Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
So far this season we’ve covered violent, political revolutions that toppled old regimes and erected new ones, sometimes with radically different ideological underpinnings. We devoted three episodes to the American Revolution and our two episodes on journalists caught in revolutionary situations included films about revolutions in Central America and Asia. Today, we want to highlight social revolutionaries who actually effectuate change (or in some cases prevent change) in their own political system.
That’s right, they deserve their own season, too. We can draw on labor organizers and civil rights advocates, of course, but this episode concerns how Hollywood represents the evolution of the women’s rights movement in the twentieth century. Specifically, we are interested in the suffrage movements in Britain and the United States. But also, because that basic right to vote did not alter the myriad ways in which women were marginalized and disempowered socially, politically, and economically, the long overdue follow up to suffrage – we wanted to include coverage of so-called second wave feminism, which spans the early 1960s through the 1980s.
And one thing we noticed is that there are surprisingly few comprehensive treatments of both topics in film and television, at least before the 21st century. We think we’ve chosen three quality productions that take suffrage and the broader feminist movement seriously while also doing what we are really interested in highlighting in Lies Agreed Upon, giving some insight into the political and cultural context of the periods in which our two films and one miniseries were produced.
Going chronologically, our first film is Iron Jawed Angels (2004), an HBO film focused on Alice Paul and the American suffrage movement. Next is the British production Suffragette (2015), which highlights the experiences of working class followers of Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain shortly before World War I. Finally, we have the nine episode miniseries Mrs. America, which was first shown on FX in 2020. Mrs. America covers the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment by such second wave luminaries as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, and Gloria Steinem. But, unexpectedly, conservative women organized by Phyliss Schlafly mounted a successful campaign to stop its passage. Mrs. America really captures the complexity and divisions within both camps, something only possible with nine hours at your disposal instead of 120 minutes.
The first of our lies agreed upon in this episode is that America has always been at the forefront of social and sexual progress. The reality was that suffragists in the United States learned from and borrowed tactics from the British suffragettes.
The second lie is a classic tactic of power – that any division or variation within a social justice movement invalidates the cause. There is always a temptation for Hollywood to whitewash internal struggles and disagreements in order to assert the virtue and deservedness of the participants.
And the third lie is tied to the second. By focusing on the women’s suffrage struggle, textbooks and popular culture could claim that victory had already been achieved. The reality – that equality for women is still unrealized – went unacknowledged and unaddressed.
Let’s recap our productions
Iron Jawed Angels was directed by German filmmaker Katja von Garnier, who had a rather slim filmography before this feature and much of her work since is meant for the European market. Four screenwriters produced this script, which actually makes sense because at times the film can’t decide what it wants to be. The cast combines some good young talent from the early 2000s with an icon like Angelica Huston, who appears briefly as Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Movement, Lois Smith as another elder stateswoman in the movement, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and Julia Ormond as the tragically underused labor lawyer Inez Milholland. We also have a glimpse of the great Margo Martindale as Harriet Eaton Stanton, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Luckily she is much more prominent in Mrs. America, as Bela Abzug.
But this is a young person’s film about the younger and therefore more radical women behind the final push for suffrage in the 19teens, specifically Alice Paul, played by Hillary Swank, and Lucy Burns, played by Frances O’Conner. Molly Parker plays a fictional wife of a fictional senator and Vera Farmiga plays the Polish-American suffrage and labor organizer, Ruza Wenclwaska. Lia and I both agree she is wasted here. I guess we should mention McDreamy, aka Patrick Dempsey, who plays a Washington Post cartoonist and ostensibly a love interest Alice Paul. He is, unsurprisingly, not a real person and conjured up here to sexualize Alice Paul and capitalize on his Greys Anatomy fame.
The film begins in 1913 when Alice Paul and Lucy Burns return from England having participated in the more radical suffragette movement organized by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Sylvia and Cristabel. The two lobby the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association to go directly to Congress and the recently elected Woodrow Wilson and lobby for suffrage. This sets up a clear generational divide that plays out the rest of the film. For now, Paul and Burns organize the Woman Suffrage Procession at Wilson’s inauguration, which leads to some violence and involves forcing African-American women to march behind white women to appease southern delegations.
Frustrated over money issues and tactics, Paul and Burns break off and form the National Woman’s Party. They really get into trouble by picketing outside the White House in the famous Silent Sentinels action, provoking the police and federal government to respond with force, especially after World War I begins. This gives the government a license to act with force. The most harrowing scenes in the film take place in the Occoquan Workhouse where the arrested women are subjected to forced feeding after deciding on a hunger strike, not unlike their British counterparts.
