The Vote: American Experience

(Rochester, NY) – The Vote: American Experience, 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 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 into the  controversies that divided the nation in the early 20th century –– gender, race, state's rights, and political power — and reveals the fractious dynamics of social change. Written, directed and produced by Emmy Award-winner Michelle Ferrari and executive produced by Susan Bellows and Mark Samels, The Vote: American Experience premieres Monday and Tuesday, July 6-7, 2020, at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

The documentary is part of the PBS Trailblazers summer programming lineup honoring the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment of women’s suffrage. The series is narrated by Kate Burton and features the voices of the unsung warriors of the movement: Mae Whitman (Alice Paul), Audra McDonald (Ida B. Wells), Laura Linney (Carrie Chapman Catt) and Patricia Clarkson (Harriot Stanton Blatch). 

“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.

Part One, airing July 6: 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. During this time, the question of suffrage for African American women, already active in the movement, was seen as a liability in securing the full support of women and men in the former Confederacy. 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, airing July 7: Part Two examines the mounting dispute over strategy and tactics, and reveals how the pervasive racism of the time, particularly in the South, impacted women's fight for the vote. Stung by a string of bitter state-level defeats in the fall of 1915, the suffragists decided to concentrate 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.

The Vote: American Experience is part of WXXI's Celebrate 2020 programming, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment throughout the year by honoring suffragists, feminist leaders and modern-day change makers. Support for Celebrate 2020 is made possible in part by a grant from the Avangrid Foundation with additional support from Cobblestone Capital Advisors.

Photo: Inez Milholland campaigns for women’s right to vote. New York, 1912.
Credit: Bain News Collection, Library of Congress

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