Iron Jawed Angels Summary Essay On America

Iron Jawed Angels

DVD cover

Directed byKatja von Garnier
Produced by
  • James Bigwood
  • Laura McCorkindale
  • Denise Pinckley
Written by
  • Sally Robinson
  • Eugenia Bostwick-Singer
  • Raymond Singer
  • Jennifer Friedes
Music by
CinematographyRobbie Greenberg
Edited byHans Funck


  • HBO Films
  • Blue Dominion Productions
  • Bluebird House
  • Spring Creek Productions
Distributed byHBO Films

Release date

  • January 16, 2004 (2004-01-16) (Sundance)
  • February 15, 2004 (2004-02-15) (United States)

Running time

125 minutes
CountryUnited States

Iron Jawed Angels is a 2004 American historical drama film directed by Katja von Garnier. The film stars Hilary Swank as suffragist leader Alice Paul, Frances O'Connor as activist Lucy Burns, Julia Ormond as Inez Milholland, and Anjelica Huston as Carrie Chapman Catt. It received critical acclaim after the film premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.[1]

The film focuses on the American women's suffrage movement during the 1910s and follows women's suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns as they use peaceful and effective nonviolent strategies, tactics, and dialogues to revolutionize the American feminist movement to grant women the right to vote. The film was released in the United States on February 15, 2004.


Alice Paul and Lucy Burns return from England where they met while participating in the Women's Social and Political Union started by radical suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and led by her daughter Christabel Pankhurst. The pair presents a plan to the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to campaign directly in Washington D.C. for national voting rights for women. They find that their ideas are too forceful for the established suffragette leaders, particularly Carrie Chapman Catt, but they are allowed to lead the NAWSA Congressional Committee in D.C. They start by organizing the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration.

While soliciting donations at an art gallery, Paul convinces labor lawyer Inez Milholland to lead the parade on a white horse. Paul also meets a Washington newspaper political cartoonist, Ben Weissman (a fictional character), and there are hints of romantic overtones. In a fictional scene, Paul tries to explain to Ida B. Wells why she wants African American women to march in the back of the parade in order to not anger southern Democrats and activists, but Wells refuses, and she comes out of the crowd to join a white group during the middle of the parade (Wells did refuse to be segregated, and marched with her state delegation, but never met with Paul about it.[2]). After disagreements over fundraising, Paul and Burns are forced out of the NAWSA, and they found the National Woman's Party (NWP) to support their approach. Alice Paul briefly explores a romantic relationship with Ben Weissman.

Further conflicts within the movement are portrayed as NAWSA leaders criticize NWP tactics, such as protesting against Wilson, and their sustained picketing outside of the White House in the Silent Sentinels action. Relations between the American government and the NWP protesters also intensify, as many women are arrested for their actions and charged with "obstructing traffic."

The arrested women are sent to the Occoquan Workhouse for 60-day terms. Despite abusive and terrorizing treatment, Paul and other women undertake a hunger strike, during which paid guards force-feed them milk and raw eggs. The suffragists are blocked from seeing visitors or lawyers, until (fictional) U.S. Senator Tom Leighton visits his wife Emily, one of the imprisoned women. News of their treatment leaks to the media after Emily secretly passes a letter to her husband during his visit. Paul, Burns, and the other women are released.

Pressure continues to be put on President Wilson as the NAWSA joins in the NWP call for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Wilson finally accedes to the pressure rather than be called out in the international press for fighting for democracy in Europe while denying democracy's benefits to half of the U.S. population. During the amendment's ratification, Harry T. Burn, a member of the Tennessee legislature, receives a telegram from his mother at the last minute, changes his vote, and the amendment passes.

Origin of title[edit]

The film derives its title from Massachusetts Representative Joseph Walsh, who in 1917 opposed the creation of a committee to deal with women's suffrage. Walsh thought the creation of a committee would be yielding to "the nagging of iron-jawed angels" and referred to the Silent Sentinels as "bewildered, deluded creatures with short skirts and short hair."[3] The use of steel holding open the jaws of the women being force-fed after the Silent Sentinel arrests and hunger strike is also a plot point in the film.


