Primary Source

Every Woman’s Problem, a Silent Film Imagining the First Woman Governor

Mothers of Men/Every Woman's Problem. Director: Willis Robards. Performers: Dorothy Davenport, Willis Robards, Maclyn King. Plymouth Pictures, 1917.

Era: Suffrage Era | Media: Film, Video

Suffragists used every type of media to hammer home their message: magazine and newspaper articles, cartoons, posters, pamphlets, and more. But not all these polemics included words. Film—at that point still a silent medium—was a potent weapon in the suffragist arsenal.

One of those films was Mothers of Men, which came out in 1917 and was re-released in 1921 with the title Every Woman’s Problem. The plot centers on lawyer Clara Madison (played by Dorothy Davenport), and takes place in a future in which women can vote. Madison, a suffragist, is voted into office twice: first as a judge in a western state, and eventually as governor.

The silent film’s drama is explained in a 1921 review in Moving Picture World: After Madison is elected as judge, “a yellow newspaper opposes her to such an extent that her husband threatens the life of the editor. Bootleggers whom the paper has also opposed concoct a scheme by which the newspaper office is destroyed by a bomb and the editor killed. Circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly points to the guilt of Clara’s husband, and with the two bootleggers, he is sentenced to death.”

As governor, Madison faces an awful dilemma: Should she pardon her husband, whom she loves, or allow the law to decide his fate? Madison is saved from making a choice when one of the bootleggers confesses to the crime, saving her husband.

An essay written by Shelley Stamp, a film scholar who specializes in women and early film culture, explains the themes that the movie explores:

Mothers of Men addressed some of the most contentious questions surrounding the issue of women’s suffrage. Can women provide effective political leadership without their emotions getting in the way? Will women bring a stronger moral compass to public office? Can female leadership curtail political corruption? How will the press treat women in elected office?

Like many films of the early 20th century, Mothers of Men/Every Woman’s Man was long thought to be lost. But in the late 1990s, James Mockoski, an archivist, discovered a copy of the film at the British Film Institute, according to an article about the effort in the The Mercury News. About two decades later, Mockoski raised enough money to digitally restore the film.

It was first shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2016. While there is no online copy available, you can access the film at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. It is listed in their archives under the title Every Woman’s Problem, but is cross-listed under Mothers of Men. To set up a viewing, you need to make an appointment with the Library of Congress far in advance. The film is not listed in the library’s online catalog, but you can direct a reference librarian to look for it by using the title. Directions for setting up a viewing appointment can be found here.

Watch a slideshow put together by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival about the film here:


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