IRON JAWED ANGELS
SUBJECTS — U.S. History; Politics;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Human Rights; Courage; Leadership;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Fairness; Citizenship.
AGE: 13+; No MPAA Rating (TWM estimates that if this HBO feature had been rated, the MPAA would have given it a PG-13 rating for some intense scenes of women being assaulted by crowds and tortured in prison); 2004; 123 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
TWM is proud to announce that it has acquired the rights to interviews of two women who participated in the Suffrage Movement: Jessie Haver Butler and Laura Ellsworth Seiler. Giving students the opportunity to read firsthand accounts of what life was like for girls and women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries will be an excellent supplement to any American History class. The files containing the interviews are large and take a few minutes to load. Students may also want to read Conversations with Alice Paul: Woman Suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment, an interview conducted by Amelia R. Fry a few years before Alice Paul’s death.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
After about 1910, frustrated by the failure of the United States to adopt a constitutional amendment giving women the vote, militant suffragists led by Alice Paul mount an aggressive campaign demanding suffrage. They use parades and demonstrations with striking visual messages, they campaign against the Democratic party which refuses to endorse the Amendment, and they picket the White House. The demonstrations are entirely peaceful and their banners often use the words of Woodrow Wilson, who was president at the time, to argue the justice of their cause. However, President Wilson, while supporting women’s suffrage in his own state, will not support a constitutional amendment, which is the only way that women in conservative states, particularly in the South, will get the vote in the foreseeable future.
After the U.S. enters the First World War in 1917, many people expect that all citizens will join together to support the war effort. In fact, most participants in the woman’s suffrage movement agree to stop their protests and their lobbying and to focus on helping the country win the war. However, Alice Paul and her militant suffragists refuse, noting that they had not been permitted to participate in making the decision on whether or not to go to war. They also point to the hypocrisy of a nation that says it is fighting a war to “make the world safe for democracy” while it refuses to allow the vast majority of its female citizens to vote.
The response is violent. Angry crowds assault the protesters and the police do little or nothing to protect the women. Instead, the suffragists are arrested on false charges of blocking the sidewalk, convicted without due process of law, and sent to jail. In jail, they are confined in poor conditions and given rancid, wormy food. Their claim to be treated as political prisoners is rejected. Other female inmates are incited by the guards to attack them. When some of the women protest their mistreatment, they are placed in solitary confinement. The suffragists then go on hunger strikes but are brutally force-fed by the jailors. The government unsuccessfully tries to have their leader, Alice Paul, declared insane so that she could be committed to an asylum indefinitely.
Word of the government’s mistreatment of the suffragists gets out and is publicized by the militants and their supporters. The public outcry is immense and adds to the pressure on President Wilson to propose the 19th Amendment, giving women the vote. And almost every scene of this part of the movie is true and reasonably accurate.
The suffragists were applying all of the principles of nonviolent mass action: meeting violence with peacefulness; generating massive publicity; applying political or economic pressure; and making arguments that work on the conscience of the general public and of their adversaries. The militants’ campaign kept the suffrage issue in the forefront of the national consciousness and was a factor in leading President Wilson to change his position and work actively for passage of the 19th Amendment.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Won 2005 Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television (Anjelica Huston), and Nominated for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television and Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television (Hilary Swank); Won 2005 ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Movies of the Week/Mini-Series’/Pilot for Basic or Pay TV; Nominated for 2004 Emmy Awards in Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special. Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie, Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, and Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special.
Hilary Swank as Alice Paul; Anjelica Huston as Carrie Chapman Catt; Frances O’Connor as Lucy Burns; Lois Smith as Reverend Anna Howard Shaw; Patrick Dempsey as Ben Weissman; Julia Ormond as Inez Millholland; and Bob Gunton as President Woodrow Wilson.
Katja von Garnier.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This movie can be used to vividly impress upon students the following important historical lessons not generally taught in textbooks:
(1) when the militant wing of the suffrage movement, led by Alice Paul, used nonviolent protests to demand the vote, they were assaulted by crowds of men and denied police protection;
(2) the government tried to suppress the militants’ nonviolent protests with false arrests, unfair trials, imprisonment in harsh conditions, and what can best be described as torture;
(3) the militant suffragists withstood the violence, imprisonment, and torture, continuing their protests and refusing to back down, while strictly adhering to nonviolence;
(4) the arguments of the militant suffragists and the public’s outrage at the way they were treated, as well as respect for the strength of the suffragists’ commitment, were factors in the passage of the 19th Amendment, although the efforts of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and its leader, Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, were probably more important long term factors in passing the amendment; and
(5) Alice Paul and the NWP independently developed tactics of nonviolent protest which were strikingly similar to the methods of promoting political and social change being developed at about the same time by Mahatma Gandhi.
The film will inspire students to study the movement for women’s equality, one of the five great advances in human rights in the U.S. since the beginning of the 20th century. The others were the grant of equal treatment for black Americans and other minorities, the procedural protections given to persons accused of crimes (achieved primarily through court decisions), granting access and other rights to the disabled (achieved through legislation) and the grant of equal rights to homosexuals, including the right to raise children and to marry. All these advances are works in process.
MODERATE. There are a number of historical errors and distortions in those portions of the film that do not relate to the core storyline of the militants’ protests, their mistreatment by the government, and the fact that when the mistreatment was exposed the public outcry helped the Suffrage Movement. The romantic interlude and the characterization of Carrie Chapman Catt are incorrect. See the Helpful Background Section. These problems can be briefly corrected and turned into strengths by discussing them. For a more extensive correction, students can be given TWM’s student handout, Alice Paul and the Struggle for the 19th Amendment: What Really Happened.
