I hold this as a response-ability and am growing to cherish my role as one. I will make certain that my own granddaughter sees this movie with me–and my daughter too–so we can discuss it together.

    We are part of the continuum that those women-with-cause championed during their fight for rights.

    I believe those women would have voted for Obama. I believe we are carrying on their purpose with every indignation we strive to obliterate.

    Right on, gals! We've still got work to do…


  5. RH

    I would love to believe I would have been one of those suffragettes but the courage they showed was remarkable. I would have been verbal but would I have risked jail–just not sure.However good for them and good for us. I was just saying today that for all the progress we have made as women we must never believe that we do not suffer from sort of prejudice daily. When I was storming the “old boys” world someone reminded me that the pioneers were those with arrows in their backs. To all pioneers –thank you.

  6. S

    My great aunt was a suffragist (and a career editor for a still-extant periodical), but I never met her to hear the stories. It's difficult, indeed, to put conviction(s) before comfort, and I have extra respect for those who have that temperment. I'm still looking for the most sincere way to express the activist mantle I've inherited from my families.

  7. Peter Lake, LAKE Real Estate

    “This country went to hell when women got the vote.”

    That was my news editor, Vinnie O'Brien, back in the 60's. He was kidding, of course. Mostly.

    What he meant was that life was simpler when only white men held the vote. And to that extent, he was right. Life was simpler. Unfair, oppressive, unfulfilled, but simpler.

    And while Sara marvelled at the fact that it was less than 100 years since women got the vote, please consider it was only 75 years before that time that human beings could be owned like cattle in our country — bought and sold and held in chains.

    Well, guess what? Those days are only gone in the legal sense. Human beings are still being bought and sold — there are more slaves now in the world than at the start of our Civil War.

    And if you have to wonder what you'd do to obtain equal justice for women then let me answer it for you: nothing.
    You would do nothing if you have to think about it for a second.

    What are you doing now to gain the vote for women in Afghanistan? In Saudi Arabia? What are doing now about human trafficing in the world?

    Oh, sure, women have the vote in the USA…..but boo, hoo — they don't vote.

    Well, guys, I really don't give a rat's ass if women — or men — in this country don't vote. I vote and I'm happy to decide things for them if they don't want to participate. Let 'em stay home. There's plenty of us that do vote but don't let them complain later that they “forgot” to vote.

    Total freedom for human beings is a binary choice: you either believe in it and therefore must fight to gain it for all at the risk of your own safety or you don't think it's that important and you won't do anything about it.

    There's no gray area here and it's not about gender but human dignity and freedom. And if you've got yours and you're not willing to stick your neck out to help someone else's, then let's not mince words about it by saying you wouldn't know what you'd do, “Jail scares me.”

    I don't like jail at all and I've been in it too much, but so what? I don't like that in this country there are still people kept as a commodity, not as human beings.

    Those suffragettes were often a giant pain in the ass but they put their own lives and safety and comfort on the line for their children and for YOUR children, so we owe them now and forever and if you want to escape that debt, that duty, there's a whole lot of other moral cowards you can enlsit in your army of apathy who will sympathize with you.

    -Peter Lake

  8. Anonymous

    Dearest Womenfolk,

    The thing is: NO ONE, and I mean NO ONE since JFK,is WORTH voting for!!! It isn't as if there were “good guys” and “bad guys” out there running and all we had to do was VOTE to get the “good guys” in! The problem now is that it is not possible for anyone with any moral fiber, honesty or integrity to run because campaign funds are supplied to the “boys club only”: Be they man or woman, who are willing to “play the corporate game.” That is it. Until we wake up and somehow join together on a MUCH grander scale, voting is like deciding between Cheerios and Special K, it's all bad for you. Do you get it???
    The woman's movement has failed to give women a real place in “The Game” but who wants to play their game anyway? But to refuse to play….that will take true creativity and action on our part!!!

  9. Judy

    I saw it shown at the Lorton Arts Center which was made when they closed the Lorton prison. It is where the suffragettes were jailed. I agree, everyone should see this film.

  10. Maureen

    I also do not know what I would have done…my best guess is that I would have carped a lot to like-minded friends. The more interesting question, in my mind, is: what is an equivalent contemporary issue that is at the tipping point and needs our bodies and voices to contribute to the critical mass? I think it's largely true that the people who are most critical to change-making are the ones who are dedicated to a single issue, and doggedly stay faithful to that issue over the long haul. Most of us who fancy ourselves progressives are generalists, sporadically lending our energies and donating cash to a smorgasbord of causes. The big, society changing events began in poverty, nurtured by a small coterie of believers who are initially thought of as fanatics. The women suffragettes portrayed in “Iron-jawed Angels” had to be willing to walk through hell “for a heavenly cause.” How many of us are willing to take those steps? Many of us over 50 will remember the British mini series “Shoulder to Shoulder” about the British suffrage movement (centered on the Pankhursts.) I saw this when I was a young woman who fancied herself a feminist and was enthralled. Of course, by the time I was standing up for women's rights, it was a relatively comfortable postion to maintain. Discomfort and struggle is a mark of burgeoning social issues. My vote for our contemporary U.S. issue that would benefit from the renewed efforts of the iron jawed among us: universal, affordable health care. That the social debate surrounding the issue is so uncomfortable and hard is only an indication that that is precisely
    where our national attention needs to remain focused.

  11. Robin

    Hi Sara,

    Check out the film Mary Poppins – yes that's Glynis Johns (Mrs Banks) singing a suffragette song. The UK honoured its suffragettes with a statue in Parliament Sq (I think. ) – or at least one of the Pankhursts. Look for Midge McKenzie's 1970's (UK) tv series 'Shoulder to Shoulder' — the book to match is worth searching for. The UK story of the fight for the vote is just as compelling…one of the British suffregettes there threw herself under the King's horse during a race and died….

