Iron Jawed Angels (N.Y.: HBO Videos, 2004)


Amy Feely Morsman, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT:
I don’t usually assign a lot of films in my classes, and the few that I do assign tend to be documentaries. I have been impressed, though, by one other film and have used it to good effect in both my women’s history class and the American history survey course. That film is Iron Jawed Angels. Produced by HBO, Iron-Jawed Angels tells the story of Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, the National Woman’s Party, and their struggle to bring about woman suffrage. Theirs is a compelling narrative to start with, but HBO does an excellent job drawing viewers in – especially those of typical college age – with a clever script, dramatic visuals, and powerful music, not to mention celebrity actors and sex appeal. Most of my students know very little about the National Woman’s Party, its tactics, and its challenges, but they always come away fascinated by this story and its main figure, Alice Paul, and they are eager to learn more. It generates important questions about class and racial dynamics in the suffrage campaign, gender roles, political identity, patriotism, and protest in a time of war.
A few days after the screening of the film, I show my students the voice-over conversation between the Director Katja von Garnier and the Screenwriter Sally Robinson as these two crew members watch the movie unfold and comment on different scenes. The director and the screenwriter point out some of the decisions they made in order to make this history most compelling – how much of the true suffrage story in Iron Jawed Angels did they retain? What research did they do to make their story seem authentic? What parts of the plot did they add or alter and why? I find this extra component about the making of the film important for students to hear, because it exposes them to important questions about historical reality and fiction.