Women seeking the vote had already become comic fodder by the time Variety began publishing in 1905. But gags about suffrage gave way to showbiz support as the women’s vote crept closer to reality. The 19th amendment was finally signed into law Aug. 26, 1920, 78 years after the first women’s rights convention in this country and 144 years after the Declaration of Independence asserted that all men are created equal.
Looking back on this 100th year anniversary, there was plenty of resistance to the notion of women voting, and those tensions animated the entertainment community along with the rest of society.
Around the time that Variety began publishing Stateside, U.K. media coined the term suffragette, and the lighter, more dismissive sobriquet quickly gained traction in entertainment circles. In 1908, Harry Houdini employed suffragettes in his stage act, Variety reported. And early film star Charlie Chaplin donned drag for the first time on screen to play a militant suffragette in a 1914 silent short directed by Mack Sennett. It wouldn’t be the first time filmmakers suggested women seeking the vote were overly mannish.
Carrie Nation, a leader in the temperance movement and a suffragist, toured stage halls and inspired vaudeville impersonations. “A little earlier there was a so-called ‘Suffragette,’ though Heaven alone knows why she was billed as such,” Variety said in 1915. “The popular small-time vaudeville idea of a suffragette is a Carrie Nation female with a wash-lady’s knot atop of her head, a hatchet and a belligerent expression,” while wearing ingenue makeup and delivering “a line of conversation that would have made a suffragist curl up inside and a suffragette scorn to waste on so unworthy a creature as man.”
Lyricist Alfred Bryan took a more positive tack with the 1915 tune, “She’s Good Enough to Be Your Baby’s Mother and She’s Good Enough to Vote,” advertised in Variety pages as “a novel argument of the great question of the day.” And Eddie Cantor’s tongue was presumably firmly in cheek for his rendition of “The Modern Maiden’s Prayer,” a Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 tune with verses written from the perspective of a suffragette. (Sample lyrics: “Give me a chance to vote, and get some fella’s goat.”)
Female entertainers also got in on the action: Anita Loos, who would go on to write “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” among many other movies, penned the 1913 farce “A Cure for Suffragettes,” which revolved around young mothers that get so caught up in the cause that they forget about their babies. The silent film starred Dorothy Bernard, who chaired the actress section of the Women’s Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., that year. (She’s listed as Mrs. A.H. Van Buren in the official program archived by the Library of Congress.)
Plenty took the cause more seriously, risking arrest and raising funds for suffrage. Fola La Follette, an actor “widely known as the suffragist daughter of Sen. Robert La Follette (R-Wis.), was arrested with 20 or more girl strikers” after speaking to the group in New York, Variety reported in 1913. Eggs were thrown at cops and La Follette “was jugged with
the rest,” before later getting released.
The actor, married to playwright George Middleton, hosted gatherings for women, extolling the need for suffrage. In her New York Times obit, the paper quoted her as advising the women back then: “A good husband is not a substitute for the ballot.”
Suffragist groups booked stages to proselytize their cause, and then moved into the film producing game. The National American Woman Suffrage Assn. backed “Votes for Woman,” a 1912 silent film directed by Hal Reid.
The Women’s Suffrage Assn., for its part, backed 1914’s “Your Girl and Mine” to raise money and awareness. It wasn’t exactly subtle, per Variety’s review: “Every few minutes a vision is effected and a young girl is brought into the picture as ‘Votes for Women.’ To anyone in the story having troubles the vision appears and says: ‘It would not be so if you could get the state to accept me.’”
Suffragist groups soon gave up on moviemaking, deeming it too costly an undertaking.
As the amendment drew closer to passage, industry groups came to recognize the power of suffrage groups and the female audiences they represented. The Biograph picture theater of Chicago promised to give a percentage of its receipts to the woman’s suffrage parade, Variety reported in 1916. Two years later, a group of New York theater owners urged leaders of the suffrage movement to join in a bond drive. And in 1919, in a further sign of the cause’s acceptance, the National Woman’s Suffrage Assn. joined a group of prominent women’s organizations to denounce censorship, Variety reported.
That same year, “The Praise Agent” debuted in movie theaters with a militant suffragette in a key role. Only this time she was not a harridan but a mother that helps her future son-in-law secure her daughter’s hand in marriage. That’s progress.
Finally, in 1920, the amendment was signed into law. But the struggle for women’s equality was by no means over for the entertainment industry or American society at large. Hollywood was fairly progressive in its early days: Mary Pickford became a big star, and a co-owner of United Artists with husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. There were also a number of prolific female screenwriters early on, including Loos and Frances Marion, along with directors such as Lois Weber.
This early promise of a more equitable industry didn’t last. Once the studio system kicked into gear, women were largely muscled out of positions of authority. There are exploding opportunities for women in TV and streaming today, but film writing and directing are still overwhelmingly dominated by men, and white men at that.
Unlike the suffragette days, however, there’s a widespread industry belief that power imbalances should be addressed, and a growing number of diversity programs to help do that.
If they succeed, Hollywood may one day reclaim its earlier promise — with greater equality for all.