Amani Monroe is a junior, majoring in Politics and International Relations


(What is From the Field?  Read our series welcome post as well as the introduction to this spring’s segment to learn more!)

The Suffragist Movement in the United States served as a huge victory for American women in the early 1900s. It became a symbol of the trials and tribulations that women had to go through in order to be represented in the political sphere so that they could be able to have their voices heard. The movement motivated women from various backgrounds to come together and fight to achieve a common goal, which was the right to vote. The movement also shed light on different issues that women were fighting to resolve, such as the issue of poor working conditions, workforce competition, domestic rights, and the negative stereotypes surrounding women that undermined them for decades. The movement was a time of celebration for women in America gaining the freedom and democracy that they’ve endured so much to gain.

The movie Iron Jawed Angels does a great job at giving insight on the many aspects surrounding the Suffragist Movement. It emphasizes the struggles women went through when trying to express their concerns and showing just how harsh the battle was for women to gain the rights that they should’ve always had. The movie makes reference to many aspects surrounding the movement such as African American women’s participation in the movement, elements of first and second wave feminism, and the different opinions on whether women should be able to vote during the time of the movement.

Negro Women’s Participation

In the film, Alice Paul, one of the most prominent leaders in the suffragist movement organizes a parade in Washington D.C to campaign for women to gain the right to vote. This scene in the movie depicted the segregation between black and white people, specifically black and white women. The film shows the interaction between Ida B. Wells and Alice Paul, in which Wells proposes that negro women join Alice Paul in their parade and Alice hesitates, as she knows if she allows the negro women to join the parade, they will lose the Southern support that they already had. This experience remains consistent with history as African American women were excluded from national campaign activities out of a worry that such visible involvement would “only exacerbate the latent antagonism of those politicians from Dixie and would thereby reinforce and guarantee their opposition to woman suffrage,” and that “it was expedient to ignore Black women when advocating for support in the South,” as noted by Barbara Burrell in Women and Politics: A Quest for Political Equality in an Age of Economic Inequality (25). However, although not depicted in the movie, there was some rooted hatred of negro women by white women. This enmity existed because white women were upset that former slaves were given voting rights through the Fifteenth Amendment, which led to the abandonment of the women’s movement alliance with African Americans. The lack of negro women’s participation in the Suffrage Movement sheds light on the hypocrisy surrounding the movement. The movement was meant to give women in America the rights that they so deserve; however, the movement excluded African American women from participating. This action shows that the movement was never for all women, but for the women that fit the narrative of the leaders of the Suffrage Movement.

First Wave Feminism

First wave feminism focused on suffrage, better opportunities in working conditions, and had an initial anti-immigration rhetoric because immigrants were seen as competitors in the workforce. Burrell notes that the anti-immigration rhetoric was adopted into the suffragist movement “either out of expediency or from a growing conservative belief system, which limited an alignment across classes for women’s rights” (24). These elements of first wave feminism are also shown in the film, as its central focus is on women’s suffrage, but also the recruiting of women who suffered from poor working conditions as well. In the beginning of the movie, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns are handing out flyers to push their campaign, in which they argue back and forth with a working woman who is suffering from these poor working conditions. By the end of their bantering, she changes her mind about the importance of suffrage to change these conditions and helps them pass out flyers to support the cause. Burrell affirms the source of leadership, “The suffrage movement was primarily a middle-class and elite women’s movement. Over the course of the long campaign to win the vote, some efforts were made to bring working- class women into the campaign and to improve labor conditions for employed women” (23).  Widening the base of support was crucial to the success of the movement.

Second Wave Feminism

Second wave feminism focused more on reproductive rights, domestic rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment – even though some of these issues would rise later in history, the filmmakers conveyed their relevance. In the film, we see the concept of domestic rights represented. Around this time, women lacked domestic rights, which included their lack of say in custody battles. Before women were given these rights, the child would automatically go to the husband during this time period because he was seen as more reliable and financially stable. Often times, the mother would have no say in these rulings, an experience referenced in the film when Senator Leighton finds out that his wife, Emily, went to the suffragists’ trial. He threatened to take the children away from Emily, to which Emily says, “You won’t take my children.” The Senator responds, “How will you stop me? Can you afford an attorney”. This scene shows how little influence women had in the courts as during this time, as most women did not work and often stayed at home; Emily was simply known as the Senator’s wife and had no other occupation explicitly stated.

Differing Opinions

There were many different opinions on the topic of suffrage that raised the question of if women were capable of voting or not and the film hints at some of these different perspectives. There are many views that say that women are not capable of voting, because it would distract them from their role of being a mother. This perspective is illustrated in the film when Senator Leighton says, “I don’t know what kind of mother takes an 11-year-old to a district courthouse. Did you give her a look at the jail, too,” when Emily goes to view the suffragist trial. This statement shows how common it is for women to be looked down upon when not fulfilling the classic “motherly role.”  Women during this time were expected to be in the home and taking care of the children. It was definitely considered out of character if women were seen doing anything other than that.

However, there are many who believe that allowing women to vote would actually improve their ability to be a good mother to her children. In her essay, “The Ballot As An Improver of Motherhood,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman embodies this latter view and, in her writing, argues that “with stunted human beings in the maternal role, children cannot develop properly. Full citizenship rights will make mothers more capable of educating their children properly. Endowed with political rights, women will see themselves as part of a larger community. With this expansion of their own sense of self, mothers will be able to impart to their children an expansive, communitarian view of their roles in society” (145). She believed that allowing women to branch out from their former role of being the “model” mother would actually be beneficial to her children, and allowing mothers to vote would better equip their children with knowledge of the political sphere and the communities that they live in. In the film, Emily Leighton is imprisoned for her participation in the suffragists’ peaceful protests. Her husband comes to visit her and asks her to come home because the children miss her. Emily responds, “They are the only reason I am here.”  This shows that just her involvement in the suffrage movement strengthened her resolve as a mother and through her experience, has better equipped her to be a mother to her children and fight for their future in the political sphere.


The film Iron Jawed Angels shows the both the valuable and concerning aspects of the Suffrage Movement. It does not fully touch on the hypocrisy of the movement when it discriminated against Negro women’s participation, but it does shed some light on how even Negro women were not excluded for participating in women’s rights. It shows us the different things that women were fighting for during the movement and reminds those who watch that it was not just about getting the right to vote. The movement was about having women be seen as equal in the eyes of the American government and the women’s want to experience the freedom and democracy that their male counterparts had. The film showed both the negative and positive opinions surrounding the concept of allowing women to vote as well. Overall, Iron Jawed Angels meets the criteria of an insightful historical account regarding the Suffrage Movement in America in the early 1900s.


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