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Iron Jawed Angels: The Fight that Shouldn’t Have Been

When I hear people talking about “God-given rights,” I wonder why it always seems to take human bloodshed to secure those rights.

Iron-Jawed Angels (2004) vividly portrays the exhausting struggle that American suffragettes endured to secure a woman’s right to vote, and forces us to confront the inequality and injustices we tolerate—even propagate today.

German director Katja von Garnier throws us into a time when American Senators cited female mental ineptitude to squelch debate of women’s rights. During the period when Ellen White’s death challenged the fledgling Adventist movement, American suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns led an extraordinary feminine cabal into conflict not only against President Woodrow Wilson and Congress, but also against the rigid old guard of women activists and a hostile wartime American public.

Iron Jawed Angels follows the conquest of brilliant young Quaker Alice Paul (Hillary Swank), who lived almost exclusively for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing voting equality. Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) proved a formidable ally and reliable companion through excruciating episodes of brutal arrest, imprisonment, beatings, force-feedings, illness and yes, bloodshed.

Von Garnier draws us into their (true) story with an upbeat, contemporary soundtrack and fast-paced editing. The film’s intentionally modern feel creates the sense that past and present always connect, and that the nexus between then and now is us, the viewers.

Paul and Burns move to Washington and immediately begin preparing a parade. How better to attract attention to the cause than with hundreds of women marching on the nation’s capitol? Inez Milholland (Julia Ormond) rides at the front of the parade on a huge white horse and Ida Wells Barnett, a black daughter of slaves, breaks into the parade to march alongside her peers. The parade garners headlines, but publicity comes at a price: a riot stops the parade, and police cannot prevent the ensuing violence. Many women suffer injuries in the chaos.

During a nation-wide speaking tour Milholland dies of pernicious anemia, and suddenly, powerful Alice Paul collapses inside, unable to continue. In a beautiful and pivotal scene in the film, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she curses the absurdity of the struggle to Lucy Burns: “It is so unfair that anyone should have to die in a fight that shouldn’t even be a fight. Isn’t it ridiculous!”

That marks a turning point, a hardening of both women’s resolve. In 1917, Paul and Burns organize picketers to demonstrate in front of the White House every day (except Sunday). The Silent Sentinels use sayings of Woodrow Wilson to depict American hypocrisy in pursuing liberty through war with Germany while denying liberty to American women.

Crowds turn hostile and the suffragists land in jail. Not allowing imprisonment to end the protest, the women demonstrate through hunger strikes, which in turn lead to force-feedings.

After several years of agitation, demonstration, and suffering, women finally won the right to vote in 1920, less than 100 years ago.

Grisly scenes, unforgettably atrocious scenes of violence and inhumanity finally give way to jubilant celebration as women for the first time receive their rightful seat at the table, and the long arm of history bends toward justice.

But as the credits roll and we listen to the plaintive, soulful words, “Will the circle be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by—there’s a better home awaitin’…” we are once again reminded that the story doesn’t end just like that. Von Garnier has taken pains to demonstrate that we are both the recipients and the conveyers of this story.

Whether it will remain a true story, or whether it will become a legend depends on what we do with it and with the inequities we will see when the screen goes dark.

What God-given rights would you bleed for?

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