All that is necessary is to show the film and to point out that the scenes relating to the militant’s efforts and their arrest and imprisonment are reasonably accurate. Correct the historical errors by stating that while Alice Paul and her militants played an important role in getting the vote for women, Mrs. Catt and her organization probably deserve more of the credit. Certainly, they deserve more credit than they are given in the movie. It was NAWSA, under Mrs. Catt’s leadership, which did the basic political work of creating suffrage organizations in most states, getting states to adopt women’s suffrage and working with the President. In addition, not shown in the movie, is the fact that once President Wilson was converted to the suffragist side, he worked actively to get the 19th Amendment passed in Congress and ratified by the states. His political intervention was crucial in the success of the campaign to pass the amendment. Children are often interested in specific scenes that are accurate portrayals of real events. For an extensive list see, Dramatization of Incidents that Actually Occurred.
Summary: The events portrayed in the film relating to the protests and the efforts of the U.S. government to suppress those protests are extremely accurate. The portrayal of Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt and the impression that Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party alone were the driving force behind the suffragist victory are inaccurate. The romantic interlude is imagined and some reviewers have criticized the film as attempting to remake Alice Paul as a modern third-wave feminist.
Notes on Historical Inaccuracies and Poetic License
Some historians agree that the militants and their White House pickets played an important role in leading President Wilson to endorse a constitutional amendment giving women the vote. This was also the appraisal of some contemporary observers. For historians, see Adams and Keane and Lunardini. For observations of contemporaries, see Stevens, and in particular, the passage citing a telegram from Walter Clark, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, p. 18. For the opinions of two women who were active in the suffrage movement but not in Miss Paul’s National Women’s Party, see Gluck, Interview of Jessie Haver Butler, p. 105 and Laura Ellsworth Seiler. p. 228.
However, it is generally agreed that the militant suffragists were just one of several factors leading to the President’s change of position and to the passage of the amendment. Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt’s “Winning Plan,” NAWSA’s network of state suffrage organizations, NAWSA’s state by state strategy which increased the numbers of pro-suffrage representatives in Congress, NAWSA’s cooperation with President Wilson in supporting the war effort and criticizing the militant suffragists, and the political debt that President Wilson came to owe NAWSA, were probably more important than the efforts of Alice Paul and the NWP.
From an historian’s perspective, the movie’s use of Mrs. Catt for comic relief is one of its weakest points. Mrs. Catt was one of the great leaders of the suffrage movement. For example, here is what one woman, who understood the importance of Alice Paul’s leadership of the militants, said of Mrs. Catt:
. . .[H]er speeches were oratorical. They were profound speeches, they weren’t just superficial. They were tied in with the history of government and the theory of democracy and what it all means. It wasn’t just a superficial speech about the needs of women, but was a whole philosophy of the right of individuals to govern themselves. Gluck, 1976, Interview of Jessie Haver Butler, pg. 108
Here is an example of the eloquence of Mrs. Catt, speaking to NAWSA in 1902:
The world taught women nothing skillful and then said her work was valueless. It permitted her no opinions and said she did not know how to think. It forbade her to speak in public and said the sex had no orators. It denied her the schools, and said the sex had no genius. It robbed her of every vestige of responsibility, and then called her weak. It taught her that every pleasure must come as a favor from men and when, to gain it, she decked herself in paint and fine feathers, as she had been taught to do, it called her vain.
Moreover, Mrs. Catt’s leadership included much more than speeches. Her political skills and her organizational ability were superb and they were essential to the suffrage cause.
Every movie needs a villain and the filmmakers have made President Wilson serve in that role. However, once President Wilson came over to the suffragists’ side and with the continued unrelenting pressure of the White House pickets and NWP members who demonstrated at his speeches and public appearances, he did much more than make a speech to Congress. He repaid his political debt to NAWSA several times over by: (1) supporting the suffrage position in state campaigns; (2) later changing his position and supporting passage of the amendment in Congress; and (3) providing his political support for ratification of the amendment by the state legislatures. Women’s suffrage came to be one of the many reforms of his administration. When the 19th Amendment became law, President Wilson said, “I deem it one of greatest honors of my life that this great event, the ratification of this amendment, should have occurred during the period of my administration.”
The characters of Ben Weissman, Emily Leighton, and Senator Leighton are fictional. There is no record of Alice Paul having any love interests. Alice Paul was, apparently, totally focused on the cause of women’s suffrage and later, women’s rights. The character of Mr. Weissman was added to spice up the story and provide scenes in which the character of Alice Paul could be explained. The scene in which the Alice Paul character and the Lucy Burns character compete for a hat that they see in a shop window seems out of character for a Quakeress intent upon her “testimony.” As for the character of Emily Leighton, there is no record of a senator’s wife being arrested for picketing. This character and that of her husband are amalgams of several types of people who were caught up in the militant suffragists’ struggle. They are used by the filmmakers to describe these types and the roles that they played in the events preceding the adoption of the 19th Amendment. Senator and Mrs. Leighton also provide opportunities to show events that really occurred to other people. These include the scene in which Alice Paul recruits Mrs. Leighton into the cause by asking her to first do a simple and non-controversial task. This was a typical way in which Alice Paul recruited women to her cause. See Stevens, p. 12. The characters of Senator and Mrs. Leighton also allow the filmmakers to show that when married couples divorced or were separated, custody of children was routinely awarded to husbands. The character of Senator Leighton is a composite for the many men who were not active in the suffrage movement but who were outraged when their wives and daughters were abused in prison.
