The real story of the fight for women to achieve full voting rights in this country, which took several generations, is a frustrating and often harrowing, even horrific, series of events. Recently, PBS tackled the subject in an excellent two-part documentary, “The Vote,” as part of its American Experience series. Have a look at the clips on the website, and don’t miss the chance of watching it the next time you see it scheduled on your local PBS station. It is a well-told examination of the truly dramatic and inspirational fight that women endured to gain this most basic right of citizenship.
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, obviously, does not tell the story of women’s suffrage in all its fullness, or grim realities. To give it its due, it does show strong, intelligent women bucking the powers that be to gain respect (which, without civil rights, no respect would be required), and it shows the men to be grudging, but ultimately won over by the ladies’ perseverance. And charm. That, it seems, would always be a necessary element. Hollywood was certainly frank about that.
Classic films were not dismissive of the 19th Amendment, but on the few occasions Hollywood tackled the subject, it was always in this quaint, stereopticon view of The Good Old Days and my, wasn’t Grandma spunky? We covered The Strawberry Blonde (1941) here, which showed Olivia de Havilland’s suffragette as a foil and a mere subplot to James Cagney’s aspiring dentist dealing with legal issues who didn’t get the girl of his dreams. Again, the story is quaint and affectionate, down to the singalong ending. The suffragette theme is mere window dressing.
When it comes to this cozy view of the fight to gain suffrage, I think my favorite example is from Mary Poppins (1964), where Glynis Johns sings with ladylike gusto, “Well done, Sister Suffragettes!” My favorite line, delivered with gentle sincerity: “Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group – they’re rather stooopid.”
Her jubilant, sunny, marching rant in the foyer of her home is turned into a party when the servants, Reta Shaw and Hermione Baddeley join in, dragging into the chorus the reluctant Elsa Lanchester (the children’s nanny who is about to quit, thereby creating a job opening for the new nanny, Mary Poppins).
Interestingly, the magical, yet no-nonsense Mary Poppins is the ultimate feminist in the movie – independent, self-assured, not taking orders. But she is humanized for us by being vain in a typically feminine manner.
It is 1910 in Mary Poppins, but The Shocking Miss Pilgrim takes us back to 1874. Female independence from men is tied to, for me, a beloved object—the typewriter. Betty Grable stars as Miss Cynthia Pilgrim, a new graduate of a business school in New York which has admitted women for the first time. She and the other female students are admonished at the beginning of their course of study: “Until now, the business world has been a man’s world. If you fail, it will remain so!”
Mr. Haymes runs his family firm, which is actually owned by his suffragette aunt, played by Anne Revere. Haymes, however, thinks that women do not belong in the workplace and is surprised when Miss Grable shows up for work, as he thought he would be sent a male typewriter (or typist, when the person doing the work was finally viewed as separate from the machine).
Another person in the all-male office who disdains women in the workplace is Gene Lockhart, who plays the office manager. The guys at first mock her, but her moxie, and her good-natured ability to take kidding endears her to them. They put on their suit coats in a gentlemanly effort to not show her disrespect by working in the same room with her in their shirtsleeves. Ah, me, but such niceties are lost to us today.
All are fascinated by her clatter on the typewriter, which was introduced in this same year of 1874 to commercial offices, though it would be a long time before they became common in workplaces or even had a standard keyboard. Though Betty was the class champ in typing, we can see she does not know how to touch-type. She does the old hunt-and-peck with two fingers. Actually, the touch-typing system was not invented until 1888, so this is not an error.
Betty takes a room at one of the few lodging houses in Boston that accepts women office workers, who are shunned as undesirables, women of probably questionable virtue. Like actresses.
Elizabeth Patterson is her kindly landlady who takes her in and who belligerently accepts all outcasts from Boston society, including artists and writers. Gad! Arthur Shields and Allyn Joslyn are two of her vagabond lodgers, and together they make up a happy family.
As long as we’re being sticklers on accuracy on my home state, I’d like to congratulate those responsible for this film for the correct pronunciation of “Peabody.” Hereabouts, it is not pea-body. It’s PEAbudee. One of the men in the office, Mr. Peabody, who presents her flowers, corrects Betty on her pronunciation.
How old will she be when she finally gets to vote in 1920?
Many social issues were covered across a broad spectrum in films from the 1920s through the 1950s, yet women’s suffrage was not really addressed except in parody.
There is a line in the “Sister Suffragette” song from Mary Poppins that Glynis Johns sings: “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done, sister suffragette!’”
Hollywood has never really said, “Well done,” or given them their due, and perhaps even today, neither have we. Watch the PBS documentary. Then go vote, each and every election you can. It took a lot of sacrifice and fighting to get that right. If circumstances arising from the pandemic makes it more difficult for you to vote, or the current traitorous administration of criminals tries to stop you, then move heaven and earth to do it.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.