Blog #14: A Marathon of Suffragist Movies

admin 6 September 2017
Inez Milholland

 

Women’s Equality Day was celebrated on August 26th. There are many ways to honor this day but an especially effective way was by educating ourselves even further as to what the women of the not-that-long-ago past had to endure in order to achieve the equality most of us experience today. Sadly, there are still too many countries where women are not treated as equals. While the United States is not considered to be as oppressive towards women as places like Saudi Arabia, we have been experiencing a pendulum swing backwards over the recent past, a dangerous atmosphere in which many of our hard-won rights are being argued against and legislated away in some of our states and in the atmosphere of a male reluctance to have women fully achieve equality. These generally conservative and controlling men (mostly) have once again been trying to push back women to an earlier era when they had no more rights than chattel. Socrates said, “Once woman becomes equal to man, she becomes his superior.” That is the fear. That is the rage in losing or having to share power that is being expressed in our halls of government and in the streets and outside abortion clinics and on social media.

A common phenomenon in our society is that our youth seem often oblivious to the rights they have, as they have known no other situation. Whether these rights pertain to being black or an immigrant or a girl, there were processes and battles (verbally and physically) that past generations had to endure in order to win these rights and win the esteem of their fellow humans. My daughters are reminded by me every so often that there was no Title IX that allowed girls to compete in sports with the same resources that the boys were given. There were NO sports teams for girls where I was growing up in 1950’s America. It wasn’t assumed that daughters would get advanced degrees as well as sons. These privileges are taken for granted now and very little of the history of how those rights were finally achieved is within our awareness.

What better way to convey the history of women’s battle to achieve their equality than to show films that emotionally and entertainingly showcase the stories of many of the women that fought the righteous battles. More than not, most of the earliest fighters for our freedoms did not live long enough to experience a level playing field in marriage, sports, education, jobs and recognition for their accomplishments. The films we viewed from 10:00 am until 7:30 pm documented the stories of known and unknown heroines and heroes who deserve our applause and demand our recognition.

These films were shown in the parlor of the Gage House in Fayetteville. Sadly, that is the only part Matilda played in this film fest. As a progressive pioneer who boldly defended her stance through pamphlets, speeches, newspapers and books, Mrs. Gage was obliterated from the history portrayed in these movies. But know that she was side-by-side those that are given a screen presence in real life.
Women’s Equality Day was celebrated on August 26th. There are many ways to honor this day but an especially effective way was by educating ourselves even further as to what the women of the not-that-long-ago past had to endure in order to achieve the equality most of us experience today. Sadly, there are still too many countries where women are not treated as equals. While the United States is not considered to be as oppressive towards women as places like Saudi Arabia, we have been experiencing a pendulum swing backwards over the recent past, a dangerous atmosphere in which many of our hard-won rights are being argued against and legislated away in some of our states and in the atmosphere of a male reluctance to have women fully achieve equality. These generally conservative and controlling men (mostly) have once again been trying to push back women to an earlier era when they had no more rights than chattel. Socrates said, “Once woman becomes equal to man, she becomes his superior.” That is the fear. That is the rage in losing or having to share power that is being expressed in our halls of government and in the streets and outside abortion clinics and on social media.

A common phenomenon in our society is that our youth seem often oblivious to the rights they have, as they have known no other situation. Whether these rights pertain to being black or an immigrant or a girl, there were processes and battles (verbally and physically) that past generations had to endure in order to win these rights and win the esteem of their fellow humans. My daughters are reminded by me every so often that there was no Title IX that allowed girls to compete in sports with the same resources that the boys were given. There were NO sports teams for girls where I was growing up in 1950’s America. It wasn’t assumed that daughters would get advanced degrees as well as sons. These privileges are taken for granted now and very little of the history of how those rights were finally achieved is within our awareness.

What better way to convey the history of women’s battle to achieve their equality than to show films that emotionally and entertainingly showcase the stories of many of the women that fought the righteous battles. More than not, most of the earliest fighters for our freedoms did not live long enough to experience a level playing field in marriage, sports, education, jobs and recognition for their accomplishments. The films we viewed from 10:00 am until 7:30 pm documented the stories of known and unknown heroines and heroes who deserve our applause and demand our recognition.

These films were shown in the parlor of the Gage House in Fayetteville. Sadly, that is the only part Matilda played in this film fest. As a progressive pioneer who boldly defended her stance through pamphlets, speeches, newspapers and books, Mrs. Gage was obliterated from the history portrayed in these movies. But know that she was side-by-side those that are given a screen presence in real life.

Inez on her white horse.
Inez Millholland in front of banner with her favorite words.