It’s not surprising the women who undertake this extreme form of protest are accused of being mentally ill. In this clip Alice Paul explains precisely why she is doing this, and actually wins over the doctor assigned to evaluate her. Let’s listen:
When word leaks out about this brutal treatment, the pressure on Wilson grows and he uses the occasion of the war’s conclusion to support the 19th amendment, which passes a few years after his speech. The film ends with great optimism and unity of purpose, showing a long scroll of nations that followed suit and granted women suffrage, and some still yet to do so.
Suffragette takes us across the pond and it shows because this is a thoroughly British production. It is directed by Sarah Gavron, who is very intentional in her career about producing films about women, especially given the scarcity of female directors in the UK (or anywhere else for that matter). The script is written by Abi Morgan, who has some impressive credits to her name, like The Iron Lady, the biopic about Margaret Thatcher, Shame, The Hour, a drama about a news show in the 1950s UK, and Brick Lane, also directed by Gavron.
The cast is impressive and replete with some of your favorite Brits, and Meryl Streep just for kicks as Emmeline Pankhurst. This is a film about working class women primarily, so the big historical figures are not as prominent as in Iron Jawed Angels. We have Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, the laundress slowly drawn into the suffragette movement, as our chief protagonist. Helena Bonham Carter is Ellyn, a fictional character representing real figures in the movement, Natalie Press as Emily Davison, the suffragette killed at the 1913 Derby race, and another recognizable British actress Romola Garai as Alice Haughton, the wife of an MP who enlists Maud into the cause. Brendan Gleeson deserves a mention as the Special Branch detective out to take down Pankhurst and her followers.
The film begins by really inserting us into the misery of working class women’s lives, specifically the laundresses who die young, are paid nothing, and suffer nonstop sexual harassment if not assault at the hands of male bosses. Maud is 24, a mother and wife with no political inclination until she witnesses a suffragette action during a delivery. Frustrated by her working conditions, Maud agrees to testify before David Lloyd George’s Parliamentary committee on the suffrage issue. It’s worth playing some of that because you begin to see Maud’s growing commitment to change.
What you get from this is how linked economic exploitation is to the issue of suffrage. Of course, the hearings result in nothing as women’s suffrage is tabled by Parliament indefinitely.
Maud’s involvement comes at a cost – her employer turns on her, her husband becomes cruel and vindictive, even taking her son away from her before ultimately relinquishing custody altogether. Maud is powerless to do anything about it, which is the point of her growing radicalization. Maud throws herself into the movement, which is based on direct action – vandalism, disruption, etc . . . . Brendan Gleeson hunts Maud down and tries to turn her, but she refuses. The suffragettes are subjected to brutal treatment in prison, including forced feeding.
Let’s listen to Gleeson interrogating Maud and her forceful condemnation of everything he represents. It is interesting to compare with Alice Paul’s comment we just played.
The film concludes with the fateful events at Derby Day when Emily Davidson is killed either accidentally or by suicide (we aren’t sure) by King George V’s horse. Her funeral is an international event and brings greater attention to the issue of suffrage, which as the ending scroll informs us, was finally granted to women over 30 in 1918.Women gained rights over their own children in 1925 and equal voting rights to men in 1928.
Mrs. America, the FX series from 2020, was created and co-written by Dahvi Waller, a Canadian screenwriter who won several awards for her work on Mad Men. I like looking over the producer list and seeing almost all women at the helm, and that goes for the many directors who worked on the nine episodes. The cast is uniformly excellent as the actors totally embody their real-life characters without resorting to obvious impressions.
This starts with Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, someone I reviled but Blanchett humanizes her. On the other side, Rose Byrne is Gloria Steinem; Uzo Aduba is Congressperson and first female presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm; Margo Martindale is second wave feminist pioneer Bella Abzug; Tracey Ullman is perfectly cast as Betty Friedan; Elizabeth Banks is a Republican feminist, Jill Ruckelshaus. And Sarah Poulson plays a fictional composite character named Alice Maccray, a close friend of Schlafly who becomes disillusioned with her Eagle Forum movement. And because we love John Slattery on this podcast, he is a very good Fred Schlafly, the not always supportive husband of Phyllis.
We can hardly break down each episode and do it justice, but the premise of Mrs. America is a detailed look at the fight to pass the ERA, or in the case of Phyllis Schlafly’s grass roots movement, Stop ERA, between 1972 and 1980. The last episode concerns how each side adjusts to Ronald Reagan’s election. The series begins when the women’s movement is at the height of its political power as older activists like Friedan and Abzug contend with younger, media savvy activists like Gloria Steinem.
And while the second wave feminists flex their muscle and lobby Democrats and Republicans alike to pass the ERA, seeing it as a fait accompli, we get a fascinating look into the life and career of Phyllis Schlafly. I had no idea she was basically Henry Kissinger, a Harvard educated expert on nuclear warfare and national security, but her gender prevented anyone taking her seriously, which we see several times in the series. She had political aspirations as well, so when her friend Alice suggests they organize against the ERA because it supposedly threatens the “homemaker” and counters family values, Schalfly runs with the issue in part to satisfy her own ambitions.
