PBS Suffragist Series Left One Thing Out

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THE VOTE is a four-part PBS docuseries chronicling the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. and their demands for national voting rights. The series’ premier broadcast this past July was timed as a prelude to August’s 100th anniversary celebration of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

            It may be surprising to some modern viewers to learn that it took so many grueling decades of struggle by women, who were met with ridicule and risked arrest, imprisonment, and even torture simply for demanding the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was finally ratified by the requisite number of states to become the law of the land.

            As excellent and informative as The Vote was on many levels, I was sorely disappointed that the series failed to mention the presence, indeed the prevalence, of suffragist leaders who were bisexuals and lesbians. There wasn’t so much as a brief reference to this important fact in a four-hour series. It would have been easy, for example, to include basic information on the same-sex partnerships of Anna Howard Shaw and Lucy Anthony, or of Carrie Chapman Catt and Mary “Mollie” Garrett Hay. All were highly visible activists in the crusade for suffrage. And then there’s the enigmatic Alice Paul. Was she an asexual “spinster” or a deeply closeted lesbian? At any rate, Alice Paul chose to live outside man-centric norms and worshipped the memory of Susan B. Anthony, who was herself lesbian (as I discussed in the March-April 2020 issue).

            In most respects, The Vote is what we’ve come to expect from documentaries created for the prestigious PBS/American Experience brand: compelling archival footage and photos; commentary by leading scholars; lucid narration and storytelling; a roster of fascinating historical figures. We hear a short recap of the early women’s rights movement featuring leaders from the mid- to late-19th century, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Both women emerged as fervent abolitionists, backing the Union cause in every way they could, only to find that both black and white women were again left out when the federal right to vote was extended to male African-Americans and freedmen after the Civil War. The main focus of this docuseries, however, is the early 20th century and its competing activist factions, led by women ranging from the nonthreatening Carrie Chapman Catt to the firebrand Alice Paul.

            And yet. The series’ website declares promisingly: “The battle for the vote also upended previously accepted ideas about the proper role of women in American society and … brings to life the unsung leaders of the movement and the deep controversies over gender roles.” But apparently writer-director Michelle Ferrari did not see fit to contemplate the category of sex as it was playing out for the movement’s queer women, whose lives and loving lesbian unions exemplified freedom from restrictive gender roles.

            It does a disservice to history and the study of gender to exclude LGBT people from “the American experience.” Sadly, the dreary heterosexism of The Vote, like that of so many other straight-washing documentaries, conveys a clear message: We don’t matter, and our stories are expendable. This disconnect between gay historical scholarship and popular educational media is yet another indication of the enduring legacy of homophobic evasiveness, which persists in far too many classrooms, podcasts, and cultural institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

 

Sted Mays, based in Atlanta, has written about Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw for this magazine and for lgbtqnation.com.

 

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