The fictional scenes of the romance, the ladies’ competition over the hat, and Alice Paul enjoying a bath, and others have been criticized as attempting to “remake Alice Paul and her militants into modern ‘third-wave feminists’ . . . [which] waters down the potential for societal change that for so long has been an integral part of the feminist movement.” Keith p. 1283. (TWM respectfully disagrees with that analysis. The article’s criticism of the movie is based on scenes that do not relate to the demonstrations, the false imprisonment, the events in prison, or the political blowback from the mistreatment of the militants. The movie clearly shows women who stand up to power, who withstand torture as the government force-feeds them to try to break their hunger strike, and who eventually triumph. This does not “water down” their commitment or their feminism. To the contrary, the movie emphasizes the suffragists’ determination, their heroism, and the strength of their feminism. The fact that it introduces a possibly fictional appreciation for a handsome man, a pretty hat, or a hot bath does not diminish the fundamental message of the film.)
- The 1913 Suffrage parade generally, including: the impressive visual effects presented by the women; their efforts to obtain police and army protection; Ida Wells, a black woman, joining the march (although there is no evidence that Alice Paul supported this move); the tableaus; the violence of the crowd; the police doing nothing to protect the demonstrators; and the calvary being called to quell violence against the marchers; Lunardini, pp. 25 – 31;
- The fact that the suffrage parade on the day of President Wilson’s first inauguration took crowds of people away from the inauguration and Wilson’s question, “Where are the people?”; Stevens, p. 21;
- President Wilson being driven through the picket line and looking away; Stevens p. 67;
- The “Kaiser Wilson” banner that was a stinging personal insult to the President; Stevens, 124; Adams and Keane, 186 – 188;
- The attacks on the protesters by crowds unrestrained by the police; including the attack on Lucy Burns by the three sailors; and the bullet fired at the suffragists’ headquarters; Adams and Keane, p. 188; Lunardini, 128 & 129
- The arrests and proceedings in court; Stevens 93;
- Events in the jail: generally: Stevens 152 et seq.; and Lunardini, 123 – 148; and Bozonelis;
– the demand to be treated as political prisoners; Stevens 177;
– Woody song; Stevens, 152;
– poor food: sour bread, half-cooked vegetables, rancid soup with worms in it; Stevens, 142 & 145;
– the attack by the guards; the night of terror; Stevens, 196; Lunardini, 134 & 135; Bozonelis 7 – 10;
– hanging Lucy Burns up by her arms; Stevens, p. 200; Lunardini 135;
– the forced feeding of jailed protesters including Alice Paul and Lucy Burns; Stevens, p. 201, Lunardini, 133 – 135;
– the effort to intimidate Alice Paul and have her diagnosed as mentally ill; giving her an extensive mental exam and placing her in a psychiatric ward; Stevens, p. 220; Lunardini, 130, 131, 133 & 134;
– the refusal of Dr. White, the chief psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, to classify Miss Paul as insane; Stevens p. 226;
– the exterior scenes of the Occuquan workhouse are of the original building which is still standing today, although it is not used; the interior scenes were shot on a set; DVD Commentary;
- The headlines shown in the film are all real headlines from the time; DVD commentary;
- The hostile feelings between NAWSA and NWP; failure of NAWSA to protest deprivation of Civil Rights of NWP members and questioning motives of NWP members; (actually it was worse than is shown in the film; NAWSA operatives contacted members of the press and asked them not to report on the conditions in the jails, supporting President Wilson’s effort at a press blackout; the movie shows Miss Paul and Mrs. Catt exchanging friendly and respectful glances when Wilson speaks to Congress to endorse the Amendment; Paul and Catt never reconciled); Lunardini, pp. 83, 84, 124; 128, 138, 163;
- The origin of the term “Iron Jawed Angels” created by a suffrage opponent; Stevens, p. 65;
- The first delegation to visit the President; Stevens, pp. 21 and 57; there were in fact several delegations and Wilson’s words as shown in the movie came from his speeches or writings; DVD commentary;
- The role and tragic death of Inez Millholland, including her last words and the large funeral, organized by Alice Paul; see, e.g., Stevens, p. 48 and DVD commentary;
- The resignation from Wilson’s Administration and the efforts on behalf of Miss Paul by Dudley Fields Malone; Lunardini 129, 136;
- The visit of a close personal friend of President Wilson to try to bargain with Miss Paul; Lunardini 136 & 137;
- NWP and NAWSA operatives lobbying the Tennessee Legislature for ratification; Lunardini 148 & 149.
- Husbands had complete control over the family’s finances and if there was a divorce or separation, husbands were customarily awarded custody of the children;; DVD Commentary;
- Alice Paul did use Susan B. Anthony’s old desk; DVD commentary;
- There really was an incident in England in which a suffragette, hiding in a closet in parliament, urinated into a lord’s boot; but Lucy Burns and Alice Paul were not involved in the incident; DVD Commentary;
- The use of soot and rose petals as make-up; DVD commentary;
1. Why did American society resist women’s suffrage so strongly for so many decades?
The resistance to women’s suffrage was based on ingrained sexist beliefs held by both men and women. These beliefs were supported by a host of secular and religious customs and institutions. Certain industries which felt that women would vote for policies inimical to their financial interests funded the opposition to suffrage campaigns. These included the liquor industry which feared, with a certain amount of foresight, that if women got the vote, laws would be passed prohibiting the sale of liquor. Other industries anticipated that reform measures supported by women would increase their costs, for example, by placing restrictions on child labor.