The first film viewed was about Inez Milholland. The title of this short documentary is “Forward into Light.” Inez Milholland Boissevain was born August 6, 1886– 66 years after Matilda Joslyn Gage was born. Inez only lived to the age of 30, however. During her brief lifetime, she was a suffragist, labor lawyer, World War I correspondent, and public speaker who greatly influenced the women’s movement in America. She was active in the National Woman’s Party and a key participant in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession. She grew up in a wealthy Brooklyn family. Her father supported many reforms, among them world peace, civil rights, and women suffrage. Her mother exposed her children to cultural and intellectual stimulation.
During her attendance at Vassar College she was once suspended for organizing a women’s rights meeting. The president of Vassar had forbidden suffrage meetings, but Milholland and others held regular “classes” on the issue, along with large protests and petitions. As a student, she was known as an active radical. She started the suffrage movement at Vassar, enrolled two-thirds of the students, and taught them the principles of socialism. With her group of radicalized women, she attended socialist meetings in Poughkeepsie which were under the ban of the faculty.
She was also quite athletic. She was the captain of the hockey team and a member of the 1909 track team. She even set a record in the basketball throw. In addition, she also took part in student productions, the Current Topics Club, the German Club, and the debating team.
After graduating from Vassar in 1909, she tried for admission at Yale, Harvard and Cambridge because she wanted to become a lawyer. But, because she was a woman, she was denied entrance. She was successfully admitted to New York University School of Law and obtained a law degree in 1912. She used this law degree in far reaching ways. She was not only interested in prison reform, but also sought world peace and worked for equality for African Americans. Milholland was a member of the NAACP, the Women’s Trade Union League, the Equality League of Self Supporting Women in New York (Women’s Political Union), the National Child Labor Committee, and England’s Fabian Society. Quite naturally, she was also involved in the N.A.W.S.A. (National American Woman Suffrage Association), which is what the combined suffrage associations became despite Gage’s strong protests against the merger in 1890. The N.A.W.S. later branched into the grassroots radical National Woman’s Party. Milholland became a leader and a popular speaker on their campaign circuit, working closely with Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. [I will elaborate on these two movers and shakers in subsequent blogs!]
Milholland handled criminal and divorce cases. In one of her first assignments, she had to investigate conditions at Sing Sing prison. At the time, female contact with male prisoners was frowned upon, but she insisted on talking personally with the prisoners to uncover the horrible conditions. Additionally, she wanted to see what it felt like to be an inmate, so she had herself handcuffed to one.
She believed women’s votes could remove social ills such as sweatshops, tenements, prostitution, hunger, poverty and child mortality. She believed that women should have the right to vote because of the traits that were unique to women. They were the “housecleaners of the nation,” speaking metaphorically.

Inez Milholland had a “problem” that often is a reason why some women are not taken as seriously as they deserved: she was very beautiful. She was better known for her looks than for her equally spectacular brain. What she became most famous for was leading suffrage movement parades riding a white horse and wearing a long white cape and a crown. No suffrage parade was complete without her. She led many parades 1911-1913. She would hold a sign that read, “Forward, out of error/Leave behind the night./Forward through the darkness,/Forward into light!”

In March 1913, when Milholland was 27, she made her most memorable appearance in Washington D.C. which took place the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. She led the parade wearing a crown and a long white cape while riding atop a large white horse named “Gray Dawn.” [So, inauguration protest parades are nothing new!]
In July, 1913, while on a cruise to London, Milholland proposed to Eugen Jan Boissevain, a Dutchman she had known for about a month. She had been “forward” in previous relationships, too. They were married on July 14 at the Kensington registry office which was as soon as they could after their arrival in London without consulting their families.
In 1916, she went on a tour in the West speaking for women’s rights despite the fact that she was ill and suffering from pernicious anemia. In the middle of a speech, she collapsed, was rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and given repeated blood transfusions. She died on November 25, 1916.
Milholland’s last public words during that fateful speech were, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”[
It is truly amazing to me how many women that worked so hard for women’s rights have pretty much disappeared from history, though not on purpose as was done to Matilda. There is so much herstory to recover!
So, we continued through the day watching well-done full-length movies about other suffrage heroines. The next feature was “Iron-Jawed Angels.” This powerful movie featured actresses portraying Alice Paul (Hillary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor.) The film was quite emotional and portrayed the violence that was done to these women who dared to try to change the status quo.
A quite recent film was shown next. This one, “Suffragette,” I skipped as I had seen it in Ireland when it first came out. It felt quite appropriate to be seeing it in the British Isles, as the Suffragette movement (more violent than the earlier suffragists in that they drew attention to the cause by some destruction of property and brick throwing) in England was the subject matter of this film. It featured Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, though the role was actually only a few scenes. Most of the action showed the dire underbelly of London and its sweatshops and dress factories where women worked under horrific conditions with little pay. The violence and mistreatment these crusaders experienced should be made more apparent to today’s generation of young women. They would certainly stop taking their rights for granted!

Young Alice Paul
Alice Paul
Emmeline Pankhurst

 

In mid-afternoon we got around to seeing “One Woman, One Vote: This PBS “American Experience”-produced program was narrated by Susan Sarandan.
Another feature film ended the day: “Not for Ourselves Alone: the Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony.” This was a dual look into the suffrage movement in the United States. Ken Burns created this biography of Stanton and Anthony. Sally Roesch Wagner actually helped advise on this documentary and even interviewed Ken Burns. She was included in the film as one of the “talking heads,” as she was one of the earliest creators of Women’s Study Programs. However, Matilda was left out of this movie, too.
Most of these films are available at your local library or online. You won’t be sorry if you take the time to view them. Perhaps, it would be wise to invite your daughters to view them with you.

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