At Home

For you Bill Bryson fans out there, I have not yet read At Home, but the allusion is there.  From my understanding, Bryson’s book is about home life in Victorian England.  And since home life for American women in the 1950s was closely related to home life in the Victorian period, I figure I can borrow the title.

During World War II, women had been urged in droves to enter the workforce and take manufacturing jobs.  The war effort rested on the work of these “Rosies” who built airplanes, parachutes, weapons, ships, you name it.  They built it all.  And then the soldiers came home.

As soon as the soldiers began coming home, the propaganda ads started singing a different tune.  Instead of Katharine Hepburn telling women to go become scientists, advertisements started using female doctors to tell other women that their place was in the home.  After living through two emergencies in the 30s and the 40s, women were finally sent back into their homes.

While at home, women were expected to take up the roles of mother and homemaker.  Suburbia blossomed, and family structure became more and more uniform throughout the middle class.  Women were wives, mothers, cooks, housekeepers — everything that they had been during the height of the Victorian period, with just as much restriction in their clothing.

The Victorians are famous for corsets that morphed and deformed the torsos of women, but the corset came back into fashion in the 50s.  Breasts were a big deal; they had to be big and high and oddly pointy (a shape that breasts just aren’t).  Skirts and dresses fell at that awkward place about mid calf.  With the discovery of artificial pearl growth, pearls became less expensive and an important sign of status.  High heels were a must.

Because people could afford to live on one salary in the 50s, middle class wives didn’t need to work.  They were able to stay at home and be wives and mothers, if they so desired.  Of course, if the middle class wife wanted to be in the work force, that was nearly impossible.  Public opinion was staunchly against working women.  Mothers especially needed to be in the home.

But what about today?  I’d be quick to say that we are far removed from the Victorian mentality of separate spheres, but are we really beyond the societal push to keep mothers at home?  Recently, I read “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter.  Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, left her high-powered government job in DC in order to be at home with her teenaged son more often.  During the two years that she worked in DC, Slaughter’s son began getting in trouble in school, so Slaughter made the decision that she was more needed in her family than in her government.

Throughout the op ed, Slaughter debunks the belief that women today can “have it all” — the job, the spouse, the children, and some time to do something else on the side — and shows how women today aren’t that much better-off than we were in the 50s.  She goes through a sequence of half-truths about career life and family life, explaining how “it’s possible if you marry the right person” and “it’s possible if you sequence it right” are dangerous assumptions that largely don’t pan out for most women.  Women are no longer stuck in the home, but many women with children have to face the choice between advancing professionally and staying at a lower-level job in order to spend time with their children.

Whether or not our popular understanding of men’s roles and women’s roles have changed since the 50s, workday schedules and school schedules have not.  As life span and general health into old age increases, people have more years during which they can advance professionally, but promotions are still tracked on the same time frame that they were in the 50s.  Even though video conferencing technology and the internet make working from home highly possible and possibly more efficient, companies still value time spent in the office over time spent actually working.  Slaughter pegs these unchanged systems as key stumbling blocks for mothers advancing in the workplace.  She also challenges the current value system in the United States that puts professional advancement over the pursuit of happiness.  Even though our conscious minds are far from the ideology of women at home in the 50s, our work culture is still deeply rooted in that tradition.  It’s a tradition that needs to change before mothers and fathers can truly balance career life and family life without feeling like something is missing from one or the other.


Depressing and Riveting Emergencies

During the 1930s and 1940s, two different emergencies drastically altered women’s roles in the United States.  The first emergency, The Great Depression, urged women out of the workforce and into the home (despite the number of employed women rising).  The second emergency, World War II, spent four years pushing women into the workforce to fill the void left by male soldiers.