Here is the first time Schlafly rolls out her new platform in a speech to other conservative women. I like it because you can tell she’d rather talk about what the meeting was originally about, anti-missile shields.
You can tell she’s a gifted orator, writer, and would have been a formidable politician.
Each episode covers a crucial moment in the ERA fight in the 70s and always begins with the count of the number of states that ratified the amendment. The real stories are the fascinating internal dynamics within the feminist movement primarily, but also in Schlafly’s Eagle Forum which housed everyone from disaffected housewives to raging racist KKK members and John Birch Society devotees. She was willing to embrace them all while others, like Alice (played by Sarah Poulson) were horrified.
But the feminist movement had its own divisions, and not just generational. Were African-American women supported? Maybe a little better than what we saw in Iron Jawed Angels, but we see this is a movement led, still, by privileged white women. And Betty Friedan famously warned against the “lavender menace” posed by lesbians in the National Organization of Women. While she came around later, Mrs. America delves into this divide as well. And then there are personality clashes. Was Bella Abzug the best face of the movement given her cantankerous nature? And was Steinem too young, famous, and beautiful to be taken seriously? Elizabeth Banks’ character shows that many moderate GOP women wanted a say as well.
One great episode revolving around Shirley Chisolm takes on the significance of her presidential run, which while important symbolically, was barely supported by people like Abzug who wanted a safe, reliable George McGovern to push the ERA over the finish line. Chisholm refused to back down and gives this great speech at the DNC in 1972. Let’s listen to Uzo Adaba as Shirely Chisolm
What’s worse is that McGovern betrays all his promises to the movement to secure his nomination.
Well, we know the ERA does not pass and Schafly certainly had a lot to do with it, but her efforts were not rewarded in the end. The series ends with Schlafly expecting a phone call from President-elect Ronald Reagan inviting her into the cabinet as UN ambassador, a thank you for her powerful donor list. Instead, Reagan tells her he has a “woman problem” thanks to Stop ERA and he fills her slot with Jeanne Kirpatrick, another national security expert who, get this, was pro-ERA.
So, what contemporary events influenced our three productions? Let’s start with 2004 and Iron Jawed Angels. Although the film seems like a straightforward biopic about Alice Paul and a younger generation of suffrage activists pressuring a president and Congress to act, the weight of Iraq and the growing opposition to the Bush administration’s handling of both the war and the increasingly oppressive domestic political environment are all over this film.
The Sentinel Action was deemed a provocation once the US entered World War I because all of a sudden Woodrow Wilson was a wartime president. The Espionage Act of 1917 gave the government all sorts of power to arrest and imprison anyone considered disrupting the war effort, showing disloyalty, or “inciting insubordination.” What was once lawful political protest was criminalized and Alice Paul and the other sentinels found themselves in the Occoquan Workhouse as a result.
The Patriot Act of October 2001 was another expansive piece of legislation erecting a permanent surveillance state and increased federal power to target domestic “enemies” and criminalize some speech. But beyond this, especially after Iraq, any sort of protest was deemed “unpatriotic” by both the Bush administration and a cowed press that still felt torn between holding politicians accountable or waving the flag (sometimes literally on screen 24/7).
But there is one episode that comes to mind that reminds me of Iron Jawed Angels, although I think the film came out right before this controversy heated up and captivated the nation. It is the dignified, albeit relentless antiwar protest of Cindy Sheehan after the death of her son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan. Sheehan camped out in front of George Bush’s Texas ranch for a good bit of the summer of 2005, drawing the ire of Fox News and others. But she did not relent, continuing her protest over years, including during the Obama years through Trump.
You can find pictures of Sheehan outside the iron gates of the White House, occupying the same space as the Sentinels. In the film the suffrage activists seek an audience with Wilson, but they were turned away despite making themselves omnipresent. Sheehan did the same with Bush. Let’s listen to an interview with Cindy Sheehan on Keith Olbermann’s old show from 2005.
The public pressure on her to be quiet and support the war was great, but she used her influence well. Bush was clearly uncomfortable for most of that year because he didn’t know how to handle the peaceful, but disruptive protest. Wilson felt the same.
The British production of Suffragette was announced in 2011 and finally released in 2015. Interestingly, it is the first feature film to be shot in the Houses of Parliament. A film like this about a century removed from the 1913 Suffragette Derby, really the climax of the film, is supposed to invite reflection on “how far we’ve come” and often, “how much further do we have to go?” The promotional campaign included the cast in t-shirts with Emmeline Pankhurst’s slogan – “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” You can imagine how that went over. It’s always interesting when the rhetoric of one social movement a century ago clashes with the contemporary age.
