American History

Suffragette Cinema

In November 1914, American voters in seven states were to consider proposed state constitutional amendments that would enfranchise women. That September, the suffragist movement prepared to employ a new medium by making a cinematic thriller meant to enlist the men voting to the cause by showing viewers scenes of physical violence, kidnapping, fire, and child labor. To make the movie, producer William N. Selig had worked closely with the National American Woman Suffrage Association and activist Ruth Hanna McCormick. Selig shipped an early copy to Chicago city censor M. L. C. Funkhouser and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in New York City. Both censors reflexively cut an entire reel that portrayed a man attacking a woman. They fight hand to hand until she stabs him to death with scissors. A bowdlerized Your Girl and Mine circulated nationwide for two years, meeting an untimely demise but not without leaving a memorable imprint.

The July 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, inaugurated a prolonged campaign on behalf of voting rights for American women. Decade by decade the movement grew, branching into multiple organizations advocating enfranchisement through protests, marches, and lectures. At every step opponents like U.S. Senator Ben Tillman (D-South Carolina) stoutly resisted, but suffragists persisted, adopting new media—postcards, posters, sheet music lyrics, pageants, and newsreels—to enlist, educate, and invigorate supporters. In 1914, an unlikely alliance formed between the movement and the motion picture industry. The result was a proto-feminist action film meant to challenge gender stereotypes and bring the suffragist message to millions of moviegoers. That ground-breaking film was titled Your Girl and Mine.

The male-dominated motion picture production companies of the early 1900s mostly frowned on female suffrage. The movement came in for relentless cinematic parody and ridicule; many moving pictures made a point of depicting women as combative shrews or hapless spinsters. Shorts like (1912), (1911), (1912), (1913), and 1914) sometimes featured male actors in drag flamboyantly called “man-hating suffragists, bumbling husbands and confused or neglected children.” Intended to present females as the butt of jokes, these cinematic vehicles instead rallied women and attracted men to a previously obscure cause.

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