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“Fine Dignity, Picturesque Beauty, and Serious Purpose”:

The Reorientation of Suffrage Media in the Twentieth Century

Emily Scarbrough, Author

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The Militant

            Although the American suffrage movement had become increasingly more moderate over the course of the movement, Americans had a fascination with the militancy of the British suffrage movement. In particular, suffragists were very interested in Emmeline Pankhurst. Good Housekeeping, a popular woman’s magazine, published a series of interviews with Pankhurst that detailed her life and her militant tactics. Despite being a conservative magazine, one editor at Good Housekeeping idolized the radical suffrage leader explaining, “Mrs. Pankhurst is no mere destroyer of property. She is no more an anarchist than Paul Revere and Nathan Hale were anarchists.”[1]

The United States was so intrigued by the suffragettes that Mrs. Pankhurst made it into one of the suffrage movement’s films. The Women’s Political Union – a New York-based suffrage organization led by Harriot Stanton Blatch – produced a film in 1913 in conjunction with Unique Film Company. What 80 Million Women Want–—? was a “four-reel drama of love, intrigue and politics… which will hold attention of the audience from start to finish.”[2]
The film focuses on the problem of political machines and graft, offering suffrage as the solution to corruption. It capitalized on the public’s fascination with militant English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and American suffrage
leader Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Because people observed the antics of suffragists in the news, they wanted to watch the films that featured these famous ladies.

As per the revised vision of suffragists, a love story is central to the plot of What 80 Million Women Want --? (1913); a young woman falls in love with a lawyer who gets swept up in a political machine. To rescue her love, the woman joins a suffrage organization and together the group finds evidence that destroys the political machine and saves the young lawyer’s morality and romance. The film features a strong sense of community and collaboration that mimics the spirit of confederation that suffragists often promoted. These activists carefully built alliances and argued that women stood in solidarity on the issue of woman’s rights. The film echoes the sentiment of suffragists, but also contradicts the sort of cutthroat, corrupt politics of men. The young couple is wed and “seem happier by far over the marriage license than she was over the party badge she had worn,”[3] suggesting that even suffragists believed that traditional feminine values supplanted their suffrage goals. The film contributes to the depictions of suffragists as feminine, rather than mannish, and suffrage as a means to solve problems, including personal problems and political ones.

Blatch appreciated the NWP, collaborating with the organization on several suffrage spectacles. She joined her Women’s Political Union with the NWP in 1915.  The NWP was under the leadership of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, both of whom had spent time in England at the height of the militant suffragette campaign. They took inspiration from Pankhurst and other’s impressive, aggressive methods to persuade policymakers to listen to the arguments for woman suffrage. As a result, the NWP, after years of pageants, parades, and films, took to picketing the White House for media attention. While NAWSA shifted its focus toward presenting its members as productive citizens
during time of war, the NWP did not waver in its attempt to secure the vote for women.

When Suffragists began picketing the White House in January 1917, they were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse. From inside the prison, the militant members of the NWP won support from the media by leaking details of their cruel treatment. The suffragists capitalized on their experience inside the prison by going on tour The Suffrage Prison Special; they crossed the nation dressed in their prison garb.[1] Suffragists carefully balanced their assertive militancy with their delicate image as women. They painted themselves as weak, innocent girls who were abused and mistreated rather than as strong, independent, law-breaking women. Even in militancy, which is often construed as a masculine trait, suffragists maintained their feminine identity.

Belmont, “The Story of the Women’s War,”
57, no. 5 (November, 1913), 570.
[2]“What 80 Million Women Want
Motion Picture News 8, no. 20
(November, 1913): 13.
[3]“Eighty Million Women Want –?” Motion Picture News 8, no. 20 (November, 1913): 35.
[4] Jean H. Baker, Sisters: The Lives of American Suffragists (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 220.
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