Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Vote Is a Fire Escape

Among the many things I take for granted is the right to vote.   While I might not always like my choice of candidates, I have the power to make my voice heard.  On two recent occasions I've been reminded that women were given the right to vote less than 100 years ago.   During my trip to Rochester this summer, I visited the Susan B. Anthony House. Anthony, of course, was one of the the earliest leaders in the women's suffrage movement.   Anthony died in 1906 after working tirelessly for her cause--and after having been rewarded for those efforts by being tried and convicted for voting in the 1872 Presidential Election.

A few years after Anthony's death, Alice Paul hit the suffragette scene, fresh from a stint in London where she was exposed to more radical means of working to enfranchise women than those engaged in by the National Woman Suffrage Association.   Paul's fight to obtain voting rights for women is the subject of the movie "Iron Jawed Angels" that was shown at a recent meeting of the Islettes (a women's group at the Isles Yacht Club).  The movie was fast-paced, continuously interesting, and full of information that I'm embarrassed I didn't know.  Having learned more about the story behind the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, it's notable that high school history books focus on the work of Anthony without really mentioning Paul.  But that's a discussion for a different day.

Alice Paul 
In the movie, one of the ways that Paul garnered support for her cause was by making the point that "a vote is a fire escape."  At the time, many women and children worked in sweatshops.  If a fire broke out, workers often did not have a means of escape. The statement that "a vote is a fire escape" conveyed to women in a way that resonated that if they wanted to address working conditions and other issues that affected them, they had to have the right to vote.   (After a bit of internet surfing, it looks as if Ruza Wenzclaska, a Russian-born factory worker who was a member of the National Women Trades Union League, actually coined this powerful catch phrase.)

One of the interesting facts highlighted in the movie is that the women's suffrage movement had two distinct camps.  The first believed that the way to secure voting rights was through a state-by-state adoption of constitutional amendments. The second believed that efforts should be focused on securing passage of a U.S. constitutional amendment.  In the movie, you see Paul and her followers being driven out of the National Woman Suffrage Association due to their singleminded focus on a federal amendment.  They then formed the National Woman's Party.  This was not the first time this issue resulted in the creation of multiple suffragette organizations.  In fact, Susan B. Anthony established the NWSA in 1869 in response to the American Women Suffrage Association's decision to work solely towards the passage of state constitutional amendments.  For a bit more history on this point, go to,

Silent Sentinels at the entrance to the White House
In addition to the divergence of opinions as to the best legislative approach to securing voting rights for women, the NWSA and the NWP took different tacks for raising awareness and achieving their goals. Paul's "radical" tactics ruffled more than a few feathers, especially once the United States declared war against Germany and became a full participant in WWI. Many thought it downright un-American for Paul and the members of the NWP to picket Wilson and the White House while the U.S. was at war.   In 1917 Paul and nine other "Silent Sentinels" were convicted of obstructing traffic and imprisoned at Occoquan Workhouse.   While there, Paul protested against the way the women prisoners were treated by going on a hunger strike.   The response:  brutal force feeding.  (These scenes in the movie were particularly shocking and made me recall Hilary Swank's performance in "Million Dollar Baby.")

"Iron Jawed Angels" gave me a much greater appreciation of the efforts and sacrifices that were made to secure voting rights for women.   I'm not surprised that the movie didn't do well in the theaters given the topic.  I have to admit that I went into the film expecting it to be on the dry side, one of those "it's good for you" kind of experiences.  I can assure you, though, that if you get the chance to see "Iron Jawed Angels", you will be anything but bored.  I can also assure you that if you're a woman, you won't take your right to vote for granted again.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nanette! Lately I've found myself drawn to the history of suffrage...the time not so long ago when women had to fight for everything. I'm awed by the courage that our sisters had. It also amazes me that women in many parts of the world are still considered nothing more than the muted property of their husbands and fathers. We have come a long way in a short time, but we still have a long way to go.

    I look forward to seeing this film. Thanks Nanette!


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