Merlene Davis: League of Women Voters show film as reminder of struggles of women's suffrage movement

Suffragette Alice Paul's story is told in Iron Jawed Angels.
Suffragette Alice Paul's story is told in Iron Jawed Angels.

I watched as insanity invaded the minds of a majority of those in the U.S. House of Representatives who are choosing to hold this country hostage rather than admit they don't have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

I had to remind myself those men and women are in office because people like me voted for them. That is what America is all about.

We vote for the people we think will represent us and if they don't, then we can vote them out.

That must have been on the minds of the women who, more than a century ago, sacrificed their standing in the community, their safety and their lives for their share of the right of suffrage, a right only white males were given by the U.S. Constitution.

All they wanted was the right to pick someone to represent them, good or bad.

The most famous of those suffragettes was Susan B. Anthony. Lesser-known were women featured in the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels, which will be shown in the Farish Theatre Sunday at the Central Library, 140 E. Main Street. The showing is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Lexington.

The timing couldn't be better to remind us just how important voting is.

"This is an opportunity to really learn about another side of the suffragette movement," said Tammy Fagley, president of the league. "They went on hunger strikes and were taken to jail. It wasn't an easy process."

So why don't we take voting more seriously? Why don't we turn out in huge numbers, having researched the candidates on all issues and not just party lines, and then pick folks who follow the rules set up in the Constitution?

According to the state Board of Elections, in the last nonpresidential election in 2011, only 28.6 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot. In Fayette County, only 32.7 percent voted.

The numbers were better for November 2012, a presidential election, when 59.7 percent of those registered statewide and 65.6 percent in Fayette went to the polls.

If those women believed being ostracized, thrown into jail and force-fed during a hunger strike were worth being allowed to vote, what is wrong with us?

I bet ex-offenders would go to the polls.

The film shows how Quaker and political activist Alice Paul and her friend Lucy Burns used strategies that were considered unacceptable for women at the turn of the 20th century, thereby changing the American feminist movement.

They adopted a more militant strategy used by women in Great Britain, where both had studied, and, after returning to the U.S., joined the National American Women's Suffrage Association in 1912. Those techniques, which included confronting President Woodrow Wilson, didn't sit well with the NAWSA, so the women formed their own group, the National Women's Party, in 1916.

Lucy Burns was reportedly imprisoned in England and America more often than any other suffragist. She was arrested several times for picketing the White House, and jailed with Paul and others at Occoquan Workhouse.

During one term there, the women endured the "Night of Terror," in which they were beaten and tortured. Burns' hands were cuffed above her head on the cell door and left that way all night.

After their first attempt failed to get suffrage for women passed by Congress, the women began helping candidates who believed in their fight, regardless of political party.

The next time the amendment was voted on, it passed.

About a year later, in August 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. Women had won the right to vote.

"We hope the film will lead people to register to vote," Fagley said. "You get to see what others went through to get you the right to vote."

There aren't any local elections this year, but that doesn't mean voters can't get more prepared for upcoming contests by registering to vote or by joining the league, a nonpartisan group that has encouraged citizen participation in government and held candidate forums for decades.

Fagley said even though the word "women" is in their name, "it is not restricted. We have lots of men involved."

But, she said, the group did come about because of women like those in the film.

We need to remember that women and racial minorities had to fight for their voting rights. Maybe that will help all of us turn out in greater numbers for the next election.

We might even elect men and women who have this country's best interests at heart and not just the interests of their political parties.

When that happened in Iron Jawed Angels, progress was made.


The League of Women Voters in Lexington host a free showing of Iron Jawed Angels.

When: 2 p.m. Oct. 6.

Where: Farish Theatre, Central Library, 140 East Main St.

Information: Call (859) 494-3203