Boardwalk Empire: Women Have the Vote, Now What?

Over the past decade it has become increasingly clear that the best new series on television are to be found outside the Big Three commercial networks, and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is another example of this modern truism. Season One, which wraps up December 5, has taken viewers from the eve of Prohibition through the passage of the 19th Amendment and beyond that into the lives of the people who inhabit this fact-meets-fiction 1920’s Atlantic City. It’s a place full of illegal liquor, the crime bosses who vie for control of its distribution and the women who fill whatever role the men deem them worthy of filling, be that Madonna or whore or somewhere in between.

The series revolves around Atlantic City treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the development of his Prohibition-era liquor empire and the workings of the Eastern seaboard political machine. There is attention to detail in the Atlantic City boardwalk, from the incubator babies in a storefront window to the billboard advertising that dominates the skyline, and historical figures (Warren G. Harding! Al Capone!) march across the screen at regular intervals. But Boardwalk Empire is more than just a period piece: There is a depth to the stories about the people who populate Nucky’s world, and many of those people happen to be women.

If the women in Boardwalk Empire have a motto, it might be “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.” Each of the women in the series has to make hard choices about how she is going to live her life, and many times those choices are not ones condoned by society. Those choices may best be epitomized by Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald).

We first meet Margaret when she is pregnant and has come to ask Nucky to give her alcoholic, gambling, abusive husband a job. Instead he offers her cash to see her family through the winter. Finding the money, her husband beats her to the point that she miscarries. When Nucky learns about this, he has his brother, the sheriff, dispose of the husband. That solves two problems for Nucky: It gets rid of the abusive husband of a women to whom he is inexplicably attracted and provides a patsy for a recently committed crime. Soon Nucky has found Margaret a job in a shop, then takes her as his mistress, ensconcing her and her two children in a house complete with servants.

This is quite a leap, economically and philosophically, for someone of Margaret’s background. Generally considered upstanding, she is also active in the temperance movement. So it’s a moral dilemma whether she should move into the house, but it’s a better offer than any other she’ll get. Before making her decision, she seeks the guidance of Mrs. McGarry (Dana Ivey), the local Temperance League chairwoman, who tells her that women will only be free when suffrage is ratified; until then, Margaret must do what she sees fit to provide for her family.

This was the hope of those fighting for suffrage: that it would set women free. For Margaret and many other women, the reality that this wasn’t necessarily going to happen quickly became apparent. Women got the vote, but men retained the power.

Seeing women’s suffrage as creating a new coalition of voters at his disposal, Nucky asks Margaret to speak to the League of Women Voters on behalf of the Republican mayoral candidate. While she is at first reluctant to do so, she ultimately relents, presenting a rousing speech that garners her a well-deserved round of applause. However, the pride Margaret feels as she hears the applause is quickly replaced by doubt as she spies Nucky in the back of the room glad-handing his political cronies. Her dawning realization that she has been used to further his ambitions is indicative of the smallness of the victories and the short-lived happiness of women at this time and in this place.

That isn’t to say that women were entirely powerless. The effect of the temperance movement to help the passage of  the Volstead Act, which prohibited the sale of alcohol (no matter how ineffective and misguided it turned out to be), is just one example of the power of the early women’s movement. But the fact remains that women were often forced to stay in situations that were less than ideal due to societal circumstances–circumstances that wouldn’t change until the resurgence of the women’s movement in the 1960’s.

One example of a recurring “women’s issue” that pops up in Boardwalk Empire–one destined to become a focal point in the 1960’s–is that of reproductive freedom. When Margaret visited Mrs. McGarry to ask her advice about moving into Nucky’s house, the older woman gave her a pamphlet by Margaret Sanger entitled “Family Limitation.” [PDF] It describes how to use a Lysol douche to prevent prengancy. In the penultimate episode, this bottle of Lysol becomes the turning point in Margaret and Nucky’s relationship. Nucky grabs it from above the toilet throws it down, telling Margaret that using it after sex makes her no different than a common whore. The fact that she chooses not to get pregnant, rather than letting nature take its course, is somehow more vile to him than the many criminal acts he has committed.

(In another take on reproductive rights, the character of Rose Van Alden [Enid Graham], wife of fanatically religious IRS agent Nelson Van Alden [Michael Shannon], is unable to conceive a child. She pleads with her husband to allow her to have a new corrective surgery but he refuses, telling her to accept her condition as “God’s will.”)

The fact that men feel they have a right to women’s bodies for reproductive purposes or to use as punching bags is a recurring theme in the series. Admittedly the show is generally violent, with shootings and beatings a weekly occurrence, but the way in which women are treated is especially sad, if only because so much hope was riding on the passage of the 19th Amendment. It would take the women of more than four decades later to agitate for the passage of legislation that allowed the sort of freedom dreamed of by Mrs. McGarry, Margaret and the other women characters in the series.

Boardwalk Empire has been renewed for a second season, giving viewers a chance to get more intimately acquainted with the gangsters of Atlantic City–and with the women who, for better or worse, live among them.

Photo by Flickr user Play Nice, under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Carmen Siering, Ph.D., a visiting professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, is a researcher and writer interested in the ways pop culture influences our understanding of gender, race, age, place, and class.