Founding Feminists is the FMF’s daily herstory column.
June 15, 1912: Always eager to take advantage of any opportunity to promote the cause, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (N.A.W.S.A.) has made the first pro-suffrage motion picture.
The two-reel epic, suitably entitled “Votes for Women,” was shown for the first time today to an audience of suffragists gathered at the Bryant Theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
The new film will go nationwide on the 26th, and features a number of prominent suffragists cast as themselves. Among the best known players are Jane Addams of Hull House; Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of N.A.W.S.A.; Inez Milholland, Mary Beard and Harriet May Mills. All turned in fine performances.
That the drama was made at all is a tribute to suffragist creativity and quick thinking. N.A.W.S.A. was suddenly given the opportunity to use this relatively new medium, but only if its members could write their own script and be ready to perform it at 11 a.m. the next morning. As always, suffragists rose to the occasion, in this case employing the writing talents of Mary Ware Dennett, Harriet Laidlaw and Frances Maule Bjorkman, all of whom appeared in the film.
The story they came up with revolves around the actions taken by settlement workers, in concert with suffragists, to reform the uncaring owner of a run-down tenement, who also happens to be a State Senator whose vote is crucial to suffrage legislation. Not having votes, the women must resort to “indirect influence” on the Senator. They do this through his fiancee, who they win over first.
When his fiancee falls ill with scarlet fever after she begins helping the women working in the tenements to improve living conditions, the Senator suddenly sees the consequences of his neglect, and becomes a model landlord, as well as an enthusiastic supporter of suffrage. The lesson of the film is that if women had the power of the vote, they could do far more to bring about needed reforms through direct influence at the polls than through the inefficient methods of indirect influence which they must now employ.
After the Senator’s conversion to progressive ideals – and suffrage – he is thanked by Shaw and Addams, then given an enthusiastic reception at the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage by James Lees Laidlaw, Max Eastman and many other men who work for equal suffrage in real-life. Scenes of last month’s unprecedented and stunning turnout of at least 15,000 marchers in a suffrage parade down Fifth Avenue closed the film. This especially delighted the audience, most of whom had participated in the spectacle, but had only been able to see their own contingent on May 4th.
Congratulations are in order to N.A.W.S.A. for using this innovative means of spreading the word, and to Hal Reid for his excellent direction. Thanks will also be due from future generations who may now have the chance to see today’s suffrage workers in action during this exciting stage of the struggle for political equality.