2. Were the militant suffragists led by Alice Paul traitors to their country by continuing their protests after the nation went to war? Should they have put their efforts at suffrage on hold during the war emergency as a matter of patriotism?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Any reasoned and well-supported response is appropriate. Strong responses will include the following: Civil and political rights are not suspended just because there is a war. The suffragists had the right to freedom of speech and “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” They were certainly not traitors in the technical sense of the word. On the other hand, many will say that during wartime, the people of a country should put aside their differences and work together for victory; and there is a lot of truth in that for most things and, in fact, many suffragists disagreed with Alice Paul’s militants. However, the suffragists led by Alice Paul felt that the right to vote was a fundamental right because women in America were subject to the laws of the country but they were prohibited from voting for the state and federal legislators who made those laws or for the governors or presidents who administered those laws. In addition, this was the second time that suffragists had been asked to suspend their movement because of a war. Back in the 1860s, during the Civil War, other progressives had asked the suffragists to put aside their controversial demands and help in the effort to rid the country of slavery. Their allies, the other progressives, promised to focus on women’s suffrage once slavery had been abolished and black men enfranchised. However, in 1917, more than 50 years had passed since the Civil War had been won, and women still could not vote in about 3/4s of the states. Alice Paul knew that it would be controversial to picket the White House during wartime, but controversy has its advantages for a nonviolent movement. It was a good way to garner media attention which is the major way for peaceful protesters to spread their message.
3. Alice Paul is given a lot of credit for organizing a nonviolent campaign to change American politics and society. However, it could be argued that she had no choice. Miss Paul would have lost the support of American women if she had asked them to turn violent in support of suffrage. Does this argument take anything away from the importance of Miss Paul’s commitment to nonviolence? Explain your reasons.
The point of the response is that all nonviolent movements are undertaken by a group without power to change or to overthrow those who are in power. Governments with armies and police have much more power than groups of citizens. The many nonviolent movements of the 20th century that have changed societies and governments demonstrate that the most effective way for powerless groups to secure change is nonviolent mass action. See Learning Guide to “A Force More Powerful“.
4. What was the importance of nonviolence in the NWP’s campaign for a federal suffrage amendment?
Instead of news stories featuring rebellious women throwing punches at men or torching buildings (which would have sorely hindered the campaign), the headlines featured women who were respectable mothers, daughters, and wives being physically attacked and subjected to harsh conditions in prison. Alice Paul knew that by appearing peaceful and calm in the face of violence while retaining their commitment to their cause, the suffragists would gain new respect and that their arguments would be taken more seriously.
5. Where did Alice Paul find the philosophical inspiration for her nonviolent philosophy?
Her Quaker upbringing was a huge factor in her philosophy. She also read the works of Thoreau and Tolstoy. In addition, Gandhi was practicing nonviolence at the same time and was pointing out the difference between his nonviolent tactics and the violence used by the British suffragettes. Gandhi’s philosophy and tactics may have come to Alice Paul’s attention but historians have found no support for this claim.
6. Where does the phrase, “Take the beam out of your own eye” that was used in the “Kaiser Wilson” poster come from? What did the poster mean by telling President Wilson to “Take the beam out of your own eye”?
The expression comes from the King James translation of the Bible, Matthew 7:5. “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” A “beam” is a large piece of wood and a “mote” is a speck of dust or wood. The suffragists were calling the President a hypocrite for championing the cause of democracy abroad but not extending it to women in the U.S. By extension, they were pointing out the hypocrisy of the entire nation.
7. People call politicians names all the time and politicians and their supporters just take it in stride. Why did equating President Wilson to the German Kaiser in the “Kaiser Wilson” poster enrage the President and the crowds that assaulted the suffragists?
It was because there was a large amount of truth in the claim that the President and, by extension, the country, was being hypocritical by going to war to “make the world safe for democracy” while not extending democracy to 20 million American women. In addition, the German Kaiser was the hated enemy leader who was seeking to stamp out democracy in Europe.
8. Are there any existing social injustices that some people believe merit protests, such as picketing, demonstrating, and boycotting merchants?
There are many. Here are a few: abortion and restrictions on abortion; the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo; the torture and killing of animals in factory farms and in laboratories; gay marriage and prohibitions on gay marriage; capital punishment; and development on wetlands that destroys animal habitat.
9. A political prisoner is someone who is incarcerated not for criminal activity, but because of his or her political beliefs or activities. The concept was developed in Europe in the 1800s to protect opponents of despotic regimes in Europe. Political prisoners, being different from common criminals, were supposed to be housed in better conditions than existed in most jails. The Wilson administration carefully considered giving the suffragists political prisoner status but ultimately decided that to do so would cause a revolution in American law. Why can’t American law tolerate the concept of political prisoners?
Under the U.S. Constitution, no one can be imprisoned unless they have been convicted of committed a crime. It violates the Constitution for public officials to jail someone because of his or her beliefs or political activities unless the person has violated at law. Moreover, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, thought, and association; it protects the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition for a redress of their grievances. The concept of a political prisoner, someone who is a danger to the government and whose only offenses are political beliefs or activities, is unheard of in American law. No court would endorse such a classification. Public officials who cause someone to be arrested and imprisoned on the basis of that person’s political views can be sued for violation of that person’s civil rights.
10. Assume that you and people of your sex, nationality, or economic status were not permitted to vote. Would you be willing to go to jail and suffer harsh conditions like those encountered by the suffragists in order to gain the right to vote?
