Iron Jawed Angels: a movie review

There are a lot of good movies which are inspiring and educational for those of us who want to change the world. One of the very best, imho, is the movie Iron Jawed Angels. What is especially good about the movie is the accurate picture it paints of how social change happens.

Iron Jawed Angels came out in 2004, and it received positive reviews at the time. At today, it has an 89% positive audience rating. It’s a well-constructed movie.

The star is early 20th century feminist leader Alice Paul, played in the movie by Hilary Swank. It covers the period between 1913 and 1920 when the many-decades-long battle for the right of women to vote in the USA achieved success with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The heart and soul of the movie, the last third or so of it, is the gripping story of the National Women’s Party’s organization of picketing actions in front of the White House beginning in January, 1917, after Woodrow Wilson was re-elected. When he took the US into World War I in April, anger against the continuing pickets at the White House led to government arrests on the charge of “obstructing traffic.”

Alice Paul was one of those arrested, and upon her arrival at the Occoquan Workhouse in northern Virginia where her sister comrades were being held, she led a hunger strike against brutal conditions in the jail. She and others were eventually force-fed, causing internal injuries that she suffered from for the rest of her life.

Word of their mistreatment got out and was publicized in the mainstream press, which led to great pressure on Wilson, particularly from the more staid and less radical elements of the women’s suffrage movement. Wilson felt that he had to call for a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution, which, after he did, passed Congress and, eventually, in 1920, in the 34 states necessary for it to become law.

The movie portrays the reality that within movements for change there are the more radical, usually younger, willing-to-take-risks activists, and there are the more moderate, usually older, don’t-rock-the-boat-too-much activists. Sometimes they work together OK, and sometimes they don’t, and there is tension over their differences. But victories often require, eventually, all taking action together, even if different types of action.

“Angels” humanizes activists and organizers, shows them as people with fears, insecurities and doubts co-existing with anger, commitment and passion for change.

The movie shows that risk-taking direct action and a willingness to sacrifice for the cause are necessary if the cause is going to win its objectives.

It shows how people can change; in this case, women initially afraid of angering their husbands by activist involvement, and patronizing men who have their consciousness raised by women they love asserting their rights.

And it shows that, eventually, we can win.

It is so easy to feel, in the face of dangerous climate change and Trump and deportations and sexual harassment and white supremacy and economic injustice and everything else, that it’s just too hard, we’ll never see the kind of changes we need. I feel like that a lot. That’s when I think of all those before me, Alice Paul and her sisters in struggle among them, who never gave up, who faced conditions much harsher than most of us face today.

And that’s when I’ll read or watch something inspiring to restore my fighting spirit. Iron Jawed Angels, for sure, is a movie to watch at those challenging times.


Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Other writings and information can be found at, and he can be followed on Twitter at