"The Vote": a PBS documentary of the women's suffrage movement -- a review of sorts

By Robert Shaffer posted 09-17-2020 11:57:50 AM


Anniversaries provide a natural tie-in to history, which social studies teachers can use to stimulate student interest in our subjects.  Often the best treatments of important historical anniversaries, whether in feature newspaper and magazine articles, films, or public commemorations, tie the past to the present.  For example, I began a college course on “historical methods” in January 2020 with a discussion of an Associated Press report on the 100th anniversary of the Volstead Act, which enforced the 18th amendment to the Constitution; the author, David Crary, appropriately tied the problems of Prohibition with recent debates over legalization of marijuana:  https://apnews.com/0484187942ae6dca0fed8fd6c176e7bd.  Crary, to his credit, also quoted several historians who have recently written excellent studies of Prohibition.

Last month’s anniversary – fortuitously, just in time for the new academic year – is also momentous: the adoption on August 18, 1920 of the 19th Amendment, which decreed that the “right of citizens of the United States shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”  The National Council for the Social Studies has already provided, in the Aug. 11, 2020 electronic “women’s suffrage” edition of The Social Studies Professional, a number of fine resources that teachers can use with our students to interrogate the issues in this momentous, but still partial, step forward in American democracy.  (As of now, this e-newsletter is available only to NCSS members; these are generally added to the organization’s open website several months after publication.)

An additional resource that social studies teachers should consult for classroom material about the long campaign for women’s suffrage which culminated in the 19th Amendment is a four-hour PBS/American Experience documentary, “The Vote,” which first aired on July 7, 1920 and is being re-broadcast, in sections, on Tuesdays in September.  It is also, for now, freely available for streaming on the PBS website: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/vote/.   (This website also includes a full transcript of the film, which can be helpful in preparing classroom lessons and discussion questions.)

The documentary – whose length alone would seem to make it authoritative – was written and directed by Michelle Ferrari, and it was produced by Ferrari and Connie Honeycutt.  The filmmakers clearly searched far and wide for period photographs, newspaper clippings, and other first-hand documentary evidence, and they intersperse the narrative with recurring interview clips with about a dozen present-day experts on women’s history and voting rights. 

The documentary's tag-line, repeated frequently in one form or another, will be helpful for social studies teachers who seek to advance the NCSS priorities of not only citizenship education but civic action: “Women weren’t given the vote.  They took it.”  Change happens when people make it happen; people without power can and must mobilize to improve their situations, and they – we – can win.

There is much to recommend “The Vote,” but it does have significant drawbacks and missed opportunities as well.  (The documentary’s length will make it difficult to show straight through in class.  However, in this year when so many students will be learning remotely or in hybrid formats, teachers could assign it to be watched at home, accompanied by written or “discussion board” assignments.)

Among the many positive aspects of the documentary are the following:

*** It nicely draws attention to the trans-Atlantic influences on the American suffrage movement, especially through its focus on key activists Alice Paul and Harriot Stanton Blatch.  Paul – around whom the documentary revolves, providing a personal thread that will be attractive for many viewers – became caught up in the dramatic British women’s suffrage efforts in 1907 while pursuing post-graduate studies in Britain.  Blatch – Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter – had lived in England with her British husband from the 1880s until her return to New York in 1906.  The trans-national nature of the women’s suffrage movement clearly exemplifies a major trend since the 1990s in writing by American historians: that developments in this country cannot be conceptualized apart from broader global trends and influences.  Consequently, the U.S. is not as “exceptional” as earlier generations of historians and popular mythology (and some current politicians) tried (and still try) to make it appear.  (It is unfortunate, however, that the film-makers’ trans-national approach did not extend to places beyond American borders which first adopted women’s suffrage, such as New Zealand in 1893 and Norway in 1913.)

*** The film-makers forthrightly demonstrate that issues of race and racism became inextricably bound up with the women’s suffrage movement – indeed, that they were intertwined from the outset.  The documentary includes the involvement in the movement of African American women, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, along with shameful efforts by some white suffragist leaders to marginalize such participation, as in the attempt to have the delegation of Black women relegated to the end of the 1913 national suffrage parade.  Moreover, statewide votes and then the federal amendment for women’s suffrage faced greater obstacles in the former Confederate states than elsewhere, in large part because white Southern legislators, who had largely succeeded in preventing Black men from exercising their right to vote, feared that extending the vote to (white) women would reopen broader debates on voting rights.

