Women began campaigning for universal suffrage in the United States at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Over the next seven decades, they would patiently and persistently push the message of enfranchisement through ridicule, patronization, and insults from their opponents. Moving from genteel lectures, magazines, and pageants to marches and mass marketing, women took their message to Americans. With the advent of motion pictures, more people could be reached at one time.
Traditional moving picture companies discovered the power of movies to inflame emotions and influence action early on. Renowned director D.W. Griffith focused on social issues in many of his early shorts, particularly “A Corner in Wheat”, revealing the degradation, manipulation, and enslavement of the poor by unscrupulous merchants and investors. Reformers influenced by these films worked to improve living and working conditions of struggling Americans and punish those inflicting pain.
Mary Mallory is giving a virtual presentation on “Your Girl and Mine” on Aug. 19 at 7:30 p.m. PDT. Tickets are $7.50 for Hollywood Heritage members and $15 for nonmembers.
Smart producers also discovered the value of comic films to influence public opinion, crafting short films in such a way to satirize, humble, or humiliate those they opposed. Many men in the industry employed their power to demean causes they protested, with suffrage offered an easy target.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, many producers created films mocking suffragists and their important movement. As Kay Sloan has written in her book, “The Loud Silents,” filmmakers developed such characters as incompetent shrews, hapless spinsters, flighty young ingenues, or even men overly made up in drag to lampoon suffrage. One easy way to hit their mark was to denigrate female members by calling them by the wrong name, suffragettes instead of suffragists.
Production companies turned out such comic films as She Would Be a Suffragette” (1908), “Oh, You Suffragette” (1911), “The Reformation of the Suffragettes” (1911), “The Suffragette Sheriff” (1912), “His Wife’s Whims” (1912), “Was He a Suffragette?” (1912), “A Cure for Suffragettes” (1913), and “When Women Go On the War Path” (1913) to ridicule the movement. Charlie Chaplin himself even played a suffragette in drag in the 1914 Keystone film “A Busy Day,” originally entitled “The Militant Suffragette.” Shrill, overbearing wife Chaplin drives her husband into the arms of another woman while viewing a military parade near San Pedro and instigates all types of slapstick violence.
Some films even inserted actual documentary footage showing suffragists marching and protesting into melodramatic or sensationalized situations like “How Women Win” (1911) and “Was He a Suffragette?” (1912). These films rallied women and also attracted men to the suffrage cause, instead of deflating the movement.
Recognizing the power of film as propaganda, women’s suffrage organizations themselves turned to moving pictures to promote their cause, bringing respect and dignity to their issues and movement. The more progressive Women’s Political Union partnered with the Eclair Film Company to create the 1912 short “Suffrage and the Man,” a comic but positive look at suffrage. In 1913 they produced the feature “What 80 Million Women Want…” which introduced their leaders Emmeline Pankhurst and Harriot Stanton Blatch in a melodramatic love story that exposed why “Votes For Women” would improve societal ills.
The more moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association produced films to introduce their leaders as well as a plan to hopefully influence seven states to approve women’s enfranchisement in 1914. Partnering with the Reliance Film Company in 1912, National American Woman Suffrage Association created “Votes For Women,” a two-reel short featuring reformer and social worker Jane Addams as well as National American Woman Suffrage Association President Anna Howard Shaw, revealing the importance of women voting to solve societal and cultural issues.
Taking a big leap in 1914, Ruth Hanna McCormick independently financed and produced the feature “Your Girl and Mine” on behalf of the organization to attract men to vote in support of female enfranchisement during the 1914 November election. While only two of the seven states voting on female voting rights that November supported their cause, It helped invigorate members to continue the fight for equality and respect.
Thanks to important female players and directors, major production companies began creating films supporting suffrage in 1917. Dorothy Davenport directed the film “Mothers of Men,” in which a woman is elected to an important political office and must make critical choices affecting her constituents. Renowned director Maurice Tourneur created “Woman” in 1918, showcasing women through important eras of time.
With America entering World War I, women became an integral force in keeping the home front running, be it working in plants or businesses and leading families while men served overseas. More males recognized the smarts and power of women, giving strength to the suffragist cause. President Woodrow Wilson came round, announcing support for the movement. Congress finally passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in spring 1919, ratified by the state of Tennessee’s vote August 18, 1920.
One hundred years ago tomorrow, women finally earned enfranchisement. With their votes, they could support causes and values important to society, while more importantly, the ability to exercise their own prerogatives and choices. Women finally mattered in politics and government, with their participation and importance in legislating growing every year. Celebrate a step forward for women in gaining respect, power, and participation in government. Much has been achieved, but much change is still required for equal rights.