Historical Film Review: Iron Jawed Angels Essay

Historical Film Review: Iron Jawed Angels

HIS 110
February 24, 2015

Historical Film Review: Iron Jawed Angels
The film Iron Jawed Angels tells the story of Alice Paul, the National Women’s Party, and
the hallmark events of the woman’s suffrage movement that led to the ratification of the
19th amendment. While few historical inaccuracies are present in the, Iron Jawed Angels
succeeds to a large degree in providing a accurate timeline of the women’s suffrage
movement. The film takes a linear path in its storytelling, highlighting three events in
particular: the parade of 1913, the picketing outside the White House, and the women of
the NWP’s subsequent imprisonment. If viewed critically this film can serve as a useful
tool in teaching, at the high school or introductory college level.

The film begins by featuring the two main protagonists (Alice Paul and Lucy Burns) as they
convince the leaders of NAWSA to let them run the NAWSA congressional committee in D.C.
Once in D.C. Paul and Burns organize a parade advocating woman’s suffrage, and it runs
smoothly until police lose control of a growing hostile crowd. The ensuing scene shows a
hostile environment with shots of utter anarchy as women who were in the parade are
attacked. After meeting with President Wilson, who tells Paul that he won’t approve of a
constitutional amendment until he is “more educated in the women’s suffrage movement.” An

incensed Alice Paul reacts by creating The Suffragist, a newspaper devoted entirely to the
Women’s Suffrage Movement. This act of defiance by Paul both her and Burns suspended from
NAWSA, which leads to Paul founding the NWP. Alice devises a plan for NWP members to
picket outside of the White House as a way to put more pressure on Wilson. The women
picketing are eventually arrested for “obstructing traffic,” and given the option of
either a $10 fine each, or 60 days at a workhouse. The picketers chose the workhouse, and
are transported to the Occoquan Workhouse where they are treated inhumanely and forced to
live in unsanitary conditions. In response to the Workhouse conditions Paul begins a
60-day fast and eventually her fellow party members to follow suit. The guards begin
force-feeding the women and word leaks out to the press of the horrific treatment these
women are receiving. Wilson eventually releases and pardons the women of their crimes. One
year later he ratifies the 19th amendment, ending woman’s suffrage.

Iron Jawed Angels is effective as a historical source to a large degree, though
inaccuracies do exist within the hallmark events of the film (the parade, the picketing,
and the workhouse.). The first inaccuracy I noticed was the producer’s portrayal of the
men in the crowd at the parade. The men are shown as being hostile and angry, resembling
an angry mob more than bystanders at a parade. Alice Paul, in a 1974 interview, recalls a
different scene in which the crowd “wasn’t hostile at all.” Another inaccuracy I found is
in regard to the brief scene with Ida B. Wells. The film does a nice job illustrating
(albeit briefly) the tensions that existed between white suffragists and African American
activists, but blunders with its placement of Wells and NACW within the parade. Wells

visits Paul at her headquarters to express her anger concerning where African-American
women were positioned in the parade and demand the equal inclusion of the NACW. The film
goes on to only show Wells joining the middle of the parade, failing to show the rest of
“the colored women whom marched according to state and occupation without let or
hindrance.” The film also adopted a popular device in filmmaking by inserting a
well-known historical figure in place of a lesser-known one, even if credit is being given
where it’s not due. In the case of Ida B. Wells, she was not the head of the NACW Chicago
delegation. That woman was Mary Church Therrell, whom gets no mention in the film. When
critically analyzing the women’s time at the Occoquan Workhouse more inaccuracies arise.
The shoe we see Alice throw through the window in the sweatshop, according to Alice was
actually a “bowl she found in her cell.” Iron Jawed Angels also takes certain liberties
in exaggerating the influence of the NWP on Wilson and Congress to ratify the 19th
amendment. A People and A Nation makes clear the fact that while Paul’s charismatic
meetings, marches, and protests definitely increased public awareness, what really
convinced Wilson and legislators to grant national suffrage was women’s service during

As with most Hollywood renditions of historical events, Iron Jawed Angels contains two
subplots that are entirely fictional. The first one involves Alice Paul and a love affair
with a Washington Post political cartoonist (Mr. Weissman). The other fictional subplot
takes the form of a senator and his wife (who is arrested for picketing), whom is credited
with spreading word through her husband of the atrocities being committed at the
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