Thursday, January 1, 2015

Movies and the US Constitution: Abolition of Discrimination Against Women in Voting and In Holding Equal Rights in Britain and the US: Iron-Jawed Angels

This is part of a series of posts following this summary of movies that provide a chronological history of the U.S. Constitution.

Abolition of Discrimination Against Women in Voting and In Holding Equal Rights in Britain and the US:

17.  Iron-Jawed Angels (HBO movie, 2004) set in about 1910-1920


Synopsis: The movie covers the period when Alice Paul and a number of women and men successfully passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  It covers the issues among the women, men and other supporters as well as their strategies in overcoming opposition to the Amendment.  The 19th Amendment reads that : "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States nor by any State on account of sex.  Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

A.  Rule of Law. 

This movie portrays the rule of law issues very confusingly.  This arises because of some problems that Alice Paul and the "women's suffrage" movement faced as well as distortions by the filmmakers.  The 19th Amendment actually just prohibits discrimination in voting, it doesn't grant the fundamental right itself, which is left to the states on their matters and the federal government on its matters.  A number of states, particularly Western states, such as Colorado, had already established universal voting rights regardless of sex in their state constitutions by the time the movie takes place.  A number of states were denying women voting rights, however, which was also preventing women from voting in federal elections.

Alice Paul questioned whether the Nineteenth Amendment  (or the Equal Rights Amendment) was needed, saying "I thought it was already in there."   Alice Paul was a descendant of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania.  Penn bought the land in that colony twice, once from the British crown and again from the Native Americans (principally the Lenape), giving the founding people of that region a particular sense of grounding.  Also, their constitutional documents were used in the framing of the US Constitution.  In colonial times, Pennsylvania and New Jersey had high concentrations of Quakers.  Alice Paul grew up in a family that was still practicing Quakerism, in New Jersey.  So she had a deeply conditioned view from her family background as well as the community of Quakers and living in the same historical region where women had held express voting rights, that meant that she took for granted that she could vote.

This was the same view that Susan B. Anthony, also raised Quaker, had in the years following the Civil War, where she voted and then was prosecuted for this.

They thought this not only because of their personal heritage of knowing what the founders of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and other colonies thought on this matter because of their Quaker family backgrounds, including Paul being literally a descendant of William Penn, but also because the U.S. Constitution, both in its original form and in its amendments, does not use the word "man" in its operative language. 

The US Constitution uses only the words "person" and "citizen" in its grants of fundamental rights.   This is consistent with the line of constitutional development from the 1689 English Bill of Rights and the contrast with the "rights of man" language of the U.S. Constitution and the "rights of man and the citizen" of the contemporaneous 1789 French Constitution.   Some framers of the US Constitution, particularly those from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other Quaker-populated areas, refused to sign the "rights of man" Declaration of Independence and set about drafting the "rights of person and citizen" US Constitution.  The Constitution is the only governing document of the US; the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war against the King. Even during the War, the governing document was the Articles of Confederation.  The Declaration ceased to hold any  meaning after the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.

In colonial New Jersey women held express rights to vote, provided that they could meet the property requirement (something like $150 in today's money).  In colonial Pennsylvania, women also could vote in the city council of Philadelphia if they were unmarried; they were "freemen" under the law.  A number of women in this region were very active during the colonial debate and no doubt played a role in John Dickinson and others from the region drafting "rights of person and citizen" Constitution and not the "rights of man" concept.  Some of these women included Susannah Wright, Hannah Griffits, Eliza Norris (sister-in-law of framer John Dickinson) and Sarah Morris.

So, the question for the "Iron-Jawed Angels" depiction of "rule of law" is "what is the law that is being recognized."  For some of the women, especially Alice Paul, their view was that they had full rights already under the Constitution, and it was a failure by government to submit to the "rule of law" by discriminating against them.  The movie does not show the legal arguments that the opponents would have in denying this right, perhaps because they were not well articulated in the actual history.  If women had asserted this in a more lawyerly fashion, it would be interesting to know what the outcome would have been. 

Women lawyers were still few and far between in the early 20th Century, however, as some states were denying them rights to practice law.  Inez Milholland, depicted in the movie, is a lawyer, and Alice Paul became one after the 19th Amendment was passed.  Milholland married a man who was not a US citizen, which meant her own situation presented a number of legal questions with regard to the laws of coverture being in conflict with the US Constitution that could have been litigated. 