A good discussion of this question involves two parts. The first is whether the right to vote is important and worth a substantial sacrifice. The answer to this question in any democracy must be in the affirmative. The right to vote is a basic value of any free people. The disenfranchisement of large groups of people skews the results of elections. The will of the whole people cannot be expressed when some have no power at the ballot box. The second part is whether such a great sacrifice as putting your life in danger, encountering harsh prison conditions, and giving up your liberty for weeks and months at a time is too much of a sacrifice for the right to vote. There is no one correct answer to this question. Each person must decide this for him or herself. There are contributions that people can make for a cause that do not involve risking personal liberty or safety. They can give money, work in a campaign office, lobby, etc. Alice Paul encouraged women to walk the picket line and to risk arrest. She encouraged them to do this when the prospect of arrest and a 30-day or 60-day prison term in extremely harsh conditions was very likely. However, she recognized that it was a great sacrifice and never insisted that anyone get arrested. There were plenty of other jobs for people in the suffrage movement. The women who courted arrest were always volunteers who undertook the risk because of the strength of their commitment to suffrage and their belief that arrest would further the cause.
11. The mistreatment of Alice Paul and her suffragists is not the only time that violence has marred the history of the U.S. The dual tragedies of lynchings and race riots attests to this and, of course, there is the Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Further evidence is the violence perpetrated on people trying to change society, such as activists in the Civil Rights Movement, see e.g., “Ghosts of Mississippi“, and workers trying to organize labor unions, see e.g., “Matewan.” in addition, Farmers displaced by the dust bowl of the 1930s who moved by the thousands to California looking for work were assaulted and beaten in communities that felt threatened by their presence. “The Grapes of Wrath” tells this story. Race riots and police brutality still occur. Do you think current-day America is as violent a country as it once was?
Arguments can be made both ways. On the one hand, it appears that the United States has moved well beyond its violent past but some problems remain, such as some unjustified police shootings of black men. In addition, there are isolated incidents of violent hate crimes, and of torture in the “War on Terror” but they are just that, isolated, and the persons responsible are often brought to justice. Thus, the basic trend is toward less violence. On the other hand, it could be argued that the torture of prisoners, secret rendition of suspected terrorists, and the Guantanamo prison camp are evidence of a violent culture. The argument would continue that violence is still ingrained in American life and that when times get hard, violent repression will again raise its ugly head again.
SPECIAL THEORETICAL QUESTIONS FOR HONORS AND AP CLASSES
12. Six Questions on Natural Rights and Tyranny in America
The theory of “Natural Law” sets out certain rights that people have because they are human beings. Some would say these are rights granted by God; others refer to rights inherent in nature. The Declaration of Independence contains a classic description of natural rights.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . . .
The suffragists contended that since women were among those that were governed, their consent had to be obtained, i.e., natural law held that they had a right to vote. The suffragists argued that the laws passed by state legislatures prohibiting women from voting, although passed with all the appropriate procedures, violated their inalienable natural rights. The anti-suffragists contended that traditionally women had never been considered as citizens separate from their fathers, husbands, and families; that their interests would be looked out for by their male relatives; and that women did not have the judgment or skills necessary to make the decisions required to cast an educated ballot.
Susan B. Anthony, the greatest hero of the suffrage movement, said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Few would disagree with this statement but the key is in the meaning of the word “tyranny.” One dictionary definition is “oppressive power, especially oppressive power exerted by government.” Based on this definition, answer the following questions:
(A) Was the United States, before passage of the 19th Amendment, a tyranny with respect to women? Describe the reasons for your answer.
Since the right to participate in the selection of the government is a natural right which no government can restrict even through duly enacted laws passed by a democratically elected legislature, the laws forbidding women to vote violated these “unalienable rights” and were oppressive to women. In that sense, women in the U.S. in the non-suffrage states lived under a tyranny.
(B) Under the theory of natural rights, could a legislature elected by men and women, in which women received fair representation, pass a law prohibiting women from voting in the future despite the fact that some women wanted to retain the power to vote?
So long as one woman wanted to vote, the legislature could not pass a law prohibiting all women from voting. The right of one woman to vote would trump all the power of the people or the legislature to take that right away.
(C) Assume that the Silent Sentinels had been protesting against something that was very important but which did not involve the deprivation of a natural right; let’s assume they objected to a zoning change that would allow group homes for the mentally ill to be constructed in their neighborhoods. Assume that the protesters were treated by the government in the same way that the Silent Sentinels of 1917 were treated: they were arrested, convicted on false charges, sent to prison, and mistreated in prison. Were the actions of the government in this instance tyrannical and, if so, why?
Knowingly charging someone with a crime they did not commit and securing their conviction and imprisonment is a violation of due process of law. Thus, the actions of the government in prosecuting and imprisoning the protesters would be oppressive and tyrannical. Another strong response is that people have a right to peaceably assemble, protest, and seek redress of their grievances. This is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Another interesting question is whether the right to peaceably assemble, protest government policies, and seek a redress of grievances is a natural right or whether it is just a legal right granted by the First Amendment. Political freedoms, such as freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble, seem to be necessary corollaries to the right of self-governance. People cannot form the opinions necessary for self-governance without political freedoms. However, there are limits. For example, a person cannot disclose top secret national security information in the name of freedom of speech.
(D) Assume that the Silent Sentinels had resorted to violence and had set fire to a building to publicize their position. The protesters were arrested and prosecuted for arson as part of a government effort to suppress the women’s suffrage campaign. Assume further that suffragists’ due process rights were respected in the investigation. Were the actions of the government in this instance tyrannical and, if so, why?
In this set of circumstances, the women are being denied their rights under natural law by not being allowed to vote. However, they are also acting in a way that is harmful to others and that violates a valid law, the law against arson. Other people have the right to be secure in their property. Being subject to the violations of one law does not give people, including militant suffragists, the right to violate another law. Therefore, the government has the power to prosecute the suffragists for arson. In fact, the failure of the government to prosecute the suffragists for arson is a dereliction of its duty to the people who own the building that was burned and to the general public.