The Great Depression was an economic emergency that effectively ended the flapper culture of the 1920s (I missed a decade due to Sandy, sorry!).  Whereas in the ’20s, both men and women experienced a loosening of sexual mores and personal liberation, the stock market crash of 1929 sent the nation into a tight fiscal crisis.  People of both genders lost jobs.  And the message to women, in general, directed them to stay at home so that men could have a better chance at getting a job.  Men, as the breadwinners, needed their jobs to support their families, but women who worked for “pin money” ought to leave the salaries for men (of course, the “pin money” worker was a largely inaccurate stereotype).  The working woman was not respected by society at large because she was taking the labor that belonged to men.

Let my Daddy work!


Of course, women who worked during the Great Depression were not likely to be after economic independence and purchasing power.  They, like men who worked, were supporting their families, and women entered the work force at twice the rate of men.  Women did a wide variety of work throughout the Depression, including hosting boarders who could no longer afford to live on their own.  Women’s wages increased to 63% of men’s wages, even though the number of women in the workforce grew (usually the two were inversely related).  Due to the segregation of labor that had already existed, many women were able to stay in the workforce because men did not want to do “women’s work.”  So even though public opinion was against women workers, the Great Depression actually spurred more women into the workforce.

Famous migrant mother photo by Dorothea Lange

The only way to really break the Great Depression was to get involved in a World War.  And women, Uncle Sam needed you to fill the positions left vacant by young soldiers.  Check out this propaganda video scripted by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by Katharine Hepburn:

The natural skills of the homemaker, like sewing, can translate easily to industrial work, and since the lives of men depend on it, women are necessary for the war effort.  I particularly enjoyed the part about parachute production about five minutes into the video above; of course women are better at making a silk parachute!  They have those nimble lady-fingers, after all!

Sarcasm aside, the campaign to get women working during WWII used fierce amounts of propaganda.  If you weren’t working, as a woman, then you were not doing your patriotic duty. The labor of women became essential in making sure that the men overseas were well-equipped and protected.  This new breed of working women was championed by Rosie the Riveter.

Traditional Rosie poster

Another Rosie design

For a few short years, being a working woman was at the top of public opinion.  However, as soon as the war ended, women were expected to pack up and go home.  Those jobs that women had adopted naturally belonged to men.  Propaganda ads began telling women to quit their jobs and return home, when just a few years before, they had been urging women into the workforce.  Women were fired by droves in order to make way for male workers.  Rosie the Riveter and her sisters at work were pushed into memory.

Both of these two emergencies show one consistent theme.  When men leave the workplace, either through economic downturn or wartime soldiering, women quickly fill the gap.  But when men return to the work force, women are once again pushed out.

Hi, all! I just posted this on my main blog, but felt like I wanted to put it up here too. Harriot Stanton Blatch would be proud of me voting.

Maggie Felisberto's Blog

I woke up this morning, stayed in bed until 7:00 (the alarm had been for 6) because I was too warm and cozy to leave.  But then I remembered, “It’s Election Day!” and I jumped out of bed and into the shower.  Currently, it is 9:30 a.m. (ish), and I have already voted in the 2012 Presidential Election (I voted for Obama, and then party line Democrat).

First — Voting is soo important, so if you are registered but still debating about heading to the polls, YOU SHOULD GO DO IT.  A hundred and fifty years ago, African Americans couldn’t vote, women couldn’t vote and men who didn’t own property couldn’t vote.  Please, oh please, no matter who you are or for whom you vote, please go vote.

Second — I registered to vote in Nyack this year (Orangetown District 32), partially for convenience and partially for the fact that…

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Sarah Hale, I Love You

I know, I know.  I have now announced that I am leaving the 19th century.  Why should I go back there?  Why bring up Sarah Hale again, considering the fact that I posted about her five weeks ago?  Well, I can’t help it; I have to let you all know what I’ve been up to with regards to Mrs. Hale.

