They were thrown in jail for marching and picketing in front of the White House. Many were sentenced to months in prison on trumped-up charges of “obstructing traffic.” They went on hunger strikes to protest the ill treatment they received. Rather than meet their demands, prison officials force-fed the protestors three times a day.
The year was 1917. The cause: women’s right to vote.
“So many women think the women’s movement started in the 1960s,” says Ruth Pollak, a documentary filmmaker. “It’s important to know that there have been American women fighting for gender equality from way back, and to know…how much groundwork they laid to make the later gender revolutions possible.”
Pollak wrote and produced a documentary on the struggle for women’s suffrage, One Woman, One Vote, which premiered last February on PBS as part of “The American Experience” series. She is the vice president and an executive producer at the Educational Film Center, a film and video production company based in Annandale, Va. “Four years ago, around election time, it just occurred to me,“ says Pollak. “It was just a few years before I was born that women had the right to vote.”
August 17 marked the 75th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Ironically, it took early feminists almost as long to win that right.
Pollak thought it was odd that her mother and her grandmother—women she viewed as politically independent and active—never mentioned suffrage. So she started doing research and found that the movement was given short shrift in textbooks and encyclopedias. “It wasn’t in the history books except for a sentence that might say, “In 1920, after significant efforts by women like Susan B. Anthony, a constitutional amendment was passed giving women in America the right to vote.’ And that would be it,” Pollak recalls.
Rather than dampen her interest, the silence surrounding the issue piqued her curiosity. Pollak and her staff spent two years doing research. They went to all the major public libraries, archives, and centers for photographic research in the country. But because much of the political work of the suffragists took place on the state level, Pollak and her staff also contacted every state historical society as well as the libraries atevery state university in the U.S.
Unfortunately for Pollak, no primary sources were available. “We were sad to find out that none of the leaders were alive or in good enough shape to be part of our story,” the filmmaker says regretfully. “We were about 20 years too late.” Instead, the two-hour documentary features interviews with various historians and a voice-over that was written by Pollak and read by Susan Sarandon. The rest of the film’s sound is provided by suffrage songs and dramatic readings of the suffragists’ speeches and letters by the likes of Amy Irving, Karen Allen, and Nina Totenberg.
Despite the difficulties, it seems that the spirit of Susan B. was with the filmmakers all the way. Pollak remembers the day that she was pacing the office in anticipation of the call from the NEH about funding when someone brought her a horoscope. A skeptic of things astrological, she read it anyway. “Funding for project comes through,” it read. “Focus on creativity…pioneering spirit.” In another brush with the beyond, Pollak needed more time to complete the documentary, which was slated to air on Feb. 1. She called PBS, and the only other slot available was Feb. 15. Unbeknownst to Pollak at the time, the 15th turned out to be Susan B. Anthony’s birthday. Coincidence? Maybe.
The documentary covers the years from 1848 to 1920 and profiles many of the women who were vital to the movement. “It was really a voyage of discovery,” says Pollak, “as the stories unfolded of state campaigns and the national battle and tremendous resistance that the suffragists ran into—the most interesting of which, and the least predictable of which, was the resistance from women.” Women’s groups like the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage for Women successfully organized against the suffragists with the kind of zeal that brings to mind modern-day groups like Operation Rescue. “They truly believed that if women got into the political arena that it would be the end of the American home and family as we know it,” says Pollak. “They were programmed to understand that a woman’s sphere was in her home, that she was the moral guardian of society, that one of her chief jobs was to raise sons…who would represent her in the public arena.”
The documentary’s title not only plays on the slogan “One Man, One Vote,” but tells the story of how the amendment came to be ratified. In January 1918, the amendment achieved the two-thirds majority necessary in the House by one vote. One congressman left his wife’s deathbed to vote for suffrage, fulfilling her last wish. Another came from the hospital to cast his vote. Then, on June 4, 1919, it passed in the Senate—by one vote.
Finally, it came down to the battle to win the states. By March 1920, the amendment had been ratified in 35 states, and only one more was needed to grant women the right to vote. The suffragists knew the odds were against them to win in the Southern state of Tennessee, but on the morning of Aug. 18, a crucial vote came from 24-year-old Republican Harry Byrd, who had not been expected to vote in favor of suffrage. In the strangest of the many twists that led to the amendment’s passage, his mother had written him a letter telling him to vote for suffrage, adding she would check in the newspapers to see how he’d voted. It was precisely because the South was more conservative that Byrd listened to his mother, says Pollak, “respecting her power as the moral guardian of the family.”
At the time of ratification, there was the belief that women would vote in large numbers, they would vote as a bloc and would push for reforms that would hurt big business and government. “The great irony is that when women got the vote, none of that happened,” Pollak notes. “Many didn’t vote. And those that voted tended to vote the way they were guided by their husbands or brothers or fathers. And they certainly never voted as a bloc around certain issues. Had women actually remained organized and voted around women’s issues, who knows? It probably wouldn’t have taken so long for women’s rights [as a movement] to really get going again,” the filmmaker surmises.
“If the documentary works the way it should,” Pollak continues, “it will really make women appreciate the fact that they have this power and go out and use it.”
Pollak has plans for another documentary on the struggle for women’s equality during the years from 1920-75. “Together the two programs would, in a modest way, give you historical insight into the drama and the excitement of the ongoing fight for equality. It’s an untold story,” she says. Many don’t know, Pollak says by way of example, that the militant National Women’s Party, which led the White House picketing, went on to write the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 and fought for it over many decades before the amendment became a popular issue.
“What we’ve seen through the whole history then is the battering, battering, battering on the establishment to expand the meaning of democracy,” she says. “First, it was white men who didn’t have any property who got the vote. Then it was—at least in theory—all men, including African-American men.” And then, the women.
“My vision was to bring this remarkable untold 70-year struggle into the consciousness of the American public in a very dramatic way,” says Pollak. “To pull it out of the archives and give it the place that it deserves.”
One Woman, One Vote will be shown at the National Archives Aug. 26 at noon, on a triple bill that also includes Willaim Greaves’ Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice and Pat Ferrero’s Hearts and Hands. It will be rebroadcast on PBS Dec. 18.