(E) Daniel Ellsberg was a government employee who, in the 1960s, worked at the Pentagon and had access to a secret government history of the Vietnam War. The history showed that the government was lying to the American people about the war. The government has the power to pass laws making it a crime to publish documents that it creates which relate to national security. This history had a very high-security classification and it was illegal to publish it. Mr. Ellsberg copied the history and sent it to the New York Times and other newspapers. The newspapers published the history, calling it “the Pentagon Papers.” When he sent the classified documents to the newspapers, Mr. Ellsberg knew that he was violating a valid law and that he ran the risk of a jail sentence. However, he didn’t try to hide his actions. For him, informing the people that the government had lied about a war was so important that it was worth being imprisoned. The government started a criminal prosecution of Mr. Ellsberg for leaking national security secrets to the press. Given these facts, was the prosecution of Mr. Ellsberg a tyrannical act? What are the arguments pro and con?
There is no one correct answer to this question. The argument against the proposition that the criminal case against Mr. Ellsberg was a tyrannical act starts with the point that Mr. Ellsberg had violated a duly enacted law that in itself did not violate a natural right. The government has the power to set a penalty for people who violate that law. The argument for the proposition that the prosecution of Mr. Ellsberg was a tyrannical act includes the fact that the government was just trying to punish someone who had blown the whistle and exposed its lying. After all, it is good for people to know the truth about important issues of public policy. In fact, Mr. Ellsberg did expect to go to jail for his actions. He didn’t, but that’s another story.
Here’s the story of why Mr. Ellsberg didn’t go to prison for his admittedly criminal conduct. It leads to another interesting question about tyranny. Richard Nixon was president when the Pentagon Papers were published. He was outraged at the breach of security and ordered the FBI to secretly break into the offices of Mr. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, a man named Dr. Fielding. The agents were told not to apply for a search warrant and to look for information that would be embarrassing to Mr. Ellsberg. In obedience to the presidential directive, agents of the FBI broke into the psychiatrist’s office in the dead of night. Once the government, in its effort to convict Mr. Ellsberg, had violated his rights by breaking into the office of Dr. Fielding, it had violated Mr. Ellsberg’s due process rights for a political purpose. This is a tyrannical act. It was also illegal and if the source of the information had been disclosed, any evidence that had been gathered during the burglary of the psychiatrist’s office could not have been used in court. When the government’s links to the burglary were discovered, there was a tremendous public uproar. The prosecutors dropped the charges. They obviously felt that after the revelations of the burglary at his psychiatrist’s office, it would be difficult to secure a conviction. (Note that President Nixon resigned after the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives voted to impeach him for the break-in at the psychiatrist’s office and other actions that tended toward tyranny, including (a) the break-in and bugging of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and (b) sanctioning a cover-up of crimes related to the bugging. See Articles of Impeachment Against Richard M. Nixon. Article II, item #4, of the Articles of Impeachment relates to the break-in at Dr. Fielding’s office. After the Judiciary Committee’s report, President Nixon resigned from office; the only president ever to have resigned. He was never prosecuted because he was pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford. President Ford said that he pardoned former President Nixon so that the U.S. could end the long national nightmare of the Watergate scandal. Gerald Ford was in other matters an honorable man and few have disputed his claim. Eventually, 25 Nixon administration officials, including four cabinet members, were convicted of obstruction of justice or other crimes. )
(F) Describe three situations in American history in which local, state, or federal governments acted in a tyrannical manner. These examples can be from colonial times to the present day. Then describe why the actions involved “oppressive power asserted by government.”
Here are some examples of situations in which there is general agreement that governments in America acted in a tyrannical fashion: the Salem Witchcraft Trials; the Royal governments before the American Revolution; providing a framework supporting slavery; denial of the right to vote to women; the Red Scares of 1917 – 1920 and 1947 – 1956; providing legal support for the segregation of blacks and discrimination against other minorities; and the internment of Japanese civilians during WWII.
For background on Dr. Kevorkian, see The Kevorkian Verdict: The Life and Legacy of the Suicide Doctor from PBS and Kevorkian Will Not Assist in Any Suicides.
13. There are occasions when advocates for social change will break the law to dramatize their opposition. Some will accept their punishment as the cost of making their point and to publicize the situation that they want corrected. Others will defend themselves in court, but theories of nonviolent protest do not permit them to deny what they did. This was the solution of Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers (see question #2.E. above). Here is another example of someone whom many people believe to have been a political prisoner in an American jail. Do you agree?
Dr. Jack Kevorkian (1928 – 2011), also called “Dr. Death,” was a man who believed strongly in assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who are in terrible pain, whose quality of life is very poor, and who have the mental capacity to make a decision to terminate their own lives. Note that while assisting someone to commit suicide is illegal in most states, it is legal in Oregon, California and a few other states. A large number of people, including physicians, support doctor-assisted suicide in carefully controlled conditions. Because assisting suicide is illegal, but because some terminally ill patients who are in pain want to end their lives quickly, doctors all over the country are secretly assisting terminally ill patients to die. However, there is no regulation of the practice and it is terrible to ask doctors to have to act in secret and put themselves at risk of being treated as a criminal. Over the years, Dr. Kevorkian helped more than 100 terminally ill people commit suicide. In each case, the person who died took the final action causing their death. Dr. Kevorkian assisted by inventing and building the device that allowed them to kill themselves by simply turning a switch. Many criminal cases were brought against Dr. Kevorkian, but until 1998 he had never been convicted; either judges dismissed the cases or juries found him not guilty. Each trial was an occasion for Dr. Kevorkian to publicize his cause.
