The Vote (American Experience)
Premieres in 2 parts, Monday, July 6 and Tuesday, July 7 at 9 p.m.
Extended Trailer | The Vote | American Experience
The hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote.
Commemorate The Women’s Vote Centennial
American Experience The Vote, a new four-hour, two-part documentary series, tells the dramatic story of the epic — and surprisingly unfamiliar — crusade waged by American women for the right to vote. Focusing primarily on the movement’s militant and momentous final decade, the film charts American women’s determined march to the ballot box, and illuminates the myriad social, political and cultural obstacles that stood in their path. The Vote delves deeply into the animating controversies that divided the nation in the early 20th century –– gender, race, state's rights, and political power –– and offers an absorbing lesson in the delicate, often fractious dynamics of social change. Timed to the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, The Vote is narrated by Kate Burton and features the voices of Mae Whitman (Alice Paul), Audra McDonald (Ida B. Wells), Laura Linney (Carrie Chapman Catt) and Patricia Clarkson (Harriot Stanton Blatch) portraying some of the unsung warriors of the movement. Written, directed and produced by Emmy Award-winner Michelle Ferrari and executive produced by Mark Samels and Susan Bellows, The Vote premieres Monday and Tuesday, July 6-7, 2020, 9:00-11:00 p.m. on Southern Oregon PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video App. With funding from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the documentary is part of the PBS Trailblazers summer programming lineup honoring the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
“In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote.” It is an axiom of American history; yet seldom has an axiom more thoroughly obscured reality. Although rightly regarded as a milestone for both American women and American democracy, the 19th Amendment was not quite the simple turning point it is generally perceived to be. Millions of women voted before the amendment and millions more were prohibited from voting after it, particularly African American women in the South. Nor was the ballot a favor bestowed upon women by an enlightened, progressive society. The right to vote was, in fact, fought for and won –– by three generations of American women who, over the course of more than seven decades, not only carried out one of the most sustained and successful political movements in all of American history, but were also the first to employ the techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience that later would become the hallmark of American political protest.
From the moment the clamor for woman suffrage first was raised in the United States, in the 1840s, the question was how the vote would ever be won. Resistance to women’s participation in the political sphere came from every quarter of American society –– from political machines eager to maintain their power, industrial interests fearful for their profits, even many women, who were convinced that wielding the ballot would somehow diminish their influence in society. Compounding the opposition, from the late 19th century on, was the poisonous legacy of Reconstruction and the determination of the former Confederate states to preserve white supremacy, in large part by barring African Americans from the polls.
As of 1909, despite six decades of relentless struggle, suffragists could point to little in the way of progress. Just four states had extended the franchise to women; the federal woman suffrage amendment –– introduced in the Senate in 1878 –– had virtually no support on Capitol Hill; and most in the first generation of activists had gone to their graves without casting a ballot. What had begun as a crusade of the few, however, had become a mass movement –– and their collective impatience was mounting.
As suffragists attempted to navigate the treacherous shoals of the national political scene, time and again principle was sacrificed in the name of pragmatism. Unfolding after the Civil War, when racism was both “a political fact and a political strategy,” says historian Martha Jones, the crusade for woman’s suffrage mirrored its historical moment. When expedient, white suffragists proved willing to accommodate its pervasive and deeply pernicious politics of exclusion. The Vote engages this troubled history directly –– underscoring the contributions of women of color to the struggle, the challenges of coalition-building in a fundamentally unequal society, and most importantly, the significant limitations of the 19th Amendment.
“The hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote was a truly transformative cultural and political movement, resulting in the largest expansion of voting rights in American history,” says executive producer Susan Bellows. “It’s also a story that has usually been reduced to a single page in the history books. The Vote restores this complex story to its rightful place in our history, providing a rich and clear-eyed look at a movement that resonates as much now as ever.”
“The lengths to which women had to go in their pursuit of the ballot will likely come as a surprise to most viewers,” says writer, director and producer Michelle Ferrari. “How many people are aware that suffragists were the first Americans to picket the White House? That those women were jailed, went on hunger strikes and were force-fed by authorities? And that the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience, which we usually associate with the Civil Rights Movement, were employed first by women fighting for the right to vote?”
Dramatic and thought-provoking, The Vote is, at its core, a story about power –– “who has it and who doesn't want to give it up,” says constitutional lawyer and writer Michael Waldman. “We’re still fighting over who has that power.”
Part One traces the rise of suffrage militancy, a direct-action approach to politics inspired by Britain’s notoriously militant suffragettes. First introduced in New York by Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and later championed by Alice Paul, a well-educated, singularly-driven Quaker of the movement's third generation, the new, “unladylike” tactics heightened the movement’s visibility, as thousands of American women took to the streets to boldly demand their right to full and equal citizenship. Already by 1911, “votes for women” had become, as one journalist noted, “the three small words which constitute the biggest question in the world today.” While galvanizing to many, such radical action was also divisive, stiffening the opposition and threatening to undermine the movement's credibility.
Part Two examines the mounting dispute over strategy and tactics. The suffragists, stung by a string of bitter state-level defeats in the fall of 1915, concentrated their energies on the passage of a federal amendment. One faction, under the leadership of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s President, Carrie Chapman Catt, was determined to pursue a moderate course and work within the political system, while another, Alice Paul's National Woman’s Party, deployed ever-more confrontational and controversial methods of protest. The two efforts nevertheless pushed the movement to its crescendo in tandem, and forever transformed the politics of social change in America.