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Two Movies

Since Christmas, Your Humble Blogger recently watched two recent movies (amazing but true! …as long you are willing to consider a movie that was at Sundance in 2004 as recent) about women’s rights. It seems worth writing a note about them.

Digression: First of all, of course, women’s rights are rights; I feel goofy calling them women’s rights as if they were rights that were in some sense reserved for women. Iron Jawed Angels was about female suffrage; the right to vote is not a woman’s right but a citizen’s right that was unjustly denied women. Similarly, Made in Dagenham is about women machinists on strike; the right to (meaningful) collective bargaining and workplace action is not a woman’s right but a worker’s right that was unjustly denied women. Furthermore, as is so often the case, when women are denied a right that ought to be universal, men’s rights are not strengthened but weakened. If I am in a democracy where any large class of citizens (vaddevah dat means) are disenfranchised, that hampers not only the election of a representative legislature that will take into account the diversity of experience in the country (or state or town) but the ability of the elected officials to respond to the underrepresented minorities and still be reelected. Expansion of the franchise is good for the democratic society, and furthers the creation of a democratic people; narrowing of the franchise therefore rather than diluting my vote, weakens my society. Similarly, inclusion of women in collective bargaining, union representation and workplace action enhanced, rather than competed with, male worker’s rights, on the unfortunately rare occasions where it was attempted. On the other hand, there is a history there about the specific denial of human rights to women, and of women acting to enhance their own rights, and that has gone by the name women’s rights (or women’s liberation), so if I say these movies are about women’s rights, not only will people know what I mean, but it will place these movies and their stories into a context that is appropriately specific to women. Right? So complicated. End Digression.

So. Two movies. I only liked one of them, but that’s probably my problem. Well, and I have a tremendous fondness for British films of this sort, and of the kind of acting that this movie presents. Seriously, Bob Hoskins makes me giddy, as does Miranda Richardson in many of her scenes, and the magnificent Kenneth Graham, and John Sessions, and Joseph Kloska and Miles Jupp as two dunderheaded undersecretaries, and a bunch of other people, because that is how British film of this kind works. I mean, it’s a particular sort of presentational acting. In the other movie, Hilary Swank as Alice Paul does a great deal of emoting, and is perhaps more naturalistic and heart-tugging, but I don’t really like that. Anjelica Huston is the only one in the Alice Paul movie who performs in something like the British style, and as far as I’m concerned she completely steals all her scenes.

Which mention of Anjelica Huston brings me to the observation I wanted to write about: these movies both feature an older accommodationist woman, who provides the final pivot of the plot when she reverses course and supports the more revolutionary lead. In the Alice Paul movie, it’s the great Carrie Chapman Catt; in the machinists’ movie, it’s the great Barbara Castle. In both cases, the moment is clearly a construct of the movie; neither Ms. Catt nor Baroness Castle were quite as accommodationist as they are portrayed. But it’s a great moment in this kind of movie, and I certainly don’t begrudge the movie-makers those moments.

The question that comes to my mind, though, is to wonder if anybody, in watching these moments or similar ones (and there are similar ones in such movies) wants to grow up to be the accommodationist who knows the right moment to stop accommodating. Because I gotta say damn I love and admire those people. Yes, the fighters-from-outside are great, and I admire them whole-heartedly. But it’s the guy who has been getting inch-by-inch progress, all the while telling people that they have to wait for more, and who then finds the moment to go all in—that’s the guy I love. It’s why LBJ was, against all odds, a great president (as well as a terrible one, but that’s a different story); why Tony Blair was, against all odds, not a great Prime Minister. I don’t claim to any insight on when those moments come (I can’t help thinking that one was missed on the Affordable Care Act, but it’s certainly possible that the moment will come next time) and there are the tragic figures who live their lives without that moment coming at all, but when it happens, it’s so fucking great. When Carrie Chapman Catt finally walks in to the Oval Office and tells Woodrow Wilson that it’s now or never, the answer was now.

That doesn’t just happen in movies, does it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,