In 1998, Dr. Kevorkian, believing that no jury would convict him, went one step further. He did more than set up the machine by which a terminally ill patient killed him or herself. Dr. Kevorkian gave a lethal injection to Thomas Youk, age 52, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), a debilitating and painful illness. Mr. Youk had lost the use of his legs and arms. His family said he was in terrible pain, that he had trouble breathing and swallowing, and that he was choking on his own saliva. Mr. Youk said that he was terrified of dying by choking and wanted to die in a dignified manner. He signed a release requesting Dr. Kevorkian to give him the lethal injection. His family supported his decision. Dr. Kevorkian, again with Mr. Youk’s permission, made a videotape of Mr. Youk’s final minutes and sent it to 60 Minutes, a TV news program. The doctor wanted the tape broadcast to force prosecutors to charge him. Dr. Kevorkian believed that by winning the case, he could make it legal for doctors to assist in the suicide of terminally ill patients. However, even if he lost the case, his protest would serve his cause. As Dr. King said in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is, in reality, expressing the highest respect for the law.”
60 Minutes broadcast the tape and the event triggered intense debate about assisted suicide. Dr. Kevorkian was prosecuted, with the tape being the primary evidence used by the prosecution. However, this time Dr. Kevorkian was charged with murder, rather than merely assisting a suicide. The trial judge would not let the jury hear testimony about Mr. Youk wanting to die and giving permission for the lethal injection. Mr. Youk’s family was not allowed to testify on Dr. Kevorkian’s behalf. Dr. Kevorkian was convicted and at age 71 started serving a ten year sentence, but was released after eight years for good behavior. One of the conditions of his release was that he could not assist in any more suicides or give lethal injections to people.
Leaving aside the question of whether the state should permit assisted suicide and bearing in mind that planning and causing the death of another person is murder, answer two questions: 1) Was what Dr. Kevorkian did to Mr. Youk an unlawful killing, either murder or assisted suicide, or should Dr. Kevorkian have a defense that he killed Mr. Youk with Mr. Youk’s permission as a political act to publicize his cause? 2) Was Dr. Kevorkian a political prisoner who should not have been housed in a jail with a general population of convicted murderers, rapists, thieves, and other criminals but instead in a special prison for political prisoners with better conditions?
(1) There are two positions on this point both of which have some validity. The first, which is consistent with the law in the U.S., is that whether Dr. Kevorkian’s action was murder or assisted suicide, it was illegal. No society can exist in reasonable order if people can go around violating laws just because they disagree with them. People who disagree with the law should work to get it changed. No society, whether it is a democracy or a despotism can exist if people can simply violate laws they disagree with. If they violate the law, they should suffer the consequences. The second position is that Dr. Kevorkian had a defense because he didn’t hide his actions, in fact he publicized them, and he had no intent to harm Mr. Youk. Instead, he acted at Mr. Youk’s request to take him out of his misery. In this situation, the law should recognize a political purpose defense. Presently, there is no political purpose defense recognized in U.S. courts. (2) There are two reasonable responses to this question. They mirror the responses to the first question. If it is conceded that Dr. Kevorkian committed a crime, then he should be treated as a prisoner. All states have minimum security prisons for inmates who do not pose risks to society. Certainly, Dr. Kevorkian should have been housed in such a prison, but he committed a crime and the fact that he may have claimed a political agenda doesn’t mean he should be treated differently from other prisoners. The second position is that there would be no harm in establishing political sections of prisons for people such as conscientious objectors and protesters. They are, in fact, different from other prisoners.
1. Describe some acts of courage that are shown in this film.
There are many. Certainly, the actions of the suffragists were courageous when they manned the picket line in the face of hostile mobs and the threat of arrest. Once arrested, they courageously faced their imprisonment and the brutal and degrading treatment given to them. The suffragists refused to knuckle under to their jailors when they went on hunger strikes. Alice Paul’s decision to lead the pickets and court arrest was courageous because she knew that, as the leader, there was a possibility that she would be singled out for special treatment.
See the Natural Law and Tyranny Discussion Questions and the Suffrage Discussion Questions.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
1. What is the basic reason that women deserve the right to vote? Suggested Response: It’s simple respect. Women are people and people have the right to determine their own destiny.
(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)
2. Why were the white suffragists hesitant to march with the black suffragists? Was this fair?
From the point of view of the white suffragists, making a statement about racism wasn’t worth the problems it might cause. The white suffragists were worried that if they were seen marching with black suffragists they would lose a lot of support for their cause. Because of racial prejudice and the fact that the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t started, black citizens were still generally viewed as inferior. The white suffragists, while wanting equality for themselves, were afraid of undermining their fight by walking with black women. It wasn’t fair.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
See Question #4 above.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
1. Create your own issue of The Suffragist in honor of the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the 19th Amendment (which will be in 2020); illustrate the cover with a political cartoon; write letters to the editor; and create articles about women’s history since 1920. [This is an excellent assignment for small groups of students.]
2. Write a letter from Alice Paul to the future citizens of America.
3. Read TWM’s Excerpts from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and write a letter from Alice Paul to Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt and the suffragists of NAWSA, who advocated cooperation in the war effort, who decided not to push the Wilson Administration for a constitutional amendment in the early months of WWI, and who decried the picketing of the White House.
