An election year in the United States is always a story unto itself. Mostly, we think we know the system, the plot of the story and subplots. These days we all feel like instant experts, scholars even, of the U.S. system. We are inundated with opinion, analysis and punditry.
In reality, few of us are scholars, and our understanding is surface-deep. The subtle shifts, the political pieties that seem immovable, are beyond our full grasp. However, a fine refresher on a major event in U.S. political history on PBS this week offers plenty to chew on. There’s drama both public and private and shenanigans galore.
American Experience: The Vote (Monday, PBS 9 p.m., continues Tuesday, 9 p.m.) is timed to mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave most women in the United States voting rights. Over four hours, it tells an epic tale brimming with colourful characters, heroines and villains.
Remarkably, although it focuses on a short period – mainly from 1915 to 1920 – it illuminates many of the divisions and symmetries that still exist today. Further, as we are at a time when there is a powerful urge for change, the documentary illustrates how those with the temerity and ambitions to bring change can face a familiar and bitter sequence of humiliation, betrayal and intractable opposition.
In 1915, it had already been decades since the cause had been ignited. In 11 U.S. states women could vote, but not on a national basis. At the San Francisco International Exposition that year, activists had been collecting tens of thousands of signatures on a petition to take to Washington and demand all women in the United States have the vote. A small group then set out to drive to Washington, using the car journey to get publicity and accrue more supporters. It was, in 1915, a perilous journey to take.
President Woodrow Wilson received the petition and the activists politely. But privately he had no intention of moving forward on the matter. It is here that the fissures of both then and now become apparent. The southern states that had once been the Confederacy would not budge on giving the franchise to yet more citizens, having already seen their world shift when freed slaves were given the vote. In the northeast states, Democratic political forces, or “machines” wanted predictability in the voting patterns that gave them power, and who knew how women might vote?
There followed a tumultuous period in which various leaders of the women’s movement argued and struggled to find the right approach, persuade the powerful men and influence an indifferent public. Some insisted that the shock-tactics used by suffragettes in Britain must be used. Others, such as Carrie Chapman Catt, stooped to racism and xenophobia.
There is a wonderful array of footage from the period, of mass demonstrations and political conventions. The Vote is narrated by Kate Burton and also features the voices of Mae Whitman (as Alice Paul), Audra McDonald (as Ida B. Wells), Laura Linney (as Carrie Chapman Catt) and Patricia Clarkson (as Harriot Stanton Blatch). It’s a powerful, gnarly tale, with as many strange entanglements as the current-day politics in the United States.
Finally, this column continues with a regular “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Grey Gardens (Crave/HBO). It is that odd thing – a dramatization of a well-regarded documentary. Back in the early 1970s, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles went to the shambolic home of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. They wanted to make a documentary about the mother and daughter, relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The result was a classic film, documenting the strange existence of two women detached from reality, in squalor, arguing about old grudges. In this outing, Drew Barrymore (also a producer) plays Little Edie, Jessica Lange plays her mother. Made in and around Toronto (and co-written by Patricia Rozema), it’s a poignant tale of thwarted lives, and a thorough delight. Barrymore is especially compelling as a woman thwarted in love.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said all women were given voting rights in the US in 1920.
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