At Vassar College, in Special Collections, there are sixty-three letters, each in separate folders, split into two boxes.  They’re the letters that led to Vassar College being called “Vassar College,” as opposed to “Vassar Female College.”  Most of the letters are typescript copies that (I think) were made in the 1930s (based on some notes on the bottom of a handful of the letters in the second box), but a few at the beginning of the collection are original letters.  They are the letters that Sarah Josepha Hale, “Editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, sent to Matthew Vassar, John Raymond, Benson Lossing and others.  She was campaigning for the institution’s 1866 name change, and she led the charge for six years.

See how there’s no center plaque on the top and the brick has faded? That’s where “Female” used to be.

I was fortunate enough to visit Vassar’s Special Collections and read through the Hale letters on two different occasions, and it was quite an experience.  I learned in late middle school that there are people who do primary source research and write books, and then there are people who take those books and make textbooks, and then there are students who consume history from tertiary sources.  Which never really seemed like the best situation.  Why do I have to read about something that has been summarized in a textbook when I could read the thing itself?  This is why I’m an English major — you don’t learn about Christian mysticism in the fourteenth century; you read The Book of Margery Kempe.

Getting into Sarah’s letters (because she quickly became Sarah to me) was perfect and beautiful and it made me cry.  I love her.  I don’t know how to explain it, because she’s dead.  But it’s like a mixture of the attachment you get to a beautiful fictional character, but then you realize that the person is real and was alive and passionate about things, and it gets you.  It hammers this timeless poignancy into your heart because look!  This woman was alive and was breathing and writing and living a life.  Nobody made her up; she just was.  She was alive.  When Matthew Vassar wrote in 1867 that he was worried about her health and his own, and afraid they might not see each other in person again in this life, it is real.  It’s not fiction.  The sorrow is real.  It’s real, and it’s so beautiful.

Apart from being entirely emotionally affected by the experience of reading Sarah’s letters, I learned a lot about the process of studying history.  For example, did you know that when you go into Special Collections at Vassar, you’re not allowed to use your own notebook paper?  They provide paper for you to use.  The sheets are pink and approx. 4″ by 5″ in dimension (I measured with my thumbs, so whatever standard paper measurement is close to that, that’s what these sheets are).  You have to use a pencil, and you can have a laptop and a digital camera.  You can take photos of the documents, providing there is no flash and you fill out the right forms.  So I have photos of almost every letter in the Hale collection now!  But I’m not going to post one, because I’m pretty sure I can’t do that.

I can post a photo of my notes, though

For both of my research dates, I had to make an appointment ahead of time.  I did so by first calling, then emailing Dean Rogers at Special Collections.  Dean, who was more than incredibly helpful with all of my initial questions, also gave me advice on how I could get to Vassar from Nyack by public transportation if I needed to, and when I emailed him this past Wednesday about coming in again on Friday, he replied to me so quickly that I couldn’t believe it (yes we have power, and yes we have space; I don’t think the train lines are working.  Let me know what time you’ll get here).  The first time I went, I spent about an hour and a half in the morning reading through letters and taking photos of them.  When my camera died, I transitioned to more handwritten notes.  When I went up yesterday, I spent the larger part of the day with the Hale letters and a full-batteried camera.

Special Collections is in the basement of Vassar’s library building (which looks like a castle).  When you walk into the room, there are a handful of tables with lamps on them, and all of the chairs face the back wall.  This wall is made of glass, and Dean’s desk is on the inside of the next room.  The door to the reading room and the door to the second room are controlled by buzzers at Dean’s desk.  Each letter, whether it was five paragraphs or five pages, was in a separate folder, and I could only take one folder at a time.  Dean kept the rest of the folders in their boxes behind the glass wall.  As soon as I finished working with a folder, we traded out for the next one (side note: Dean Rogers is one of the most helpful individuals I have met this year.  I hope your research takes you to Vassar College, because he’s great to work with).

Dean Rogers in Special Collections at Vassar College.