4. Write a short biography of Alice Paul or Lucy Burns using at least three sources; two of these must be from books.
5. Write a formal essay on any one of the following topics:
A. The influence on Alice Paul of her experiences in the British Suffragettes movement. Your description should include what Alice Paul drew from the British and what she rejected.
B. In his speech to Congress of September 30, 1918, supporting women’s suffrage as a war measure, President Wilson praised women like the members of NAWSA who supported the war effort and said, “the voices of foolish and intemperate agitators do not reach me at all.” Alice Paul and many others took the position that President Wilson was forced to change his position by the women of the NWP who picketed the White House and endured torture in jail. The movie “Iron Jawed Angels” takes this position as well. Is the position take by the movie correct or should Carrie Chapman Catt and NAWSA get more credit for getting the 19th Amendment passed than Alice Paul? Justify your conclusion from your own independent research from at least four printed secondary sources.
C. The action of the National Women’s Party in picketing the White House was an example of nonviolent protest. Describe the similarities and differences between the work of the NWP for suffrage and classical Gandhian nonviolence, which was used in the battle for Indian independence and in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
D. The Equal Rights Amendment is not the law; however, by statute, Congress and the states have granted women the right to equality in many spheres of life. Research the legal rights of women to equal treatment on a national basis and in the laws of your state and trace the history of how women obtained those rights. Write an essay with the results of your research citing key statutes and cases. Teacher’s Note: This essay may be broken down into the following areas: Jury Service — The landmark federal cases are Glasser v. U.S. (1942); Hoyt v. Florida (1961); and Taylor v. Louisiana (1975); Employment — the landmark laws are the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Right Act (1964) which banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin or sex; one landmark case under this statute was Weeks v. Southern Bell Tel. and Tel.; Family Law: Reed v. Reed; Social Rights: Roberts v. United States Jaycees (1984) affirming that “sex discrimination will not be accepted in the public marketplace” Education; Title IX of the Civil Rights Act (1972) prohibiting sex discrimination in schools which receive federal money.
E. Evaluate the almost-successful campaigns of Hilary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 and for President in 2016 from the standpoint of what they show about the progress of women in the political life of the United States, or the lack of such progress.
G. Evaluate the treatment of blacks by whites in the suffrage movement. Teacher’s Note: A good essay on this topic will mention the unfulfilled promise by the progressives to focus on women’s suffrage after voting rights had been secured for black men; Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women; the increasing racism in U.S. society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Ida Wells Barnett and the participation of black women in the Congressional Union’s March, 1913 parade.
H. Describe the pressure that the NWP placed upon President Woodrow Wilson to ensure his support of the suffrage amendment from 1913 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
CCSS ANCHOR STANDARDS
Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.
Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.
Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.
Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.
Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.
BRIDGES TO READING
TWM strongly recommends the interviews of Jessie Haver Butler and Laura Ellsworth Seiler, two women who lived during the time women were seeking the vote. A Look at the 19th Amendment by Helen Koutras Bozonelis, Sisters/The Lives of American Suffragists by Jean H. Baker and Granting Women the Right to Vote, edited by Carrie Fredericks are good for high school level readers. Advanced students will be interested in the other books listed in the Bibliography.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project;
- Scholastic Article on Women’s Suffrage;
- Pictures of Alice Paul and the Suffragists from the Library of Congress;
- Suffragette Tells of Forcible Feeding New York Times 18 Feb 1910;
- Alice Paul: Feminist, Suffragist and Political Strategist — a biography from the Alice Paul Institute;
- Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.; Timeline of Key Events in the American Women’s Rights Movement 1848–1920 from Infoplease.com;
- Brief Timeline of the National Women’s Party 1912 – 1997;
- National Women’s History Museum;
- NWP’s Gallery of Suffrage Prisoners now at the Library of Congress;
- Tactics and Techniques of the National Woman’s Party Suffrage Campaign from the Library of Congress;
- Brief Biographies of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns from the Library of Congress;
- Historical Overview of the History of the NwP from the Library of Congress;
- Suffrage Prints and Photographs from the Library of Congress;
- Colby Proclaims Woman Suffrage; New York Times, August 27, 1920, pg. 1;
- The History Behind the Equal Rights Amendment by Roberta W. Francis, Co-Chair, ERA Task Force, National Council of Women’s Organizations;
In addition to the websites listed in Links to the Internet, the following sources were consulted in creating this Learning Guide and the student handout which accompanies it:
- Adams, Katherine H. and Keane, Michael L, Alice Paul, and the American Suffrage Campaign, University of Illinois Press, Chicago & Urbana, 2008;
- Baker, Jean H., Sisters – The Lives of America’s Suffragists Hill & Wang, New York, 2005;
- Bozonelis, Helen Koutras, A Look at the 19th Amendment MyReporLinks.com Boos, Berkeley Heights, N.J., 2005
- Fredericks, Carrie, ed., Granting Women the Right to Vote, 2009, Greenhaven Press, Detroit;
- Gluck, Sherna Berger, From Parlor to Prison — Five American Suffragists Talk About Their Lives, New Feminist Library, Vintage, 1976;
- Keith, Shereé The Pinkwashing of Alice Paul in HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels, The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 24, No. 6, January 2014;
- Lunardini, Christine A., From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights — Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, 1910 – 1928, toExcel, San Jose, 1986;
- Stevens, Doris, Jailed for Freedom, 1920, available online at Project Gutenberg;
- Van Voris, Jacqueline Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life pages 134 – 141
- The Trials of Alice Paul and Other National Woman’s Party Members: 1917″ Great American Trials, Canton, MI, Visible Ink Press, 1994;
- Domesticating Drink – Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870 – 1940 pp. 27 – 31