*** “The Vote” effectively examines generational dynamics and tensions in the movement from 1905 to 1920, with Alice Paul and her Congressional Union/National Woman’s Party representing, more or less, the younger group, and Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, especially through the National American Woman Suffrage Association, representing older activists and perspectives. 

*** The documentary portrays other complications in the movement for women’s suffrage as well.  There is no sugar-coating of the spectacularly unsuccessful tactical effort in 1916 to defeat President Woodrow Wilson because he had not endorsed the suffrage amendment in his first term.  There is also attention to the close ties between the movements for women’s suffrage and Prohibition.  Prohibition succeeded first, of course, but the 18th Amendment, unlike the 19th, has since been generally regarded not only as a failure but an embarrassment.

*** While the repeated appearance of the same specific photographs (especially of Alice Paul) over the course of the four hours becomes tedious, the film-makers cleverly tie many photos and other graphics to actual news headlines.  The documentary even includes, towards the end, a delightful silent video clip of Carrie Chapman Catt, from the early years of “moving pictures.”  The interviews with present-day scholars and writers effectively enliven the documentary, which is especially important in that, due to the time period portrayed, filmed interviews with actual participants in the movement are not available.

However, along with these laudable aspects of “The Vote,” one must also note its limitations and oversights:

*** The most serious drawback is that the documentary downplays the importance of the piecemeal extension of votes for women at the state level.  There are a few references, to be sure, of these gains, such as the early adoption of women’s right to vote in Wyoming and the success of a New York State referendum in 1917.  But the 1911 victory in California, which paved the way for subsequent wins in Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, and Montana, is all but ignored, as was the partial extension of votes for women in municipal and even Presidential elections in several states.  The national focus of the documentary, highlighting the work of key individuals in New York and Washington, thus diminishes the activism of so many women (and their male supporters) on the local level.  It also distorts the historical process of change, as these key state victories were integral to the constitutional amendment’s eventual success on the national level.  Indeed, while the “The Vote’s” focus on Paul, Shaw, Blatch, and Catt may be justified to create a narrative spine for viewers, it risks substituting a “great women” view of history for the more traditional “great man” approach.

            Moreover, this national focus skews the actual impact of the 19th Amendment.  After all, one-third of American women had already won voting rights before 1920, based on these state-level victories.  (Thus, the statements by two of the film’s experts that implied that this Amendment “enfranchise[d] half the population” and provided for “half the country winning the right to vote” are not quite accurate.  Moreover, these oversimplified comments do not account for the Amendment’s failure to guarantee most Black women in southern states their right to vote.)

*** The focus on a few key leaders also leaves out the importance of Socialist and trade union women (and their male allies) in winning the vote.  Ellen Carol DuBois, a leading historian of women’s suffrage who appears frequently as one of the documentary’s “talking heads,” has written in Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote (2020) that the New York City Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-1910 marked a turning point in the suffrage movement, as its image as “a wealthy woman’s hobby” shifted to one in which even the anti-suffrage New York Times noted support for the movement among the female union members and strikers (pp. 174-175).  Historian Mari Jo Buhle almost forty years ago, in her book Women and American Socialism (1981), recounted the importance of Socialist Party activists in the pivotal statewide campaigns for suffrage in California, New York, and elsewhere, lamenting that the SP “received slight credit” for its participation (p. 238).  “The Vote,” unfortunately, continues this neglect in our historical memory of what was, in fact, a significant force in Progressive Era politics.  (I have written, in “Socialism in the United States: Hidden in Plain Sight,” Social Education 80:1 [Jan.-Feb. 2016] about the need to include in the secondary school curriculum the achievements and perspectives of American Socialists.)

