Like every instructor worth her salt, I ask my Introduction to Women’s Studies students to evaluate the course at the end of every semester. Specifically, I ask them: what texts/content should I keep in the next iteration of the class and what should I cut? Without fail, two items come up as “keepers,” semester after semester: Iron Jawed Angels and the “Violence Against Women” unit.
In case you haven’t seen it, Iron Jawed Angels is a 2004 film by Katja von Garnier, starring Hilary Swank, Frances O'Connor, Julia Ormond, and Anjelica Huston. It portrays - with a fairly good degree of accuracy - the later stages of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
My students love this film. First, they love it because it is a good film and it does what all really good films do: it makes you feel something. My students like these women; von Garnier makes these suffragists relatable to college-age men and women, which is no easy feat! Second, this film surprises my students, because the history this film portrays is a history they don’t know. Why don’t we know this history? they ask me. Good question. This film forces my students to wrangle with several arguments feminists make about traditional history: 1) that the history we get is inadequate as it fails to portray women’s lives with any degree of depth or complexity, and 2) that the history we get is biased in that it fails to tell the truth about women’s lives and women’s work.
Women’s suffrage is probably one of the few bits of “women’s history” most of us do get in school, of course. If your education was anything like mine, you were told a very abridged story that focused on a couple of figures – Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton - and ended with the notion that American women were given the right to vote in 1920 as a “thank you” for their patriotic efforts in World War I. (If your elementary, middle, or high school education was more robust than this I would love to hear about it in the comments!)
The unabridged story of the fight for women’s suffrage is much more interesting, rich, and complicated than that brief blurb in our elementary history textbooks. Establishing women’s right to vote was a fight that took over 70 years. Suffragists’ strategies were wide-ranging: from staging elaborate protests, pickets, and marches, to lobbying politicians. They were assaulted in public, verbally and physically. Suffragists were arrested on trumped up charges and imprisoned. Their personal and private lives suffered as a result of their political activism, and their refusal to conform to traditional women’s roles and behavior came at great personal cost. Suffragists disagreed with one another; they were divided over strategy and around issues of race and class. Suffragists were white and African-American, women and men. Suffragists were brave. Determined. Intelligent. Capable. Flawed. Suffragists were heroic. So why don’t we – as a nation - see them this way: as heroes who changed the face of citizenship in the United States by enfranchising 50% of the population?
Can’t women be heroes too?
(Proof that we don’t treat our female political game-changers the same way we view our men: Thecontroversy over a statue of three suffragists in Washington D.C. can be readhere. The statue was considered “too ugly” and “lacking in historical merit” to hold a place in the Rotunda. Can you imagine people removing Lincoln’s statue from the Lincoln Memorial because it/he was too ugly?)
To reduce the story of suffrage to a story of a few great ladies who politely asked for a thing until they got it… a story of well-meaning men who, when they knew better, did better, is to do women’s history – and to do women - a great disservice. It is also a lie. As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed" (1963).
It matters whether our history textbooks say that women were given the right to vote in 1920 by kind, well-meaning men, or whether the textbooks say women fought and won the right to vote in 1920 in spite of decades of intense social and political opposition. It matters whether Women’s History month is observed in our schools with all due diligence and a robust curriculum or whether it is a few photos on a wall and a lot of lip service. It matters because the histories we are teaching our children send them clear messages about what women are (and are not) capable of, as well as conveying ideas about women’s value:
Are our girls capable of being our nation’s soldiers, heroes, innovators, visionaries, political leaders, inciters, and myth-makers? Or are they capable “only” of being the girlfriends, wives, and mothers of the nation’s soldiers, heroes, innovators, visionaries, political leaders, inciters, and myth-makers?
Are women valued in our culture? Do we recognize, memorialize, and compensate women’s contributions to our families, our communities, our economies, and our nation?
Let me be clear: there is, of course, nothing wrong with being “only” a girlfriend, wife, and mother. These are roles with immense social, economic, and political value. Fact: the nation would cease to function if women stopped performing these roles. The problem is that we tell women and girls that these are the most important roles they can have and then we, as a society, do not support women in these roles. For example: if we truly valued the mothering work women do, wouldn’t mandatory paid maternity leave exist in the US by now? Comparing Paid Maternity Leave Around the World.
Feminists argue that the inadequate and inaccurate stories we tell – in our media, in our popular discourse, in our histories, in our national holidays and memorials – are stories which teach our children that women are not capable of anything truly interesting and noteworthy, and what they are capable of (mothering and other forms of care work) holds little value in the grand scheme of things. This must change.
It is not surprising to me that the unit on violence against women also deeply affects my intro students. If they are surprised and bewildered by what they don’t know of US women’s history, they are shocked and infuriated to learn of the rates of violence against women in the US and our society’s inability (unwillingness?) to affect real change in this area. How are these numbers possible? they ask me.
(From this essay.)
How can our justice system fail women so badly? they want to know.
It’s my job to help them to see the connections. There is a connection to be made here, between the misrepresentations of history, women’s low social worth, and violence against women. When women and girls are not seen as agents and individuals in their own right (when they are seen solely as wives and mothers, beings whose identity revolves around their relationship to someone else), and when their contributions to social, political, and economic life are de-valued, it is easier to do violence to them. When women don’t matter – when their lives are not important enough to make it into our histories, our national myths, our educational system – then it is easier to hurt them and easier to get away with hurting them. These seemingly disparate issues are connected.
Women’s history, women’s stories, women’s lives matter. This month and every month.
Written by: Nikki Frances -- Feminist mama to one small girl, hoping to change the world for her. I have an MA in Women’s Studies and am currently an instructor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Minnesota State University Mankato.