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Suffrage and the Silver Screen

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Amy Shore

In the 1910s, the American woman suffrage movement became a modern mass movement by using visual culture to transform consciousness and gain adherents. As part of this transformation, suffrage organizations produced several films and related cinematic projects, including four full-length, nationally distributed feature productions. This activist use was one of the first instances in the United States that a social movement recognized and harnessed the power of cinema to transform consciousness and, in turn, the social order. Suffrage and the Silver Screen discusses how the suffrage movement accomplished this formidable goal through analysis of the local and national uses of cinema by the movement. Amy Shore argues that these works must be considered as part of a political filmmaking tradition among feminists. The book contextualizes the films within the politics and practices of the suffrage organizations that produced them in order to understand and assess the strategic role of these films. By examining these works, the history of both suffrage and cinema is necessarily reconsidered and expanded. Suffrage and the Silver Screen is an essential resource for those studying early cinema, women and cinema, the woman suffrage movement, and the use of visual media in social movements.
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Chapter 4. Inventing National Pastimes: Nationalizing Suffrage and Cinema

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CHAPTER FOUR

In the preceding two chapters, I examined cinematic projects that were focused on the local environment of New York City. In this chapter, I provide historical context for the remainder of the book in which I discuss films that were circulated at the national level. Both suffrage and cinema were undergoing a period of transition from the local to the national during the 1910s. The suffrage movement made a push for a federal amendment rather than focusing exclusively on municipal and/or state suffrage, and cinema transformed from locally produced and developed short films to multi-reel narrative films intended to appeal to a diverse national audience. Understanding these converging historical contexts provides a foundation for reconsidering how the themes, characters, narratives and stars of nationally-distributed suffrage films both advanced the movement (suffrage) and amusement (cinema).

The nationally-distributed suffrage films emerged following an era of defeat for the movement. From 1896 to 1910 suffragists made little tangible progress in state referenda or federal amendment campaigns. No new states were won for suffrage, and the federal amendment sat stalemated in committee. Eleanor Flexner, one of the first and most prominent historians of the suffrage movement dubbed the period “the doldrums,” prompting historians who followed her to ignore the many advances of the period, including the development of new tactics that would transform the movement and ultimately lead to victory.1 As described in the last two chapters, local organizations such as the New York Woman Suffrage Party and...

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