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Iron Jawed Angels, a Film About Suffragist Alice Paul

Iron Jawed Angels. Director: Katja von Garnier, Performers: Hilary Swank, Margo Martindale, Anjelica Huston. HBO, 2004.

Era: Suffrage Era | Media: Film, Television, Video

Iron Jawed Angels is a made-for-TV historical drama that tells the story of how a key leader in the US suffrage movement, Alice Paul (played by Hilary Swank), took the voting rights fight to Washington, DC. The movie first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004 before being shown on HBO.

The film follows Paul and fellow militant activist Lucy Burns as the pair clash with old-guard suffragists from the National American Woman Suffrage Association—or NAWSA—over tactics and strategy. Paul and Burns wanted, for instance, to push for an amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing women’s voting rights. (Though it also lobbied Congress for a constitutional amendment, NAWSA put at least as much energy into its parallel effort to change the constitutions of individual states.) Paul and Burns break off from NAWSA and eventually turn to confrontational protests that land them in jail.

The movie shows how, while locked up in the Occoquan women’s prison in Virginia, Paul and her National Woman’s Party co-activists go on a hunger strike and are force-fed in response—hence the moniker “iron-jawed angels.”

In the film, the hunger strike pays off. Public sympathy for the suffragists grew after word leaked out about the hunger strike and the brutal tactics used to break it.

The official website for Iron Jawed Angels is informative, filled with links to reviews, a detailed synopsis, video clips, and information on where to buy the movie. You can also see the movie’s IMDB page for more information.

An academic review of the film, written by Kristy Maddux, appeared in the February 23, 2009 issue of the journal Feminist Media Studies (vol. 9, issue 1), pp. 73-94. You can access the review’s abstract—and purchase access to the full piece—here, via Taylor & Francis Online.

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