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Suffrage and the Silver Screen


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 8. Suffrage, Cinema and the Emergence of Modern Feminism



In the 1910s, while the suffrage movement was organizing women to gain the vote, a new kind of women’s movement was emerging. “Feminism” broke into the American daily lexicon around 1913 when everyone from silent screen vamp Theda Bara to the average woman on the street began to describe themselves as “feminists.” The moment reflects, in feminist historian Nancy Cott’s opinion, an effort to transform the old woman movement into a new, vibrant movement based on emerging ideals of modern womanhood: “At the very point in the 1910s—the height of the suffrage campaign—when the woman movement began to sound archaic, the word feminism came into frequent use.”1

Indeed, modern feminism emerged out of the suffrage movement at the same moment when gaining the vote seemed to be all but accomplished and the promise of full citizenship introduced a new world of possibilities to women. All women had to do was to imagine this future and they could attain it. As a movement of consciousness, feminism built upon the foundation of the suffrage movement and extended it into a new kind of movement, one based not on achievement of a specific political goal (gaining the vote), but on sharing a common identity (being a feminist). As Cott describes it, “As a movement of consciousness, Feminism intended to transform the ideas of submission and femininity that had been inculcated in women; the suffrage movement provided a ready vehicle for propagating this vision with...

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