'Angels' revisits feminism's roots

In a time that has seen organized feminism slink into the shadows of modern political life, it's invigorating to go back to a time in our history when feminist issues were vital to a large group of young - and old - women.

With "Iron Jawed Angels," which debuts this Sunday at 9:30 p.m., the premium cable channel HBO has managed to craft a story that feels relevant today by focusing on a group of relatively unknown women around World War I.

These women, despite their outsider status even within the women's movement, gave the final push needed to pass a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920.

The film is an edgy amalgamation of period costumes and customs and a contemporary cinematic style backed by modern pop songs. The resulting feel gives the TV film an urgency and passion that will resonate with those who aren't "Masterpiece Theatre" devotees.

While history certainly credits many well-known women in their fight for the vote, the all-but-forgotten Alice Paul was considered pivotal in the final struggle that led to the 19th Amendment.

"Susan B. Anthony is who I think of when I think of who helped women get the vote. I'd never heard of Alice Paul," says Hilary Swank, who portrays the Quaker activist who, along with New Yorker Lucy Burns, created a more radical wing of the feminist movement. "I certainly was awakened to a whole new slew of women who blazed this trail for us."

Fresh from radical organizing in England, Paul entered the fray in the US at a time when the women's battle for the vote had stalled in the face of growing war talk from Europe. Politicians didn't want to be bothered "worrying about the women." American suffragists had settled on winning their war by taking on the nation's statehouses, one at a time.

Realizing that the strategy of winning the vote state by state was destined to lead to an interminable - and possibly unsuccessful - struggle, Alice Paul and a group of her fellow activists swept into Washington with a grand scheme to take the battle to the capital, where a number of the protesters were arrested.

Newspapers dubbed the women "Iron Jawed Angels" after it came out that they were being force fed in prison. Not surprisingly, the wardens wanted to prevent the women's attention-getting hunger strikes from creating martyrs to the suffragist cause. But the story's drama doesn't just come from the struggles against outside forces. There were divisions within the movement because the seasoned clashed frequently with Paul's younger, more radical wing.

These internal struggles are part of the story's strength, says producer Paula Weinstein. Such arguments between different generations of women is a theme of the film that has relevance beyond just the setting of the film, she says. Each generation has had to learn that it could not succeed without the one that preceded it. And older groups of women have had to come to understand why their offspring desire more and more empowerment.

"New issues come up that were unforeseen before," she says, pointing out that the issues faced by her generation of feminists in the 1960s "are quite different than the issues for women today."

"Iron Jawed Angels" is also about the risks inherent in change, says Ms. Weinstein. "It's about daring to risk and fight for what you believe in to the limit. And if you do, then you can change [the world], whether you're Gandhi, or [Martin Luther] King, or Alice Paul."

Paul's group was the first in US history to picket the White House, as well as the first to organize a protest at the president's front door during wartime. Both these historical facts give the story additional punch in this election season, says the film's star.

"When you don't have the power to use your vote ... it's a very debilitating, powerless place to be," says Swank, who believes teens need to learn from these early fighters. "A lot of people feel like, 'Well, I'm just one person, how much change am I going to make?' " says Swank. The actress says Paul is the embodiment of the truism that there would be no change if everyone thought that.

An election year is a particularly good time to reinforce the importance of the vote says the actress, who won an Oscar for her 1999 film, "Boys Don't Cry."

"This film made me aware of how hard women worked for me as a woman," she says. "I will not miss a day of voting and miss that opportunity to get my voice out there, and to hopefully make a difference for all the other women to come."

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