Check your local listings for PBS’s upcoming “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE The Vote,” an exploration of the arduous, decades-long battle that finally led to the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Commemorating women’s vote centennial in 2020, the new two-part documentary produced by Connie Honeycutt and Michelle Ferrari premieres July 6 and 7, with narration by Kate Burton and featuring the voices of Mae Whitman, Audra McDonald, Laura Linney, and Patricia Clarkson.
On May 17, with the help of local author and women’s history scholar Mary Ellen Snodgrass, I shared much about the struggle of women to secure suffrage. At that time, I admitted that prior to a long conversation with Mary Ellen followed by research, I had no idea what our foremothers went through to make it possible for me to go to a polling place on election day and express my wishes by way of a vote.
Soon after the story ran, I got an email from Mary Lugo, publicist for the PBS series “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.” She wanted me to know about the upcoming miniseries “The Vote,” and that she’d send me a DVD of the series. Well, after getting over how floored and honored I was to discover that the publicist had read my May 17 column, I accepted the offer. I was going to get to watch the documentary before it appeared on TV. How cool is that!
Into my old DVD player went the first disk — part one. To my surprise, the documentary began with a 1970 recording of women marching on the day of the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. A male reporter on the scene began talking. I replayed his words over and over, making sure I heard every word correctly. I won’t share the names I called him under my breath. To be kind, I’ll just use the adjective “ignorant,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “destitute of knowledge or education.”
Choosing to share that reporter’s words at the beginning of the documentary was brilliant on the part of the documentary’s writer and director Michelle Ferrari. I toyed with not disclosing the uninformed man’s highly subjective observation — with letting it be a surprise when you watch the documentary, but his comments so clearly demonstrate that A) women in 1970 still had a long way to go in securing equality and respect (still do) and B) suffragists’ protracted, tireless crusade to win the right to vote was and continues to be unfamiliar to the masses.
So, here you go. Here’s what he said: “Remember, men, if you come to work tomorrow and your secretary refuses to do the filing and then go home and find that your wife refuses to do the cooking, don’t blame them. Remember, you gave them the right to vote 50 years ago.”
Tear that statement apart like you’re diagramming it for your ninth-grade English teacher, and you’ll find instance after instance of narrow-mindedness that concludes with “you gave them the right to vote . . .” Can you hear me yelling?
Don’t worry. “The Vote” is a calm, scholarly, beautifully rendered history of woman suffrage. Letting the reporter’s remarks speak for themselves, the documentary moves on, telling the story of “a crusade carried out by more than a million women,” a “civil rights battle” fought by white women, African-American women, Hispanic women, and Chinese women. Rich, poor, young, old, privileged and disadvantaged in a war to secure a right denied to women in most of the world’s democracies.
One thing that struck me about the film was its honesty. It didn’t pave over the times African-American suffragists were treated unfairly. It didn’t leave out the fact that not all suffragists agreed on issues that were raised during the decades leading up to securing the vote, matters such as conditions for working women, temperance, and women running for political offices. And it incorporated major events, such as the Civil War, WWI, and the changing role of women, that ran concurrently with the suffrage movement, enlightening viewers as to how the events and the movement affected each other.
This documentary is the kind of “news” coverage that the world could use more of today: the facts, the truth, the good and the bad on all the sides.
It highlights leaders within the crusade — unsung heroes — and how differently they pursued voting rights. In particular are Harriot Stanton Blatch, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, and Carrie Chapman Catt.
Countless social, political, and cultural obstacles stood in the women’s paths. They took them on one by one, like well-dressed army ants marching in great swarms, quietly and purposefully foraging for freedom. Others weren’t so quiet, having been pushed, decades into the campaign, to take on a desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures attitudes. With Alice Paul as their leader, they decided to become “unladylike,” to misbehave enough to draw attention to themselves, to get arrested. Their resultant mistreatment backfired on the mistreaters when the whole world learned about it, and opposition to women’s suffrage began to crumble.
It was a sustained, more than seven decades-long cause to which countless women turned their full attention, applying themselves to the effort as they would full-time employment.
One of my favorite stories took place in 1915, when a new phase in the struggle took shape. Western states were enfranchising women but eastern states were not. An amendment to the Constitution became the goal. Four women, two of whom were Frances Jolliffe and Sara Bard Field, carrying a huge petition, traversed the country collecting signatures. They were in an open Overland car. There was no interstate system, no streetlights or pay phones. They traveled through snow, the desert, mud. Their adventure made all the newspapers. By the time they reached their destination, the nation’s capital, some three months after leaving San Francisco and the first women voters’ convention, there were only three of them. One had dropped out of the trip. But those who remained handed a petition, a roll of paper more than 18,000 feet long and bearing half a million signatures, to President Woodrow Wilson.
Watch the documentary. You can see the women in photographs and films, hear their thoughts and words, and get a good, long look at what was going on in the country — sometimes in the world — in the early 1900s.
“The lengths to which women had to go in their pursuit of the ballot will likely come as a surprise to most viewers,” said Michelle Ferrari in a press release about “The Vote.” “How many people are aware that suffragists were the first Americans to picket the White House? That those women were jailed, went on hunger strikes and were force-fed by authorities? And that the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience, which we usually associate with the Civil Rights Movement, were employed first by women fighting for the right to vote?”
If he’s still alive, I hope the truth shocks the heck out of that 1970s reporter.
“The Vote” premieres July 6-7, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET on “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE” on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.
Share story ideas with Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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