Sparked by Angels

Sparked by Angels

Women’s rights, voting activists hope HBO movie on women’s suffrage will lead to higher turnouts in November elections.

In the dark at Ballston Common Thursday night, audience members for “Iron-Jawed Angels” waited to see if a film shot for the small screen translated to the big.

At the end of the film, a story of suffragists agitating for passage of the 19th amendment, the audience applauded. But their applause was not the judgment of an impartial jury.

For the preview screening, cable channel HBO joined forces with voter registration organizations like Rock the Vote and the Youth Vote Coalition to invite women’s groups and voting rights groups from around the capital region. After the movie, the audience was excited by a film they hoped would spur political interest in young, would-be voters.

“The movie was very much geared to reach younger women,” said Olga Hernandez, president of the Fairfax chapter of the League of Women Voters.

“Iron-Jawed Angels” tells the story of suffragists Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor) from 1912 to 1920, as they establish a National Women’s Party and celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote.

But the film “wasn’t the average period piece,” said Donna Davis, Rock the Vote’s DC street team leader. The soundtrack included “some of the music I listen to,” said Davis, “which I wouldn’t expect to hear” in a movie set in the 1910s.

But the early-20th century story is meant to reach a young audience, in their 20s and 30s, with music-video cinematography and a soundtrack featuring Lauryn Hill and Sarah McLachlan.

<b>THOSE ARE THE</> very voters that need a political jumpstart, say activists. Voter turnout in the last four elections in Arlington has been generally higher among women than men; but young voters, both male and female, are few and far between.

The movie could help change that, said Veronica De La Garza, executive director of the DC-based Youth Vote Coalition. “I think it’s really going to get young people active, and registered to vote, when they see this was not a right easily won, that this is not something they were born with,” she said.

In the Washington region, women earn higher salaries than the national average, but still lag behind their male counterparts. A 2003 survey by the Washington Area Women’s Foundation showed the largest gap in men’s and women’s wages in Fairfax County with the average man employed in the county earning $60,503 a year, while the average woman earning $41,802. Arlington had the area’s third largest wage gap, with women making $41,552, and men making $51,011.

With those discrepancies, Joanne Tomaselli found herself wishing for a modern-day Alice Paul. “I wish there were more people, more groups of people, with that passion for a cause,” said Tomaselli, an Alexandria resident and League of Women Voters member. “We’re way too apathetic these days, and apathy is the devil’s handmaiden.”

<b>THE MOVIE CHRONICLES</b> Paul and Burns’s arrival in Washington, D.C.; their establishment of a National Women’s Party, when they feel a national suffrage group is moving too slowly; a confrontational campaign to raise the profile of suffrage; and their celebrations when the 19th Amendment was ratified, on Aug. 18, 1920.

Part of that struggle brought imprisonment for Paul, Burns and other NWP members at Occoquan Workhouse, later known as Lorton prison, where a hunger-striking Paul was forcefed by prison authorities. Accounts of her treatment were smuggled to newspapers, and public reaction to the suffragists’ treatment won sympathy for their cause.

Filmmakers traveled to Lorton in 2002 to film scenes of the suffragists arrival at the prison, and filmed a parade for women’s votes in Richmond in October, 2002.

Scenes of hunger strikes, parades and victory celebrations struck a chord with attendees Thursday night.

“I just saw the movie for the first time, and I’m feeling kind of renewed, in energy and spirit,” said Rock the Vote’s Davis. “I want to get out there and get people registered.”

“Iron-Jawed Angels” is timely, coming at the beginning of a presidential election year when voter turnout is traditionally high, said De La Garza. “When people start voting, they continue to go out and vote. It will be a lifelong habit, so that in off election years, they will continue to vote.”

Others saw the movie as a much-needed primer on the struggle to get voting rights for women. “Women’s history is not taught in schools,” said Hernandez. “We’re taught that women got the vote, miraculously, in 1920. This gets people to say, ‘Hey, what am I doing with it?’”

<b>SUFFRAGIST HISTORY,</b> said Krista Landon, was not part of the curriculum when she went to school either. “I need to do a little studying to see how historically accurate [the movie] was,” said Landon, the Web developer and e-organizer for the March for Women’s Lives.

The March, scheduled for April 25 in the District, is intended to highlight shortcomings in women’s global rights. It’s a little different than the parade and the activism in “Iron-Jawed Angels,” said March administrative director Linda Bowker. The main suffragists in the movie are all white women, she said. “Among the top organizations sponsoring our march are the Black Women’s Health Imperative and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.”

But there are bigger similarities, she said. “One thing that hasn’t changed is the intense commitment we have that no one will dictate our rights to our own bodies.”

“Some politicians still think of us as a special interest group,” said Landon. “When really, it’s a human rights issue.”

Watching Paul’s story unscroll onscreen was a reminder for Bowker of her early days in the women’s movement. In 1977, at a conference in New Jersey, a then-92-year-old Paul came in her wheelchair, hoping to find volunteers to lobby for the Paul-authored Equal Rights Amendment.

“I didn’t actually meet her,” said Bowker. “My friend met her, and wanted to pick her brain about her history. But she just wanted to talk about how we could get Indiana to ratify the ERA.”