Male lawyers are depicted in the movie as not being trustworthy, such as Emily Leighton rejecting the lawyer that her husband, a senator in the movie who is opposed to women voting, hired.  The Leightons are fictional characters, intended by the filmakers to be a "composite" of some politicians and their wives.

In their public awareness campaign, Paul and the supporters framed the issue as "votes for women" and "women's suffrage" because women were not exercising this right to vote and there was no provision for it being made in many states.  Also, there is a Quaker view of  the importance of "suasion", i.e. persuading people to your way of thinking rather than forcing them to do it in a top-down enforcement.    In the movie Alice Paul is repeatedly engaging successfully in suasion.
So, they do respect rule of law, but because of their lack of legal counsel, training and experience, plus the Quaker belief in "suasion", they end up actually defeating themselves and "rule of law" a bit, in the movie's portrayal, by not seeking an enforcement of the extant Constitution in connection with their "suasion".  In any event, their choice to seek an amendment definitively prohibiting the discrimination along the lines of the Fifteenth Amendment prohibiting discrimination in voting on the basis of race, is a deep respect for democratic adoption of law, albeit one that inadvertently ends up yielding some of the respect for preexisting law which already said this, in the Fourteenth Amendment in particular.

Alice Paul is also depicted as using some aggressive tactics, such as throwing a brick through a window.  When she engages in her hunger strike, when a doctor interviews her she is depicted as saying it is a "tradition in Ireland to starve yourself on someone's doorstep."  This is presumably a reference to Lucy Burns, her Catholic friend of Irish background depicted in the movie.  Lucy Burns together with Paul was active in the British suffrage campaign, which was accomplished in British law its first step in 1918, two years before the US.  Jeremy Bentham and other late Enlightenment thinkers and lawyers had been questioning whether women already held voting rights under the English constitution, such as it was, back in the early 1800s. 

Lucy Burns was curiously active in Britain and the US, but not in Ireland (which was at this time part of the UK, but by 1922, southern Ireland had its independence, in which it adopted universal voting rights regardless of sex).  After 1920, she stopped pursuing rights for women in the US or abroad, saying the betrayals by married women had been so disappointing she was not willing to do more.  Presumably the Catholic view of women and marriage was particularly frustrating to her, and this is depicted in the movie, however, she curiously became more involved in Catholicism after her withdrawal.  So her lament about "betrayal" was a bit ironic.  Today, the Constitution of Ireland still defines the unpaid work of the home and family as being the responsibility of women.

Alice Paul is also depicted as being indifferent to voting rights discrimination on the basis of race and  Burns is depicted as being particularly intent on a "compromise that the Negro groups agreed to" where the black women voting rights advocates would be at the back of a parade rather than amid the women.  Paul cuts Burns off and listens to Ida Wells-Barnett, a black suffragette. state that she will march in the main parade, not at the back, and she is surprised that a Quaker such as Alice Paul would agree otherwise.  Alice Paul says "Alright".   

While it is good that movie shows Ida Wells-Barnett, who was very active in this movement, and it is possible black women and men in the parade had to be at the back, it is unlikely that Wells-Barnet would have conflated black voting rights with women's voting rights as she is shown to be doing.  This conflation leaves out that the 15th Amendment, which has an express prohibition on discrimination in voting on the basis of "race, color or previous condition of servitude" had already been adopted more than 50 years prior.  While there were problems getting it enforced, the march was simply about passing the 19th Amendment to match the 15th Amendment; in fact it was the women voters, of all races, who had less constitutional protection against discrimination than racial minorities.  The 19th Amendment had the identical language to the already adopted 15th, just using the word "sex" instead of "race, color or previous condition of servitude".   "Rule of law" is thus not respected in this depiction, particularly by Lucy Burns, but in practice it was by Paul and other suffragettes.

The fact that Alice Paul and others did not do the work of modeling what equal rights and responsibilities in the Constitution meant, as well as the problem of not being able to prove paternity, would cause struggle and problems with these issues for many years afterwards and they still trouble the US and many other countries today, although there is a trend to resolving them as I'll discuss in a later post.

B.            "Rights of Person".  Alice Paul, like Susan B. Anthony before her, did not have the view of "difference-based feminism" that women should have special rights (or privileges).  Susan B. Anthony said “Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.”   Paul is depicted in the movie as objecting to some of the labor unions' efforts to give women special , less demanding jobs.

