Arts & Culture News

A New PBS Documentary Tells the Real Story About the Women's Suffrage Movement

Texas suffragette Minnie Fisher Cunningham campaigning for a seat in the Senate in 1928.
Texas suffragette Minnie Fisher Cunningham campaigning for a seat in the Senate in 1928. Wikimedia Commons
How much do you know about the women’s suffrage movement in Texas? If you’re like most people, chances are you don’t know much, if anything at all.

We tend to take the right to vote for granted, as though one day 100 years ago the reigning body of all-male politicians just suddenly decided that it was high time women had the right to vote and then made it magically happen.

No progress ever comes that easily, but the general population has no idea how much time and effort actually went into the ratification of women’s right to vote in our own state. That’s why filmmaker Nancy Schiesari and historian Ellen Temple teamed up to make the documentary film Citizens At Last, which will air on KERA in Dallas this week.

For more than 100 years, suffragists fought for the right to vote in the United States. Although it was a national struggle, for many suffragists the day-to-day grind took place on a state, even county, level. It was a relay race that passed from generation to generation and from state to state.

The history behind how women won the right to vote in Texas makes for a damn good story, with all the elements you could possibly want in a compelling narrative: a charismatic politician with power and prestige, who got too comfortable with being bankrolled by the liquor industry during the Prohibition Era and a group of persistent, wily women who knew how to play politics better than the men in the room — but with the grace that was expected of Southern women at the time. Eventually, the grit and determination of these women made Texas the ninth state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and the first state in the South to do so.

“I see the story as democracy in action,” Temple says. “The Constitution gave everyone certain rights. It didn’t give the right to vote to everyone, but it did give the right to petition. So for 100 years, women were able to petition the government to ask for the right to vote. They used their freedom of speech, their right to assemble, the freedom of the press and their ability to lobby. It took all those different means.”

The film doesn’t conveniently leave out the tension between the white suffragists and the women of color who were fighting their own battles and wanted to be included in the efforts. The film stands out from a lot of other work about suffrage history in that it goes to great lengths to include the dialog you would expect to hear a century ago in a Jim Crow state.

The white suffragists, who have always been recognized as the main figures of the story of women's rights, were in many ways the gatekeepers for who was in the limelight and who wasn’t. Although some of them might have sought support from Black and Latina women when it was advantageous for white female interests, they ultimately decided that in order to win the support of the all-white male politicians to whom they were appealing, they needed to keep their image as genteel Southern white women front and center.

The film also highlights the fact that for many women the fight didn’t end when the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920. Not in Texas, where Jim Crow laws were enacted to bar people of color from voting, leading to a struggle that didn’t end until the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. Long after white women won the right to vote in Texas, women of color continued to fight for equality and voting rights, and Citizens At Last doesn’t forget them.

Temple has been studying and educating others about Texas women’s history since the 1970s, including the history of women’s suffrage in Texas. She was disheartened when she began asking people years ago if they knew anything about the movement.

“Leading up to the 100 year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, I would ask people, ‘Do you know who Minnie Fisher Cunningham is? Do you know who Jane Y. McCallum is? How about Christia Adair? Or Jovita Idar?” Temple says. “Nobody, not even my friends or family, could say, ‘Yes.’ I was so discouraged because I’ve been focused on the women’s suffrage movement in Texas for 50 years.”

Temple thought a film might be the best way to get the story out. That led to the meeting between Temple and Schiesari, which was arranged by a mutual friend. All it took was one conversation over coffee and they knew they wanted to make Citizens At Last.

They turned to Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, a distinguished history professor at Texas A&M and one of today’s leading experts on women’s suffrage in Texas, for help with scripting a timeline for the film.
Brannon-Wranosky played a big role in making sure the film’s focus stretched beyond 1920.

“For so long, so many historians focused on that very white, middle-class suffrage history,” Brannon-Wranosky says. “It’s an easy story to get ahold of because those are the records — and it’s an important story, don’t get me wrong. This is who the white male politicians would speak to. They were the ones keeping their records and making sure their stories were the ones being told, so what you end up with is a partial story that looks and feels like the whole story.

“There have been a handful of historians, including myself, who have questioned that version of the story,” she continues. “We’re going, ‘That can’t possibly be the whole story because that’s not all that was going on at the time.’ We’ve gone looking, and it takes a long time, but that’s what I’ve done for the past 20 years.”

Schiesari used the book Brannon-Wranosky is currently writing, which will be released sometime this year but doesn’t yet have a title, as the jumping-off point to craft the narrative of the film. The team also worked closely with other scholars and historians to flesh out the details.

In early 2019, they assembled with the goal of completing the film by the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, in August 2020. Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly all their meetings were happening over Zoom, significantly slowing their progress. This meant the filmmakers weren’t able to complete the film by their intended deadline, but they pushed through anyway.

“I see the story as democracy in action.” – Historian Ellen Temple

tweet this

They ended up with a film that focuses on the stories of six women fighting for equality and the right to vote, some together and some only barely overlapping.

“There are key women who are looked at, and they’re telling a larger community story about what’s going on in their corner of the suffrage movement,” Brannon-Wranosky says. “The documentary relies on tens of thousand pages of history, not to mention all the sources and archives, and then you get one hour so you have to decide which stories to tell.”

So far the film has been well received, even more so than Schiesari and Temple were anticipating. Since its premiere on March 19, it has reached 82 percent of the national PBS market. Almost every state has picked it up, and in some cities, it has aired several times.

Schiesari hopes the film will reach the next generation of young scholars who want to continue the work that historians such as Temple and Brannon-Wranosky have started. Just like the suffrage movement was a relay race that passed from one generation of women to the next, so are the tales of it.

“It’s very empowering for women of any age to see other women who struggled and achieved something,” Schiesari says. “It really makes you understand why kids need role models in their history classes.”

The documentary will be on KERA in Dallas this week. There will be viewings on Aug. 31 at 2 a.m., and Sept. 4 at 5 a.m. The film is also available to stream online at www.citizensatlastfilm.com.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.