    I just finished a dvd series from Canadian tv made in the early 90's called 'Women and Spirituality' – a 3 dvd set about the history of the goddesses, the witch burning period and the recent Wicca movement. Starhawk, Jean Bolan and other Americans appear in it. What got to me was the second dvd about how the goddess era was destroyed by the early patriarchal religions who reclaimed the creator as solely male and took possession of every female role — they even outlawed midwives and burned women — 9 million possibly over the centures. Perhaps its a coincidence that i saw this the week that the new speaker of the house started touting his anti-abortion fire and the Republicans voted down equal pay for women — but it looks like we are being crushed again…its amazing how the new Republicans resemble the early Christians in wanting to reduce women to wombs on two legs…the property of men…sigh. Oh dear. Don't stop digging now.. your fellow boomer females need you writing on the front line

  12. Joel

    Thanks for the recommendation. Have added it to my Netflix queue. As a result, Netflix also recommended a bio of Billy Graham and something called “Letters To God.”
    Makes you wonder…

  13. Katia

    Awesome Sare, I am sending it on to my girlfriends…. Such a service you are providing all of us to turn us on to this. Musician and political activist…you are something in your old age. ha.

  14. Anonymous

    As usual, I love your blog. Didn't want to sign up with Google; so here are my musings:

    I watched the film a few years ago. As with you, the details of the suffrage movement had been previously unknown to me.

    I'd assumed, from seeing old photos, that the suffragettes had marched, en masse, in the streets, toting signs. It had never occurred to me that, for doing so, they'd been beaten up by gangs of men.

    Such irony; on the one hand, these men said, “You cannot vote,” implying that the women were delicate, weak, and less intelligent; and on the other hand, they beat women up for working to gain the vote. Puts those men in a very bad light…beating up on someone who’s delicate and weak. But bullies don’t give much (if any) thought to their actions, so the irony would have been lost on them.

    I do wonder why so many are averse to change. We saw it then; we see it now; and your examples of Social Security and Medicare make it clear that change-resistance has accompanied every attempt toward betterment of society. Why do some so vehemently resist change, when…along with death and taxes (as has been famously said)…change is the only thing we can count on?

    As for what I would have done: I don’t know. I’m a product of my time and circumstances. Had I lived in another time and different circumstances, I would not be as I know myself to be. Hence, as myself, I cannot say, with any certainty, what I would have done.

    But as a product of my time and circumstances, I say, “Thank you,” to all who, in their struggles, allowed me to become who I am today.

  15. Stephy

    I'd really love to check out this movie now! Thank you for giving that perspective to reforms getting such pushback, gives me hope : ). These blogs are great! I've been following them since that hilarious story about the bear in your house. When you went to Afghanistan, did you write up on that? If so, I would love to read about it. If you haven't already, I've just fished the book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It's about a Dominican youth and his family and the DR's histories – really interesting stuff.

  16. Judith

    Hi Sara,
    You are the third person who has recommended this movie to me, so I guess I have to get it as soon as I can. Shocking too that several decades ago (time collapses, but it was in my voting life) the Equal Rights Amendment did not pass.

  17. Anonymous

    i too have seen this movie on HBO, and i guess i never knew what this struggle for the vote for women entailed. to think that this happened in the early 20th century is mind blowing. the right to vote is precious and as citizens of a country it should be exercised as a privilege.

  18. Jackson

    Hi Sara,
    The events of 1920 have always interested me. Since I have supported liberal and progressive causes since I was a teenager, I suspect I would have been out their demonstrating with the women.
    Sara, I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season

  19. Maureen

    Hi Sara, I was engaged by your blog and question and I wrote and submitted a response two days ago. Since publishing is up to your discretion, I'm wondering a) if you got the comment or b) if you got it and found it somehow inappropriate. This is the first time I've commented on your blog, and I'm just curious!

  20. diane

    Sara – I was really glad to see this blog post come from you. Angels is one of my all time favorite movies, and I do tell everyone to watch it (well, almost everyone) at least once. I've been in marches for womens' rights since the 60's, too; and worked against domestic violence for 22 years, swimming upstream all the time. I'd like to think I would have had the courage to to stand shoulder to shoulder with these angels… but I don't know that I could have done it then. Thank you so much for spreading the word about the Angels. We need to keep this film moving as a reminder to our younger sisters. Bravo!

  21. Linda

    Hi Sara-
    I am so glad you wrote about this. When I was in college I studied the suffragette movement but that was along time ago, and you have made me recall at that i learned at that time and marvel at it–and be grateful. I am definitely going to see this movie!

  22. Windy City Author

    Sara, thank you for this wonderful post & passing the word about this remarkable movie. This is one of those very special movies I've shown in the classroom (college level history) in order to help press home a point & this one did is well, indeed. I just found your blog & am looking forward to getting to know you better.

  23. Windy City Author

    Sara, thank you for this wonderful post & passing the word about this remarkable movie. This is one of those very special movies I've shown in the classroom (college level history) in order to help press home a point & this one did is well, indeed. I just found your blog & am looking forward to getting to know you better.

  24. Hilary in Los Osos

    Saw the movie last weekend, thanks to your recommendation, with my neighbor. Well written, beautifully acted, but really, I could have done w/out Hillary Swank's masturbation scene in the bathtub. Um, what was the point of THAT? Her loneliness could have been conveyed in other ways, Sara! Interesting, too, after the film, I looked up all of the women on Wikipedia… and saw how fictional characters had to be written in to make the movie more interesting and um, romantic. Too bad that HBO execs probably insisted it be this way…

  25. Anonymous

    Thanks, Sara….for always helping to balance out the generally shallow and revised information we are fed.
    Terry Allen

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