Beginning with the film Boys Don’t Cry actor Hilary Swank has continued to play characters who won’t settle for living half a life; people who risk everything to be full human beings. The Brandon Teena role, based on a true and tragic story of a young woman who lived as a boy, represented a major departure from anything Hollywood had done before (thank you director Kimberly Peirce!). Swank went on to play a boxer in “Million Dollar Baby,” again a radical step away from how women are traditionally portrayed in film! Both roles won her Academy Awards.
And she played Amelia Earhart!
Hilary Swank’s most radical role yet may be the 2004 HBO film “Iron Jawed Angels” It’s a smartly conceived and beautifully directed (Katja von Garnier) film that few people have seen. In it Swank continues her portrayal of radical women demanding the right to be themselves—she’s chained to the fence of the White House, imprisoned and denied counsel, goes on a hunger strike and force fed by prison officials.
She plays Suffragist, Alice Paul, who in the early 1900s threw herself into the fight for women’s right to vote with everything she had. Risking death under the hooves of police horses then starvation Alice Paul was relentless in her believe in the full participation of women in the democratic process. She and fellow Suffragists were parodied, physically assaulted, and dismissed by their families, the media and by US officials, including one state representative who called these radical women activists: “bewildered, deluded creatures with short skirts and short hair.”
The film is on my mind because it is the 92nd anniversary of women winning the right to vote! It was only in 1920 that we were granted that right and as the presidential election comes upon us I want to invoke the spirit of Alice Paul. With the conservative right passing legislation across the country that will make it more difficult for people of color, the poor, elderly and queers to vote we can not take voting for granted.
Alice Paul was one of many suffragists who went to the battle front, risking their lives and I don’t want them to be forgotten because our futures depend on us honoring that past. And I thank Hilary Swank for reminding us of the heroes we have and the heroes we can be ourselves. We may have short skirts and short hair, we may be bewildered by some of the outrageous things men continue to believe and feel comfortable saying about women out loud—think “legitimate rape!” But we’re not deluded! We know we have power if we just show up at the ballot box. We don’t have to risk our lives to do it; some other women already did that for us.