*** The documentary recounts in great detail the oft-told tale of the final victory of the 19th Amendment, as Tennessee became the needed 36th state to give its approval.  It’s a dramatic story, hinging on a late-breaking vote switch by the youngest member of the legislature, heeding an appeal by his mother.  But in a four-hour documentary, surely the film-makers could have found time to examine another, less familiar, state legislative ratification vote.  Ellen DuBois’s account, in her new book, of the ratification process suggests that Wyoming, Washington, and Colorado, for example, might have provided equally instructive case studies, providing new information and perspectives to what is already widely known.

*** Social studies teachers, especially those utilizing the NCSS C3 Framework, want students to evaluate sources, rather than just take information in at face value.  In this regard, it is puzzling that the film-makers chose to identify the “talking heads” they interview only as “historian,” “writer,” or “activist.”  Viewers, and especially student-viewers, should be informed that Ellen Carol DuBois is not only a “historian,” but the author of three major books on the women’s suffrage movement, and that Tina Cassidy is not just a “writer” but the author of a new book on Alice Paul’s interactions with President Wilson.  Alexander Keyssar wrote what was long regarded as the most definitive book on the struggles of various groups of Americans to expand suffrage, The Right to Vote (2001), and Michael Waldron is not merely a “writer” but a lawyer who heads NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice and the author of The Fight to Vote (2016), which extends Keyssar’s analysis.  In captions identifying the “talking heads,” why not include, for example, the titles of important new books by Susan Ware (Why They Marched: Untold Stories of the Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote, 2018) and Martha Jones (Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, 2020), when these historians appear on screen, so that viewers can judge their credentials as experts?  At the very least, such expanded identification and resources should appear on the documentary’s website, to help students and other viewers who wish to explore more fully the issues raised by the film.

*** The documentary, to be sure, demonstrates its oft-repeated thesis, that women were not “given” the vote, but won it through activism and struggle.  But is that really enough of a “takeaway” for viewers from a four-hour deep dive into this movement?  Moreover, the tag line originates with veteran feminist activist Eleanor Smeal commenting, at the outset of the documentary, “The textbooks when I went to school said women were given the vote. We weren’t given anything. We took it.”  Textbooks have changed a lot in the six decades since Smeal was a student, and it might have been instructive for the film-makers to investigate what is in today’s textbooks about this movement.  Taking two high school textbooks from the 1990s off my book-shelf, I see that Gary Nash, in American Odyssey (1994) clearly describes “women’s struggle for voting rights” (p. 254), while Andrew Cayton et al, in America: Pathways to the Present (1995) – which allocates nine full pages to the issue – anticipate the documentary’s very wording by 25 years: “Woman suffrage was not granted to women.  They fought for it, long and hard” (p. 359). 

            Highlighting Smeal’s outmoded picture of what students “learn” in school does a disservice to the social studies teachers, curriculum specialists, and historians who have transformed what happens in real classrooms.  Teachers who use “The Vote,” in whole or in part, might have their students compare its presentation with what their current textbooks or state standards say about women’s suffrage.

            To be sure, I don’t disagree with the film-makers’ message, which emphasizes the public-spirited activism we wish to inculcate in our students.  But this pithy and seemingly militant summary (“We took it”) downplays some of the more complex issues which the documentary does, in fact, discuss – and which students who become real-world activists will need to ponder.  These include class, racial, and ethnic biases present in the movement, controversies over tactics and strategies in confronting established structures of power, and the failure of the movement to win the right to vote for most African American women in the South.  That last reform, of course, would take an additional four-and-a-half decades – and voting rights for many are uncertain once again, in the present political climate.  (Is it churlish in this regard to quibble with the title of the documentary – “The Vote” – given that the movement profiled here did not expand voting rights for Blacks, female or male, in southern states?)

So by all means let us celebrate with our students the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which, as historian Susan Ware states at the conclusion of “The Vote,” was “clearly one of the most sustained and successful moments of political mobilization in all of American history.”  Anniversaries matter, as they help all of us situate our own lives in the long trajectory of human experiences.  “The Vote” can be a worthwhile tool in exploring a progressive movement, and, with guidance from teachers, it can challenge our students to examine the compromises, complications, and even contradictions within even the best-intentioned movements for social change.  But let us also investigate with our students – perhaps by delving into the writings of those historians, legal scholars, and journalists interviewed in “The Vote” – some of the ways in which this documentary could have provided a more complete and complex record of the movement for women’s suffrage.