Fictional characters[edit]

Fictional characters in the film are Ben Weissman; his child; Emily Leighton; and Senator Tom Leighton.[6][7]


Critical response[edit]

Film critic Richard Roeper gave the film a positive review, writing, "Iron Jawed Angels is an important history lesson told in a fresh, and blazing fashion."[8] Scott Faundas of Variety gave the film a negative review, writing, "HBO's starry suffragette drama, Iron Jawed Angels, latches on to a worthy historical subject and then hopes noble intentions will be enough to carry the day. Alas, there's no such luck in this talky, melodramatic overview of the dawn of equal rights for women in America. Gussied up with a comically anachronistic use of period music on the soundtrack and flashy, MTV-style montage sequences, pic misguidedly strives – but ultimately fails – to belie its instincts as an assembly-line movie-of-the-week."[9]

Robert Pardi of TV Guide gave a mixed review, "All the elements for a splendid film about the early days of the women's rights are in place, but director Katja von Garnier's use of distracting cinematic trickery and jarringly modern music meshes poorly with the period setting... Blessed with a flawless physical production, von Garnier distorts her epic tale with music that belongs on a Lilith Fair tour; it sometimes feels as though she and her writers conceived the fight for women's suffrage as a 1912 version of Sex and the City. Only when the anachronisms finally subside in the film's final third is the moving core is allowed to shine."[10]


The film was nominated for five awards at 56th Primetime Emmy Awards, none of which were won; three awards at the 62nd Golden Globe Awards, winning one; and two awards at the 9th Golden Satellite Awards, winning one. Anjelica Huston won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film and the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film for her performance in the film.

2004Primetime Emmy AwardsOutstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie, or a SpecialJanet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins, Liz Marks, Kathleen ChopinNominated
Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or a MovieRobbie GreenbergNominated
Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie, or a SpecialCaroline Harris, Eric Van Wagoner, Carl Curnutte IIINominated
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a MovieAnjelica HustonNominated
Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Dramatic SpecialSally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Jennifer FriedesNominated
Casting Society of AmericaBest Casting for TV Movie of the WeekJanet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins, Liz MarksNominated
Humanitas Prize90 Minute or Longer CategorySally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Jennifer FriedesNominated
OFTA Television AwardsBest Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesAnjelica HustonNominated
Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesBrooke SmithNominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture or MiniseriesHilary SwankNominated
Best Motion Picture Made for TelevisionIron Jawed AngelsNominated
2005Golden Globe AwardsBest Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television FilmAnjelica HustonWon
Best Miniseries or Television FilmIron Jawed AngelsNominated
Best Actress – Miniseries or Television FilmHilary SwankNominated
American Society of CinematographersOutstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Movies of the Week/Mini-Series/Pilot (Basic or Pay)Robbie GreenbergWon
Screen Actors Guild AwardsOutstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television MovieHilary SwankNominated
Satellite AwardsBest Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television FilmAnjelica HustonWon
Best Miniseries or Television FilmIron Jawed AngelsNominated
PEN Center USA West Literary AwardsTeleplaySally Robinson, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Jennifer FriedesWon
Costume Designers Guild AwardOutstanding Period/Fantasy Television SeriesCaroline HarrisNominated

See also[edit]


  1. ^"Interview with Paul Fischer at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004". Film Monthly. 
  2. ^
  3. ^"HOUSE MOVES FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE; Adopts by 181 to 107 Rule to Create a Committee to Deal with the Subject. DEBATE A HEATED ONE Annoyance of President by Pickets at White House Denounced as "Outlawry."". The New York Times. September 25, 1917. 
  4. ^Skipper, Elizabeth (November 1, 2004). "Review of Iron-Jawed Angels". DVD Verdict. Archived from the original on June 26, 2015.  
  5. ^DVD Verdict: In this movie, Alice is given a fledgling romance with political cartoonist Ben Weissman. According to the audio commentary, he is another completely fictional character, created to give Alice a (sort of) love interest.
  6. ^"Iron Jawed Angels: Characters". Iron Jawed Angels Media Smarts. Retrieved March 21, 2015. 
  7. ^"DVD Verdict Review – Iron Jawed Angels". DVD Verdict. November 1, 2004. Archived from the original on June 26, 2015. Retrieved March 21, 2015. 
  8. ^"Iron Jawed Angels Review". TV Plex. February 17, 2004. 
  9. ^"Review: 'Iron Jawed Angels'". Variety. January 22, 2004. 
  10. ^"Iron Jawed Angels Review". TV Guide. Retrieved October 25, 2014. 

