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.
In American Democracy (1832), Alexis de Tocqueville famously argued that the unique treatment of American women contributed to the fledgling democracy’s prosperity. Rather than trying to make the sexes equal or the same, as in Europe, in America, their difference is respected: “American women never manage the outward concerns of the family or conduct a business or take a part in political life; nor are they ever compelled to perform the rough labor of the fields or to make any of those laborious efforts which demand the exertion of physical strength.”
Eighty years later, in Making an American Citizen (1912), Alice Guy Blaché filmed the story of Ivan Orloff, a swarthy Eastern European immigrant, and his unnamed and beleaguered wife, directly applying Tocqueville’s ideas.
Ivan learns the lessons that will make him a citizen: his wife is not a beast of burden; he cannot beat her; and he, not she, should till the fields while she makes dinner, puts flowers on the table and leads them in saying grace. Using an immigrant’s assimilation story, Blaché crystallizes the (no)place of American femininity in citizenship—elevated, disenfranchised and domestic, implicitly white and bourgeois, a key symbolic prop for masculine suffrage.
Crucially, work, business, labor and suffrage are not feminine.
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947), set in 1874, anachronistically revisits women’s suffrage in relation to employment, femininity and heterosexual romance in the tale of Miss Pilgrim, one of the first trained “typewriters,” joining an all-male workplace, becoming a suffragette suffragist, and falling in love with her boss. Made right after the end of WWII, the film poses suffrage, employment and women’s ambition as challenges to romantic and personal happiness.