Allowing Our Heroines to Be Real

AlicePaulYesterday—January 11—was Alice Paul’s birthday. Alice Paul, who fought body and soul for suffrage, organizing a famous march for the cause in 1913 that upstaged the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, and later challenging the president’s refusal to pass suffrage by leading a hunger strike in jail. Alice Paul, who I love the way I love all my heroines, with fierce gratitude and pride. I’ve been thinking about Alice this week, as I just watched Iron-Jawed Angels, a movie about Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Inez Milholland, and others who gave female suffrage its final push into being. Although I enjoyed the movie, I was frustrated by some aspects of it—including the way it downplayed the role of another heroine of mine, Ida B. Wells. I think the movie did this for the same reason all mainstream stories of “how feminism got us where we are” downplay the role of black women: white culture doesn’t want to look too closely at the flaws in our heroines.

It’s quite a story, you know—the way women got the vote. It’s got all the drama of a tense sports game, played out again and again over the course of a century, coming down to the last breathless second with a game-saver of a young legislator in Tennessee, urged to support women by his mother. Leading up to that moment were untold hours of the labor of women—women marching, writing, organizing. Black women were chief among the organizers—Ida B. Wells, a friend of Susan B. Anthony, is famous for her campaign against lynching (the primary political tool of control against black people after the Civil War) as well as her support of suffrage. And Mary Church Terrell did more to organize black women for the vote than anyone else. They are part of the story, part of the reason we are where we are today. But mainstream stories of feminist triumph don’t usually dwell on their role.

That’s because white feminists—both early and late in the suffrage movement—allowed racism to determine their path forward. Susan B. Anthony called it “expediency”—and was called out for it by her friend Ida. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, despite the support she received from Frederick Douglass, asked him not to come to certain meetings. Anthony and Stanton allied themselves with rich racist Democrats who they thought would help them push the vote forward, advocating for the enfranchisement of white women (they also excluded black women from their meetings) over black men (who were up for the vote—and got it, in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments). Douglass argued for the enfranchisement of black men because he saw it as a matter of survival—which it was. All of these events were packed into the events of the first half of the suffrage movement, long before Alice Paul’s march in 1913.

Iron-Jawed Angels does show Alice’s moment of racism, in which she refuses to let Ida B. Wells march with her delegation in the parade, and instead insists that Ms. Wells go to the back. It also shows Ms. Wells’ refusal to capitulate, as she marches with the white suffragists.  But in that movied-up moment, Alice Paul has a look of admiration for Ida in her eyes. And it is only Ida who defies the rules. In reality, Ms. Wells had a delegation of sixty black women with her. The movie erases them, and tells the truth of Alice’s  racism slant—as though it were a momentary lapse rather than a conscious, and consciously enforced, decision.

Why?

We’d have to feel some shame mixed in with our pride. And we think admitting the shame of racism isn’t OK—that it would make Alice Paul less of a heroine.

We also think maybe she’d be a little suspect if she didn’t at least consider life with a (sexy, feminist) man. So the movie throws one in there for distraction—both of the audience and Ms. Paul—but he never feels quite real. Oh, the chemistry is fine—Hilary Swank, playing Alice Paul, does a great job of being tempted but determined, and Patrick Dempsey is indeed distracting as Ben Weissman—but watching him romance Alice Paul is a little like watching the movie version of your favorite book make a terrible plot choice. The most famous quote about Ms. Paul is that of a journalist who tried to interview her about her personal life and came away with, “There is no Alice Paul. There is only suffrage.”

Iron-Jawed Angels really picks up in the second half, as the suffragists picket the White House and are carted off to jail. Alice Paul leads a hunger strike, and is force-fed through tubes. Someone helps her sneak notes out of the jail about what is happening, and when the story breaks, the president—and the nation—suddenly pays attention to suffrage.

That happened, for real. And it is why Alice Paul is a feminist heroine. Her racism toward Ida B. Wells was inexcusable—and just as real as her willingness to starve for suffrage. By complicating the narrative with the complicated truth, we do not make less of Ms. Paul’s accomplishments. We merely allow her to be a human being. And in doing so, we acknowledge the humanity and heroism of Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and all the black women who worked for suffrage.

Note: With gratitude to Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race, and Class Gail Collins’ America’s Women and for facts about the suffrage movement

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