WARNING: Here be spoilers and a reference list at the end!
HBO’s 2004 TV movie Iron Jawed Angels follows the life of Alice Paul in the last eight years of the American campaign for women’s suffrage. Although the sequence of events in Iron Jawed Angels is largely accurate thanks to the aid of Vanderbilt University’s Marjorie Spruill, it still contains some glaring gaps and inaccuracies (Owens 2004). In the film, for example, Woodrow Wilson is portrayed as antipathetic but indifferent. However, Wilson was far from indifferent on the topic of suffrage; he was staunchly against it and only caved to political pressure from the American Women’s Party. Alice Paul, portrayed by Hilary Swank, is charged with a level of sex appeal that seems to come from Hollywood rather than history. And the film’s treatment of race is almost nonexistent.
Woodrow Wilson in the film is much more sympathetic than the real Wilson was. In the early stages of the picket, Wilson did tip his hat to the picketers as portrayed in the film. He even once invited the picketers into the White House on a cold day. However, either he or his administration played a much larger role in containing the women’s movement. Wilson and his administration have been linked to several different abuses of power, including the false arrests depicted in the film, political censorship of the press and using the Secret Service to maintain surveillance on suffragist sympathizers (Graham 1983).
The Wilson administration worked to keep news of the mob riots against picketers out of print. The riots, which were consistently on the front page of national newspapers, created huge amounts of negative press for the presidency and the Democratic party. The president’s administration and possibly the president himself contacted newspapers and news organizations including the Associated Press, encouraging the press to leave the riots uncovered. Realizing that the sudden disappearance of picket news would cause more harm than good, papers were instructed to keep coverage as sparse as possible and no further front than the fourth page. Iron Jawed Angels shows the difficulty that Paul had securing space in newspapers for editorials, but the attempts at censorship by the Wilson administration are never mentioned (Graham 1983).
The surveillance of Dudley Field Malone, Collector of the Port of New York and Wilson supporter, was one of the Wilson administration’s largest abuses of executive power. Malone began to show support for the suffrage movement, and he was placed under surveillance for over a month. This same Malone resigned from his position and charged to the president that the first wave of arrests were the result of careful planning on the part of the DC District Commissioner. Within twenty-four hours of Malone’s meeting with the president, Wilson pardoned the prisoners (Graham 1983). This first wave of arrests and the work of Dudley Malone is skipped in Iron Jawed Angels.
Along with Wilson’s surreptitious actions, racial tensions are nearly ignored throughout Iron Jawed Angels. At the start of the film, Alice Paul organizes a parade in DC for women’s suffrage. During the organizational stage of the parade, we see an African American woman come to Paul’s headquarters and challenge Paul’s decision to segregate the parade based on race. Paul explains that the decision was a concession to the Southern states, who would only march if the parade was segregated. The woman informs Paul that she will march with her peers or not at all. At the parade, the woman joins from the audience toward the front of the parade, causing Paul to smile. In this exchange, the issue of race is glossed over and the African American woman is never named. However, the character is Ida B. Wells—a famous suffragist and human rights activist (Roberson 2004). The altercation between Wells and Paul happened, but the treatment of it in the film lacks the weight and merit it deserves because Wells is not named, nor is her work referenced. In this moment, Iron Jawed Angels fails to illuminate the race dynamic present in the suffrage movement.
Iron Jawed Angels does a brilliant job of connecting the suffragists with modern women. However, the penalty for this is a character development flaw in Alice Paul. Alice Paul was a Hicksite Quaker (Alice Paul Biography 2012). Paul, as portrayed by Swank, constantly goes against Quaker traditions, though the film twice brings up Paul’s Quaker religion. Paul’s outfits in the film contradict acceptable Quaker attire. In one scene of intercut footage, Paul learns to dance and masturbates in a bath tub. Though Hicksite Quakers were more liberal than Orthodox Quakers, it is unlikely that Alice Paul would have done either of these things out of religious convictions. The Hicksite Quaker lifestyle is well-portrayed in Paul’s stay at home after the death of Inez Milholland, but for the majority of the film, Paul’s character does not stay consistent with her Quaker convictions.
Despite these larger inaccuracies and some minor flaws, Iron Jawed Angels is a strong film that sticks close to history. Iron Jawed Angels has the opportunity to expose more people to the often ignored fight for universal suffrage in the United States, and thus can be a great tool for the advancement of women’s history. The film must be taken with a grain of salt, but overall this portrayal of Alice Paul’s work is worthwhile and powerful.
Alice Paul Institute. “Alice Paul Biography.” Accessed October 3, 2012. http://alicepaul.org/alicepaul.htm.
Graham, Sally H. “Woodrow Wilson, Alice Paul, and the Woman Suffrage Movement.” Political Science Quarterly 98, no. 4 (1983): 665-679.
Owens, Ann Marie D. “Vanderbilt women’s history professor consultant for HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels.” Vanderbilt News (2004).
Roberson, Amaya N. “Iron Jawed Angels.” Off Our Backs 34, no. 3/4 (2004): 62-63.