I snapped pictures of each page of the letters, but that didn’t stop me from taking the time to read them all and write down a handful of fun quotes.  I realized quickly that Sarah Hale has a sense of humor all her own, and sometimes I’m not sure if she’s being sarcastic, or if she really believes what she just said.  She likes to be dramatic, too.  Here are some quotes:

“It has never seemed to me that a lady should claim the same amount of salary as a gentleman professor.” — to Milo P. Jewett on Feb. 20, 1864.

“Men have never yet considered woman’s learning of much benifit.  Loveliness was worth more than Latin.”  — to John H. Raymond on Nov. 3, 1864.

“I have suffered too much by this misnomer, using female for woman, to see, with indifference, the blot on the escutcheon of an Institution that I love and honor so truly.” — same letter as previous quote.

“If this ‘consummation,’ so deeply desired —  even devoutly supplicated, should be reached before the College is opened, it will add a bright ray on the fast deepening twilight of my life” — to John H. Raymond on Feb. 24, 1865.

“In his views he may of course be mistaken.  They do not agree with my own.” — to John H. Raymond (no date) about her son Horatio Hale’s critique of Vassar.

Other fun things I learned about Sarah Hale:  She has perfect handwriting.  I mean perfect.  She started to lose control of her eyesight in the mid/late 1860s.  She did concordance word studies to prove her points.  She wrote letters to four or five different people consistently over the course of six years about the name change of Vassar College.  She  wanted the word “Professoress” to exist.  She thought that the position of Deaconess needed to be reinstated in the Christian church.  She got on Matthew Vassar’s case about his health (and he got on hers).  She sent essays with her letters to further prove her points.  She sent poetry to friends when she wasn’t feeling well.  She had pneumonia for a month in either 1866 or 1867.  She promised to visit Poughkeepsie if and only if the name of the College was changed and the “Female” plaque was taken down.  She personally took care of Matthew Vassar’s subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book.  She was against uniform dress codes and Bloomers.

If you’re interested in the Hale collection, here’s a link to the Special Collections guide, and here’s a link to the Vassar Female College entry in the Vassar Encyclopedia.

“Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum

Earlier this month, I had the amazing opportunity to travel with my professor Bethany Johnson to Hartford, Connecticut, to attend The Connecticut Forum’s panel discussion titled The State of Women 2012.  Wow.  What a trip.  Here’s a couple of clips to get you started:

Clip #1 features Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem talking about the question “Can women have it all?”

Clip #2 features Ashley Judd and Michelle Bernard discussing why it is important to talk about women.

Clip #3 features Gloria Steinem and Connie Schultz talking about team sports and women’s bodies.

As you can see, the four panelists at the Connecticut Forum (Michelle Bernard, Ashley Judd, Connie Schultz and Gloria Steinem) have a lot of brilliant things to say about women.  There are a couple more clips from the conference on Youtube — check them out.

Getting to this conference was an experience itself.  Prof. Johnson found out about it in mid September, and I had to decide within the next few days if I could go.  Three questions: how much did it cost, how would I get there, how would I get home?  Thankfully, Prof. Johnson arranged for the cost of my ticket to be covered, and I managed to find a ride with a friend halfway there, where I met up with Prof. Johnson and she drove the rest of the way.    I spent the rest of the weekend relaxing at my friend’s house in Woodbridge.  The whole weekend was fantastic.

But this trip to the CT Forum was the decided highlight of the weekend.  I’m (un)lucky enough to have no experience with Gloria Steinem’s work, and I made the choice to do no googling before the event.  I knew her name and not much more.  I wanted to be surprised/impressed/untainted.  I wanted some first hand experience before reading the Wikipedia article about her.  I still haven’t read the Wikipedia page, but I do know what I am reading over summer this year, and it will include a lot of Gloria Steinem.  (By the way, I think it is heinous that women in my generation don’t know who Gloria Steinem is, myself included.)