This is in part because Quakers held a view of "nursing" (or nurturing) fathers, that meant that men were considered equally responsible for children and meeting their needs, including the daily work of a dependent child's care and developmental support.  A Quaker might say, for example, that a mother carries a fetus around in her body for nine months and a father should carry the infant around for the first nine months after the s/he is born. 

Eleanor Roosevelt, Francis Perkins and Jane Addams both later contributed to some problematic thinking in this regard, building Social Security around the sole breadwinner and subsidizing him with taxes paid by women who earn money and, in Addams' case, promoting a "maternalist" view in Chicago that would tend to deem women as primary parents and present women as having special abilities because of this status as mothers.   Addams was a Quaker but did not seem to have this more deeply conditioned view of equal parental responsibility that Paul, Anthony and others had. 

Also,  paternity was not provable until the 1970s (although blood typing, which was being developed during the era of the movie's depiction, was providing partial means of establishing paternity) so the Quakers were doing this via religion not though constitutional or legal means that could provide this right to every child to equal parental responsibility.  They knew they could not establish this by law because of the lack of scientific proof, and so in the First Amendment they had carved out room for "free exercise" of their religion and the prevention of establishment of religion, particularly Catholicism, which had a "Virgin Birth" view, particularly emphasized by the Pope in the Counter-Reformation that was counter to basic biology and established women as the only recognized parents of children and the only ones responsible for meeting their needs.

The movie depicts several aspects of this "rights and responsibilities of person" view but not in a complete fashion.  There is a scene where Alice Paul says to the doctor questioning her in a medical evaluation for psychiatric problems that what women's suffrage means to her is that "she is no different from him in wanting access to trades and professions to earn her bread, a means of self-expression, some way of satisfying personal ambition, and a voice in the government under which she lives."  There is not any discussion of responsibilities in this, that is, her need to fulfill civic responsibilities under the Constitution that lack of voting prevents her from doing, nor is there any recognition that she also sees him as no different from her in his responsibility to meet the needs of any child he decides to bring into the world.  Nonetheless, the doctor concludes she is not insane and that "in women, courage is often mistaken for insanity."

Emily Leighton, the fictional wife of the fictional senator, portrays a bit of the "maternalist" view as well as a crashing awareness that she has been naive about how her husband and some laws of the time regarded her when her husband threatens to take the children in response to her joining the activism and she says “I am their mother.”  She does not acknowledge the concept of responsibility, either his responsibility to meet the needs of his children or her hers to fulfill civic responsibilities as well as to take responsibility for her own basic financial needs and for meeting some of the basic financial needs of the children.  She does state at a later point that she has joined the protests because her daughters are the reason she is there. 

The "votes for women" advocacy continues even after World War I starts, which presents an interesting issue of the importance of national unity in wartime.  Alice Paul, in her characteristic utter Quaker honesty, was not going to pretend unity when it wasn't there when the US was at war.   This would put the US at risk.   In her view of rights and responsibilities of person regardless of sex, she would see a pretense of unity as a corruption of her responsibilities as a citizen, although this is not depicted in the movie. Ben Weissman, a fictional character who represents the press that covered the women in their protests and advocacy says to her at one point: "You couldn't fold.  You don't know how."  For a country at war, this is not a bad trait. 

Woodrow Wilson finally yields and joins the advocacy for the 19th Amendment in a speech before Congress, noting that "other free nations have and will do this and the US must as well".  Universal voting rights for all women citizens had already been adopted by several western states (WY - 1869, UT-1870, CO-1893, ID, NY), the Isle of Man in 1881, New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1902, Finland in 1906, Denmark in 1915, and 19 other countries between 1917-1919, including the UK itself.

Although it is not depicted in the movie, Alice Paul would then get a law degree and for the rest of her life take up the effort for the Equal Rights Amendment, still believing that "it was already in there" (i.e. the US Constitution, with its language based in "rights and responsibilities of person and citizen") but needing to get it enforced in states that had "rights of man" constitutional provisions in violation of this, which many still have today.

Previous: 

Abolition of Discrimination Against Women in Voting and In Holding Equal Rights in Britain and the US: Downton Abbey (to be completed)


Next Up:


Abolition of Discrimination Against Women in Voting and In Holding Equal Rights in Britain and the US:  The Wizard of Oz (to be completed)


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