Have you ever seen HBO’s great historical movie, Iron Jawed Angels? If not, you really should make it a point to do so. Hilary Swank and Frances O’Conner play suffrage heroines Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, focusing on their leadership during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, and especially on their picketing of the White House and hunger strike while in jail. Because he stands opposed to women getting the vote, we see the women work their butts off to fight against Wilson’s reelection, doing so despite violent intimidation and even resistance from other suffrage organizations. Staging peaceful protests and parades in DC and across the country, Paul and Burns lose a close friend and leader when Inez Milholland (who suffered from pernicious anemia) dies while working feverishly for the cause.
Despite their hard work, Wilson wins the election, putting up a huge roadblock to women’s suffrage just as nearly a century of hard work by generations of women seemed close to reaching fruition. The suffragettes are devastated and left in great despair. Paul goes into severe depression because of the election and the death of her friend, deciding to go home to the family farm in Pennsylvania where she hides from the world, performs mundane farm work, and wallows in the painful failure. Soon, Lucy Burns comes to talk, and they have the following exchange:
Alice Paul (fighting tears): “Do you ever wonder what we are doing, Lucy? Because it seems like [God] is laughing at us. And it seems so unfair that someone should have to die in a fight that shouldn’t even be a fight. Isn’t it ridiculous?” (She breaks down and the tears come). She is dead, and we are back to where we started, which is nowhere. I’m lost, Lucy.”
Lucy Burns: “We laugh too. Remember? In London (recalling their involvement in the British woman’s suffrage movement). That time we hid in a coat closet so we could interrupt Parliament. And you had to pee. And I said to you, ‘hey, here’s some Lord’s boot. Go ahead, go ahead.’ I thought to myself, if she’s game for that, that’s it, we are going to be friends for life. We laughed. And we can still laugh. I don’t see that there is any other way, you know? That is what we do, we piss in the boot and we come out guns blazing. I wish Alice was here. My friend Alice, you can’t say no to her. It’s beautiful.”
Burns then pulls a coin out of her pocket and says:
“Hey, heads we stay here and milk cows. Tails, we go find Wilson’s boots.”
She then flips the coin, and Alice looks down to see the result. The audience doesn’t see whether it is heads or tails, but then we immediately see this awesome scene:
So what’s my point? Look, I don’t know if that conversation actually took place, but one like it certainly did. I have been taking a lot of comfort lately in thinking about how some of our nation’s most important steps toward greater equality and justice were preceded by big steps backwards. Those regressive steps were often devastating and depressing, but in the end they only helped to galvanize the resolve of those working to force our nation to live up to its highest ideals, making them more aggressive and effective, and helping them to ultimately emerge triumphant.
That is what Obama means when he talks about how our arc often goes backwards, but still bends toward justice. “We,” he frequently reminds us, are the ones that keep it going in the right direction, no matter what significant obstacles we have had to overcome. The women’s suffrage movement’s response to the devastating setback of Wilson’s reelection is just one example.
Today, I respect and celebrate our nation’s peaceful transfer of power. As I have said here before, it is our democratic system and processes that are our best protection from authoritarianism, and will ultimately help us ensure that the arc keeps going in the right direction. So I respect today and what it symbolizes.
I will also respect and admire the thousands of peaceful protestors that plan to show up on Saturday in DC and all over the country, and are likely to be in such large numbers that they will overshadow what happened today. Their actions will also be in the spirit of America and what this country is all about. The president’s “carnage” and protectionist speech isn’t going to do anything to smooth things over in our divided nation, and only adds fuel to the fire.
A powerful movement has been awakened. You can feel it.
Now, let’s go find Trump’s boots.