So, still knowing minimal about Steinem, I am seriously and thoroughly impressed/awed by her at the CT Forum.  How to describe her?  Words that came to mind during the event included grace, beautiful, wisdom, magical.  I have met very few people as astute or as knowledgeable as Gloria Steinem on the stage.  She was more impressive than Bill Clinton when I saw him four years ago speaking in support of Obama at Penn State, and President Clinton has a reputation for being a fantastic speech-maker (which he is).  Gloria Steinem ruled the night.

But let’s not cut the other panelists short; they were all fantastic.  Michelle Bernard, the sometimes-conservative and the only panelist of an ethnic minority, was loud and boisterous, thoroughly engaging.  She was hilarious, as was Connie Schultz.  Schultz dominated the personal anecdote, telling stories about teasing Rush Limbaugh, naming cabbage patch dolls “Gloria Steinem” and getting phone calls from reporters asking how she knew her husband.  Ashley Judd added a beautiful layer of poise and dignity, referring to “the candidate of my choice” and “the god of my understanding,” instead of openly endorsing a politician or religion (this level and type of tact impressed me).

Even if the topic of the panel had been something completely different, something that I am only marginally interested in (like the zombie apocalypse panel I attended last November at Philcon), I would have had a good time at the Connecticut Forum.  Luckily for me, the topic was the state of women, which is something that (as a woman) I am highly interested in.  But being at the panel felt like a breath of fresh air to me.  Don’t get me wrong — I love attending a Christian college.  The socio-political atmosphere and student religious culture, however, make it ridiculously difficult for me to express myself as a woman and as a feminist.  NOTE:  This isn’t on the college.  This is on the student culture.  For the most part, I think that Nyack College is fairly decent in its acceptance and support of female professionals and women in academia (for the most part).  I’ve talked about it with some professors and the Dean of Students.  Nyack is a great place to work (it even won an award for it or something).  But student culture is pretty darn oppressive.  This is a “ring-by-spring,” MRS degree institution, and although Liberty University is over ten times the size of Nyack College, Nyack’s student culture is very similar to that depicted by Kevin Roose in The Unlikely Disciple.  So you can imagine that being an outspoken liberal feminist is difficult on this campus.  Being at the Connecticut Forum was like a validating breath of fresh air.  There are people in the world who think like me?  There are people in the world who see the ways that women are being mistreated in our society?  I’m not alone?

One of the things that I remember the panelists talking about is the attitude that feminism isn’t needed anymore when it most definitely is.  Women’s rights, I have been (accurately) told, are really human rights.  And that’s the attitude that I’m coming up against pretty regularly.  It makes me think of the 1920s.  Suffrage finally happens, but the women’s movement shrinks.  When NAWSA becomes the League of Women Voters after the 19th amendment, is membership goes down to 10% of what it had been.  The next generation of women stopped caring or something.  Feminism lulled.  It lulled again in the 1980s.  It’s lulling again now.  It’s uncool to be a feminist.

More than anything, The State of Women 2012 panel felt like an inauguration.  I felt like I was taking on the mantle of great women who have come before me, like I was becoming a part of something bigger and greater than myself.  I felt like I was being inducted into the proud ranks of a beautiful and ancient society structured on the principle that all people deserve fair treatment as people, regardless of sex, race, sexuality, economic class, et. al.  The whole event had the flavor of a ceremony or rite of passage.  It was wonderful, and I am so glad to have gone.

Dear Women, Please Vote This Year

Last night, I attended a panel discussion on campus featuring four prominent professors and moderated by the provost on a few of the important issues in this year’s election (healthcare, the economy, morality in leadership).  The discussion itself was fun, and it was interesting to see gender and race divides so clearly (the two white male professors in almost constant opposition to the two minority female professors), but the overwhelming consensus between them was the importance of a voting decision.  Dr. Carol Awasu from Nyack College’s social work program encouraged audience members to vote.  If you are a woman, if you are a minority, if you don’t own property, she reminded the audience, you did not always have the right to vote, and so you should vote.  Vote, because people have died to secure the right for you.

