In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the issue of voting rights for American women was widely debated across the nation. Five states, including California, granted women the right to vote in the early 1910s, several more states held referenda on the issue, and Congress debated women’s suffrage for the first time in 1913. As the debate escalated during the teens, activists adopted a more confrontational style, leading to arrests, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feeding. In 1916, three years before the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote, Jeannette Rankin, Republican of Montana and an outspoken suffragist, became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she declared, “but I won’t be the last.”
It was against this background that 1917’s Mothers of Men addressed some of the most contentious questions surrounding the issue of women’s suffrage. Can women provide effective political leadership without their emotions getting in the way? Will women bring a stronger moral compass to public office? Can female leadership curtail political corruption? How will the press treat women in elected office? Rather than mounting a plea for equal voting rights, the story imagines a future when women not only vote but also serve in public office. Motion Picture News noted that the film’s “timely theme” was a subject of interest to “millions of women,” not just “ardent suffragists” but “all womankind who are optimistic concerning universal victory for woman suffrage.”
Suffrage activists had long embraced visual propaganda to promote their cause, staging marches, parades, open-air pageants, and tableaux. Suffragists were also among the first activist groups to employ cinema in their efforts. Documentary footage captured their marches and pageants, suffrage leaders recorded their speeches on some of the earliest sound film recordings, and activists spoke and presented slide shows at neighborhood movie theaters. Both the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the Women’s Political Union made feature films to promote their cause. Noted activists like Harriot Stanton Blatch played themselves in these films, appearing alongside fictional heroines who were campaigning for the right to vote. Perhaps the most renowned suffragist at the time, Britain’s Emmeline Pankhurst, appeared in the prologue of the 1913 suffrage feature Eighty Million Women Want —?
If features produced by suffrage groups found drama in the fight for voting rights, Mothers of Men took a different tack, focusing instead on the career of “brilliant young female lawyer” Clara Madison in an imagined future when women had already achieved political equality. Soon after the film begins Clara is nominated to run for Superior Court judge on the Women’s Party ticket and is later elected governor. Clara’s political ascent takes place in the face of opposition orchestrated by corrupt politicians working in cahoots with the popular press. The editor of the local newspaper is a “bitter foe to women in politics” who vows to roast “the hens” in his paper, while the “boss” of the political machine is motivated by his fear that morally upstanding women will clean up city politics. Sure enough, shortly after she is elected judge Clara orders all saloons closed on Sundays, enraging her political opponents.
Beset by “spreading tentacles” of the city’s political machine, Clara also struggles with challenges on the home front when her husband is falsely accused of murder and sentenced to die. Will Clara use her office to pardon him or let the execution proceed? Will she act as a loving wife or a prudent governor? By putting Clara in such a melodramatic situation, Mothers of Men insists that women, however powerful, remain bound by familial ties and emotional attachments perceived to be at odds with civic life. Leaders of the Women’s Party, forever hovering around Clara, remind her that as the nation’s first female governor she has a “greater duty to womanhood,” telling her that “your sisters of the world over look to you—you cannot fail them now!”
Dorothy Davenport played Clara in a performance that, as Moving Picture World’s reviewer put it, “compels respect for the character at all times.” She embodied a “new brand of womanhood,” at once “extremely dignified, sympathetic and thrilling,” according to the Exhibitors Herald. This was one of the last roles Davenport accepted before taking a break from acting following the birth of her son Wallace Reid Jr. In the next decade, she went on to produce several influential films, including Human Wreckage (1923) about drug addiction, an issue that also touched her personally, Broken Laws (1924) about juvenile delinquency, and The Red Kimona (1925) about prostitution. Appearing in prologues for these films and lending her name to promotional materials, she became an authoritative voice on contemporary social issues. Davenport’s appearance in Mothers of Men demonstrates her early interest in using film to support social causes, particularly those affecting women.
The production was something of a family affair. Davenport’s father-in-law Hal Reid wrote and produced the picture and appeared on-screen as Clara Madison’s father, with Mrs. Hal Reid (Bertha Westbrook) playing her mother. Five years earlier Hal Reid had made Votes for Women, a two-reel suffrage film featuring activists Dr. Anna Howard Shaw and Jane Addams. He had also helped produce Lois Weber’s explosive birth control feature Where Are My Children? the previous year, suggesting his willingness to engage in the nation’s most polemical debates. Eager to earn endorsements from suffragists, Reid screened a print of Mothers of Men for suffrage leaders on the East Coast then incorporated many of the changes they suggested. Having made the film in California, where women could already vote, he wanted the film to have a wide reach across the country.
Shot on location in Santa Cruz, California, Mothers of Men contains striking footage of local landmarks like the Cooper Street Courthouse, Holy Cross Church, Piedmont House, and Chinatown and concludes with a scene on the (now-eroded) rock arches at Natural Bridges. Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue is also visible in several shots. There was considerable excitement in Santa Cruz during the filming of the production as well as optimism that the town might become a northern California hub for moviemaking. Mary Pickford was filming Romance of the Redwoods in the surrounding mountains about the same time. William S. Hart and Tom Mix later also shot films in the area, but Santa Cruz never took off as a production center.
Mothers of Men was rereleased as Every Woman’s Problem in 1921, just a few months after the Nineteenth Amendment went into effect, and included a written foreword acknowledging that women had been “newly released from the fetters of inequality.” The distant future imagined in 1917 was now much closer, but “every woman’s problem”—a battle between head and heart—still threatened women’s engagement in civic life.
Assumed lost, Mothers of Men was rediscovered at the British Film Institute in 1997 by James Mockoski, film archivist at Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope since 2002. It was recently restored under his supervision, just in time for our current electoral season. With a woman competing for the country’s highest office questions remain about how much the rhetoric surrounding women in politics has changed over the past one hundred years.
Presented at SFSFF 2016 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra