Iron Jawed Angels (2004) 




Director:  Katja von Garnier.

Starring:   Hilary Swank (Alice Paul), Margo Martindale (Harriot Blatch), Anjelica Huston (Carrie Chapman Catt), Frances O'Connor (Lucy Burns), Lois Smith (Reverend Anna Howard Shaw), Vera Farmiga (Ruza Wenclawska), Brooke Smith (Mabel Vernon), Adilah Barnes (Ida Wells-Barnett), Laura Fraser (Doris Stevens), Semen Hirzhner (Russian mover), Jeremy Nichols (Russian mover's son), Donna York Dunn (Woman on street), Kristina Vensko (Young Jenny Leighton), Molly Parker (Emily Leighton), Lois Sanders (Nancy Barkin), Julia Ormond (Inez Millholland),  Patrick Dempsey (Ben Weissman).

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns fight for the right to vote for women


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.


Philadelphia, September 1912.  Alice Paul and Lucy Burns worked for suffrage for women in Britain.  Now they are in the United States to work for suffrage for women in a more conservative country.  Alice is a Quaker graduate of Swarthmore and has a doctorate from Penn.  And she has money.   Lucy Burns studied at Oxford.  They both want to lobby for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

Alice and Lucy meet with the leaders of the most influential women's group in the country: the National American Women's Suffrage Associations (NAWSA).  The leaders are the Rev. Ana Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt.  These women are relatively conservative and they are somewhat skeptical about what the two veterans of another country's struggles for women's suffrage will do in the United States.  The new arrivals suggest that they have a parade or march on the day of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration as president.  Shaw and Catt want assurances that there will be no hooliganism as in Britain.  Paul and Burns agree and are given permission to work in Washington D.C..  They must, however, raise their own funds. 

In Washington they speak to women workers at a factory.   The worker Ruza Wenclawska is highly critical of their work, but  Alice brings up the recent Triangle Shirt Factory fire in Manhattan in which 146 women who were virtually locked into their work place perished in a massive fire.  She says that women's suffrage is like a fire escape for all women.  Alice is able to change Ruza's opinion and she starts working with them for suffrage.  African-American Ida Wells-Barnett visits Alice and Lucy to protest that she and her group can only march in the parade if they march in the back.  Alice says she understands if Ida decides not to march in the parade at all. 

Ben Weissman of the Washington Post takes a liking to Alice, but she seems to be married to her cause and does not have time for romance.  The women activists have their parade.  Inez Millholland rides on horseback in the parade representing Joan of Arc.  There is some violence from some of the men watching the parade and the parade gets front page news.  One newspaper article blames the D.C. police for what happened and added that the violence against the marchers has won the women much popular support.  But Ms. Catt of NAWSA is not happy at all with the results and criticizes Alice and Lucy.

The women get into see President Wilson.  He tells them thanks for bringing to his attention an issue on which he is just not informed and then indicates that the meeting is at an end.  But Alice bravely speaks up to ask him for his support.  No satisfactory answer is given.

Senator Tom Leighton has a wife Emily who is becoming interested in the cause of women's suffrage, but she has to be very careful about making her views known because her husband is against the vote for women.  The senator tells his wife that the suffrage amendment made it out of committee but that it was then defeated. 

Alice and Lucy form the Congressional Union to fund raise for their cause.  Shaw and Catt are upset because none of the money makes it to NAWSA headquarters and because the new organization has hand-picked their best fund raisers.  Alice and Lucy are not deterred.  They begin a boycott of the Democrat Wilson in the next election for his inaction of the suffrage amendment. 

Shaw and Catt don't like the boycott idea and they decide to take action against Alice and Lucy.  They suspend the two women "trouble-makers" and say that they will investigate the finances of the Congressional Union.  They even went so far as to call Alice a thief.  This only leads to a split with the NAWSA for the two suspended women form the National Woman's Party (NWP).   They then lead a protest at a speech by Wilson to Congress. 

1916.  Union Station, Washington, D.C.  Inese Millholland, the woman on the horse, tells Alice that she is so exhausted that she cannot go to California with the women activists.  Alice says it just won't be the same without her appearing on horseback in the parade and convinces Inese to go.  Ben Weissman bumps into Alice and she agrees to let him teach her how to drive a car. 

It is made public that Mrs. Leighton is active in the woman's suffrage movement.  Her husband confronts her and tells he that she has to withdraw her membership and that he has closed her bank account.  President Wilson urges that women should be patient.  Lucy has to tell Alice the shocking news that Inese Millholland collapsed and died of pernicious anemia.  Alice is so upset that she goes home to her mother's house to retreat from political activity for awhile.  Lucy visits her and after some work finally gets Alice back into the swing of political activity.  

January 10, 1917.  The NWP stations daily sentinels with suffrage banners in front of the fence around the White House.  Mrs. Leighton is one of the women who stands sentinel.  But news soon arrives that German submarines sink five more ships.   It looks as if the US will be drawn into World War I.  When the US finally does declare war on Germany many of the suffragettes think that it would not be patriotic to picket a war-time president.  So they stop for awhile.  But soon they are back picketing.  They are attacked by sailors and other men who accuse them of being traitors while the police look the other way.  The women pickets are arrested and charged with "obstructing traffic".  They are found guilty and are order edto pay a fine of $10 each or 60 days in jail.  The women declare their innocence, tell the judge that the charges against them are bogus and choose to go to jail as a protest.

In prison the women want to be treated as political prisoners and speak up for their cause.  This results in the prison authorities treating them very roughly and even cruelly.  Senator Leighton sends his children to his mother's home and his wife, who is extremely upset at her missing children, tells him off.  Lucy is in prison and the women activists do not want Alice to end up there so they oppose her taking a place on the picket line.  But Alice insists.  She gets arrested along with Mrs. Leighton.  Alice asks for a window to be opened in the work place, but her request is denied.  So she takes one of her work boots off and throws it through a window.  For this she is thrown into solitary confinement.  Alice starts a hunger strike.  This makes her jailors very nervous about the possibility of negative publicity.  They don't want to make Alice Paul a martyr.  Their solution is to violently force feed her, which proves to be a very painful experience. 

When Alice is returned to the dining room with the other women she still refuses to eat.  The other women activists join in the hunger strike.  Alice and other leaders are thrown into solitary confinement.  Alice is getting very weak.  But there comes a sign of hope.  The very tough, butch-looking woman guard surprises the political prisoners by delivering messages between the women activists.  One day she just simply drops a note on the floor of Alice's cell.  This opens up communication for the women and Mrs. Leighton is even able to pass a message from Alice to her husband who visits her in prison.  He then goes to the newspapers with the note about how terribly the prison guards have treated her and the other women.  The news is so upsetting that Ms. Catt visits with Wilson to tell him in no uncertain terms that she wants the jailed women out of prison and more cooperation from the Democrats for women's suffrage.  The women activists are released from prison. 

August 26, 1920.  The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote is adopted. 

The United States Court of Appeals overturns the 218 arrests of the suffragettes. 

Alice Paul worked the rest of her life for women's causes and died in 1977. 


I really enjoyed the film.   It was very morally uplifting.  You just have to admire people like Alice Paul who work tirelessly for greater freedoms for human beings.  Hilary Swank was outstanding as the committed activist who was even willing to starve herself to death to win the vote for women.  I had read that Alice Paul had been thrown into jail for her activities and that she was an important figure in the suffrage movement, but I did not know how cruelly the women were treated in jail and how they so greatly suffered for their cause.  But now I know thanks to this movie.  The movie is a good reminder of how far we have come in the area of civil rights, even though there is still a great deal to be done. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)