Kay Sloan remembers the Suffragettes

Inside Local Films

Mar 3, 2004 at 2:06 pm

Ask anyone about silent film and they'll describe comedy great Charlie Chaplin sporting a boxy mustache and parading around with a cane. Kay Sloan, a Clifton resident and professor of English at Miami University, looks beyond the well-known comic star and surreal, Keystone Kop slapstick with her own documentary film, Suffragettes in the Silent Cinema.

In her independent documentary, Sloan depicts how early silent cinema regarded the female voting movement as a threat to femininity and the family.

"It was seen as a deeply threatening issue then," Sloan says, speaking at her Miami office. "If women voted, the whole family structure was endangered. The fabric of our society was at risk."

Suffragettes includes clips from many silent films, including A Lively Affair and A Busy Day, featuring a young Charlie Chaplin in drag portraying a suffragist. The jabs against the suffrage movement are outrageous. In A Lively Affair, women abandon their babies and steal bikes in order to make it to their suffrage meetings, proof that women would be incapable of leading lives both inside and outside the home.

Real-life suffragettes soon learned to use cinema to their advantage.

A clip from one such film, What 80 Million Women Want, shows Harriet Stanton Blatch, president of the Women's Political Union and daughter of feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, giving a speech about women's right to vote.

Twenty years ago, while a graduate student at University Of Texas at Austin, Sloan began working on Suffragettes. She had never made a movie before, but she was convinced she could finish the project.

Suffragettes premiered at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Venice, Italy, last October. The film plays Thursday for a Miami University screening as part of a Women's History Month celebration.

In the long process of making Suffragettes, Sloan, a veteran author, has become a legitimate filmmaker. Despite the international acclaim over Suffragettes, she has no current plans to extend her filmmaking career. Her novel The Patron Saint of Red Chevys will be published this summer and she is working on a book based on the diary of a World War II prisoner. A PBS documentary based on her book about the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 aired last year.

Silent film and its stars are mostly forgotten, but Sloan remains convinced there is much to learn from these early movies. Sloan hopes viewers of her film look beyond the broad performances and grasp the core issue: Women worked hard and sacrificed to gain the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.

As Sloan says near the end of the film, "The struggle against discrimination must be remembered and carried on."

Local screenings: Suffragettes in the Silent Cinema shows 4 p.m. Thursday in Room 100 of the Art Building at Miami University's Oxford Campus.