Especially in this election, which is the most gender-divided election in recent history, everyone who is able to vote should be voting.  We owe it to our predecessors — to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to Susan B. Anthony, to Alice Paul — to vote.  I almost don’t care who you vote for, so long as you vote (of course, I want people to vote my way, but I’d rather a fair exercise of free will than a bunch of people voting against conscience).

Susan B. Anthony

I think that’s what those wonderful suffragists would want to see: a fair exercise of free will.  That’s what they were after in pursuing equal suffrage.  As for how they would vote if they were alive today — I feel like my fair guess would be for Obama, and here’s why:

1) Party Allegiance would be inverted, and thus they would vote on principles as opposed to party.  After the Civil War, women’s suffrage split into two different camps, one aligning itself with the liberal Republicans and the other working to garner support from the more conservative Democrats.  Lucy Stone stuck with the Republican party, and those who followed suit worked to tie female suffrage with freedman (those who had until recently been slaves) suffrage, but when that move proved to be unsuccessful, they willingly took a back-burner position to freedman suffrage.  Now that women have the vote, a Republican suffragist from the mid-nineteenth century would likely choose to vote for Obama because of his egalitarian appeal and his insistence that female policymakers are necessary for appropriate lawmaking.  Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, frustrated by the sexism in the Republican party, broke off from their abolitionist roots and pursued a women’s rights platform through the Democratic party.  The Democrats, for the most part, were uninterested, but Stanton and Anthony persisted in their hunt for political equality in more than just the vote.  Fair pay, property ownership and child custody were also a part of their branch of the suffrage movement.  Stanton and Anthony would be drawn to Obama because of the Democratic Platform’s position on women.  All of these women would also be horrified by comments about rape that have come out of the Republican party during this election cycle (I’m looking at you, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock).  Don’t worry, women; Obama doesn’t understand their comments, either.

Lucy Stone

2) The restriction of voting rights that this election cycle has seen are abhorrent and being repudiated by the Democratic party.  In case you’ve missed it, several state governments have either successfully or unsuccessfully been implementing new voter registration laws that require voters to have excessive and unnecessary amounts of identification in order to vote.  My home state of Pennsylvania is also guilty in this; I chose to register here in New York instead.  If Alice Paul were alive today, you can bet that she would be vocally opposing this from all sides, and as such, she would align herself with today’s Democratic party.  Voting rights are an important part of the Democratic position, and the legislators who are creating the new voter id laws have largely been Republican.  Think I’m inflating things?  Check out this surprisingly astute Sarah Silverman video on voter id laws (my apologies for the profanity, if you find profanity an issue):

3) Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; Republicans voted almost unanimously against it.  Look at the vote results from the Senate on the 2009 act.  Of the 61 senators that voted in favor of Lily Ledbetter, only two of them were Republicans; however, of the 36 senators that voted against it, all of them were Republicans.  On top of that, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not support the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009 and he would not have signed it.  Would Romney overturn it if he reaches office?  He says not, but early suffragists Anthony and Stanton would still be casting their vote with Obama because of this law.  Though Anthony’s faction of suffrage did grow toward favoring the white middle class, she made a few concerted efforts to mobilize working class women to demand suffrage and fair pay.  Toward the beginning of the film Iron Jawed Angels, the characters of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns advertise for suffrage amongst working class women, recruiting Ruza Wenclawska.  Wenclawska, a Polish immigrant who changed her name to Rose Winslow, began working as a mill girl at age eleven.  She would be voting for Obama.

Ruza Wenclawska, aka Rose Winslow

Ultimately, I think these women would encourage anyone on the fence about voting for either candidate to vote, no matter what.  But they would probably be voting for Barack Obama.

Iron Jawed Angels’ Missing Details

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 real suffragists

Woodrow Wilson said that.

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.

Alice Paul. In a hat.

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.

Hilary Swank as Alice Paul. In a hat.

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.

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.