We see a lot of white women in our three productions. It makes sense for the suffrage films, especially in the UK. Iron Jawed Angels felt obligated to invent a scene with Ida B. Wells, a founder of the NAACP and suffrage activist, demanding representation at the 1912 inaugural march, even if it made the southern white women uncomfortable. But that was the last you heard from people of color in either film. As our lies agreed upon note – we often focus on suffrage and forget the century of work to achieve equal rights. Suffrage is a white woman’s battle, according to our mediated universe, but part of the ongoing struggle for equal rights is the value of all women’s active participation, and the culpability of white women in perpetuating racist institutions in the name of challenging misogynist ones.
Mrs. America does show this side of the story with Shirley Chisolm, who had no patience for sacrificing her historic candidacy to placate the largely white leadership of the women’s movement. It’s heartbreaking to watch the thwarted ambition of Chisholm, really effectively expressed by Aduba, who won an Emmy for her work. Here she is talking to her husband.
Beyond that, other Black women (and lesbians for that matter) broke away from the Friedans, Abzugs, and even Steinems to create parallel organizations that valued their voices. What I like about Mrs. America is that it does not shy away from highlighting these internal divisions, disputes, and sometimes just outright failures to do the right thing. No movement is pure and unified, so why represent it that way for the screen.
Mrs America is very recent, 2019, and naturally it is colored by the Trump years, #Metoo, and the continued discussions around intersectionality. This is simply the idea that some people are disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: race, gender, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc . . . Addressing one at the expense of others is incomplete. We see this throughout the series on both sides of the argument. Black women in the movement feel their white counterparts don’t care or understand their experience; Lesbians were excluded openly by Betty Friedan, at least early on in the movement; Phyllis Schlafly has all the ambitions of her sisters on the other side of the hill and endures some of the same sexism, but actively works to perpetuate it because she sees it as the only avenue to power – but power as defined and circumscribed by men.
It’s really interesting to hear Cate Blanchett, who was a producer for the series, comment here about just assuming the ERA was in the Constitution. She can be forgiven for thinking this as an Australian. This clip from ET Canada features first, creator Dahvil Waller, then Blanchett, and producer Stacy Sher.
The shadow of Trump and the current iteration of the GOP looms over the series as Schafly helps mobilize the coalition that has ruled the party since Reagan, more or less. We watch her smite her moderate foes and we can’t help but roll our eyes as the Elizabeth Banks character says with confidence – “The Reagan Revolution will never succeed.” In the postscript, we learn that the last book Schlafly wrote before her death in 2016 was The Conservative Case for Trump. She had no problem reaping what she sowed.
Let’s round out our discussion by revisiting the lies agreed upon.
The first lie is that the Anglo-American world was always at the forefront of social and sexual progress. The triumphalist narratives in our two suffrage films do little to disrupt this narrative. Sure, this progress comes at a great cost, but the imprisonments, physical assaults, and even deaths ultimately have meaning and achieve results. Iron Jawed Angels in particular makes suffrage seems a pretty easy journey from point a to point b. Mrs. America, made in 2019, is a bit more cynical as you might expect, but make no mistake – the US is the center of the world here and the world is watching the ERA intently. Never mind that much of Western Europe took such laws for granted, like Cate Blanchett indicated.
The second lie is about power in social movements. We are conditioned to assume there is always unity of cause and broad representation and any divisions within the movement only harms it. I think all three do a good job with this, even IRon Jawed Angels, although they simplify the disagreements as one of young vs. old. This 20 something upstart Alice Paul is going to bring the old biddies into the 20th century. Suffragette does not so much examine divisions as depict the consequences of extreme action realistically. The state is violent and pushes Pankhurst’s followers towards direct action. Mrs. America is mostly about divisions – in the women’s movement, in the conservative movement, and yes, in the country. Divisions that are far more visible and destructive in 2019 than in 1975, for example.
It is an appropriate historical irony that Mrs. America – a product, in part, of the #MeToo movement, in that it looks at the ongoing struggles that extend way beyond the simple right to vote – has a strong focus on Chisholm. Tarana Burke, a black feminist activist, coined the phrase #MeToo, as a rallying cry around the issue of domestic abuse a decade before its appropriation by white women, many from Hollywood, in response to the crimes of Harvey Weinstein and others.
And the third lie is tied to the second. By focusing on the women’s suffrage struggle, in textbooks and in popular culture,the struggle for equal rights for women went unacknowledged and unaddressed. The vote was just the beginning, of course, but first, second, and third wave feminism hasn’t had much pop culture treatment. Mrs. America is pretty remarkable for not only giving us a great deep dive into the ERA movement – Abzug, Friedan, Steinem – but it is pretty revelatory, as Blanchett says, about the other side. I didn’t know much about Phyllis Schlafly and Stop ERA. Something like Mrs. America is long overdue.