Suffragists on Celluloid

Ms. is a proud media sponsor and partner of the League of Women Voters Los Angeles and UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Women to the Polls: Suffrage Film Festival. In this dedicated series, we’ll be syndicating the program in time with each day of screenings.

The fight to secure voting rights for American women has a long and complicated history. From its origins at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century to the Civil War era, suffragists worked in league with leading abolitionists like Frederic Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. During the reconstruction period, however, tensions around issues of sexism, racism and political expediency came to the fore on both sides, driving these groups apart.  

Divisions also existed within the women’s movement itself—causes like birth control, temperance and dress reform were alternately embraced and set aside. Strategy, too, became issue as young radicals like Alice Paul lobbied for suffragists to adopt extreme tactics that more conservative leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt resisted. After Paul and others were jailed in 1917, they went on a hunger strike and were force-fed. The public outrage that followed galvanized support for the 19th Amendment, which Congress finally ratified in 1920. In that year, the League of Women Voters was born.  

Hollywood’s depictions of suffrage struggles and their aftermath have a history of their own.

During the early years of the Twentieth Century, short documentaries of suffragist marches and other such events shared movie screens with comedies like Her First Flame (1920) and Politics (1931), which ridiculed the way in which women’s new political power could recast men as sculleries and nursemaids. A more positive view of opportunities in America for women was offered in The Making of an American Citizen, a 1912 story of immigrants directed by Alice Guy, an immigrant herself.

In the sound era, features like Cimarron (1931), The Lady from Cheyenne (1941), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947), The Ballad of Josie (1967), and The Bostonians (1984) celebrated women’s new political power, though they also tended to bury politics beneath sentimental love plots and to ignore racial issues. By 2004 HBO’s bio-pic Iron-Jawed Angels could recall the achievements of Alice Paul while casting fellow suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt as her antagonist.

Earnest documentaries like Susan B. Anthony: Rebel for the Cause (1995), One Women, One Vote (1995), Not for Ourselves Alone: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1999), Inez Milholland: Forward into Light (2016), and Capturing the Flag (2018) fill in many details about the long and arduous journey to achieve universal suffrage, a goal still unrealized as voter suppression continues to smother participation in many parts of the country. 

Women to the Polls: A Suffrage Film Festival takes the occasion of the centennial of women’s suffrage to shine a light on these complicated histories, inviting audiences to engage with American cinema’s evolving views about the importance of voting. If you can, please join us!

Get tickets now to watch these films and engage in conversations around the issues of voting, feminism and politics at the suffrage film festival!


Virginia Wright Wexman is Professor Emerita of English and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of "A History of Film" and many other books and articles on cinema. She has served on the juries of the Tel Aviv Film Festival, the Birmingham Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival and is currently on the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters Los Angeles.