External links[edit]

Mar 15 2012

Today, when it seems that everyone is getting a make-over, so are the suffragists. Iron Jawed Angels, a recent film by HBO, dramatizes the final years of the American woman suffrage movement, from 1912 to the winning of the vote in 1920. Historians familiar with the classic documentary One Woman, One Vote (1996) will be amused by how the suffragists have been updated and recast to mirror our own contemporary sensibilities. This film portrays these women as you have never seen them before: shopping for fashionable hats, smoking and lounging in their undergarments, and marching to a soundtrack of hip-hop rhythms. They are more than “new women”; they are 21st-century women in their casual manner, informal speech, and attitudes toward men and sexuality. With this approach, the film modernizes our political foremothers in an attempt to win new audiences in a postfeminist age.

The film modernizes our political foremothers in an attempt to win new audiences in a postfeminist age.

Tensions between veteran activists and “new suffragists” are at the heart of the story. Hilary Swank stars as the outspoken and determined Alice Paul, and Frances O'Connor plays her faithful comrade, Lucy Burns. The dynamic duo represents the more youthful, radical wing of the movement, which confronts the more conservative Carrie Chapman Catt (Anjelica Huston) and Anna Howard Shaw (Lois Smith), president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Allied with the Democratic party and the new president, Woodrow Wilson, Catt continues to support a gradual state-by-state campaign. She is portrayed as traditional, stuffy, and arrogant compared to the playful, optimistic, and impatient Paul who launches public demonstrations, supports a federal suffrage amendment, demands immediate results, and condemns the Democrats and Wilson, even in the midst of war. Paul and her allies eventually split with NAWSA to form a separate organization, the National Woman's Party. While historians have focused on the militant tactics of the new suffragists, the film fixates on their colorful personalities to separate them further from the old guard.

For an audience new to women's history, it conveys the very serious barriers to women's political participation and social justice.

Although the filmmakers try to reinvent the image of the suffragists, the storyline is based on the real troubles and triumphs of the campaign's final years. For an audience new to women's history, it conveys the very serious barriers to women's political participation and social justice. When the activists are physically attacked as they protest peacefully, the true hostility toward woman suffrage comes alive. The movie also contains a chilling portrayal of Paul's jail experience, showing her psychoanalyzed in the mental ward and violently force-fed after initiating a hunger strike. The film even acknowledges the racial tensions between white suffragists and African American activists, highlighting Paul's conflict with Ida B. Wells before the Washington, DC, parade in 1913. The film does take many liberties, however. For example, it overstates the influence of the radicals in winning the vote, downplaying the concerted effort of the entire suffrage spectrum and the impact of women's work and volunteerism during World War I. While historians have described Alice Paul as intellectually vigorous, personally conservative, and politically militant, the film transforms her into a spunky rebel who knows how to have fun but is still fully committed to her cause.

But this emphasis on beauty and charisma would surely disturb the suffragists, who would find these characters very foreign.

Is this what it takes to attract new audiences to women's history? In an age when many young women resist the feminist label, the film invites them to connect with feminists who are single, young, independent, sexually vibrant, and, of course, physically attractive. But this emphasis on beauty and charisma would surely disturb the suffragists, who would find these characters very foreign. This approach will also irritate historians of gender who have worked hard to define the suffragists as serious political actors and to integrate them into the American historical narrative. Viewed with a critical eye, Iron Jawed Angels could be useful for instructing students about history and popular culture, Hollywood and historical interpretation. It also forces us to grapple with more than feminism and its discontents. It can generate needed reflection on the ways historians can also be guilty of constructing historical personalities as they want to see them, by ignoring issues of race or dismissing the personal failures of our subjects. The challenge, then, remains to promote interest in women's history and still teach about who we think the suffragists were, rather than who we want them to be.


This review was first published in the Journal of American History, 91:3 (2004): 1131–1132. Reprinted with permission from the Organization of American Historians (OAH).

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