The actors portraying Inez Milholland, Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt in Iron Jawed Angels

We will first identify some characters in the movie that didn't actually exist. One of the most notable is editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post, Ben Weissman. Some other significant characters were Senator Tom Leighton and his wife, Emily.

Ben Weissman

In Iron Jawed Angels, Ben Weissman was Alice Paul’s love interest. He allegedly worked for the Washington Post as an editorial cartoonist. Paul meets Weissman and Inez Milholland at a social event and he joins in on the fight for suffrage, mostly because he's interested in Ms. Paul. Later in the film, their interaction includes Weissman teaching Paul to drive and dance, and the two meet for a dinner date along with Weissman’s son. This dinner date scene is significant because it shows that although Alice Paul doesn’t make motherhood or love a priority, she still has maternal instincts.

Later in the movie, Paul makes the point when talking to her best friend Lucy Burns that this fight for suffrage is her priority. She says that it wouldn’t be fair to be involved in a family, because she couldn’t give them the time and dedication they need; her heart and soul is going into the fight for suffrage. To her, it’s a zero-sum game; she would have to choose between a family and women’s rights. Paraphrased, Paul says that you lose the right to do whatever you want when someone loves you.

Weissman’s purpose in the movie is to show the personal side of Alice Paul. He is an obstacle, a complication that she has to get over. It’s a visual representation of the choice Paul makes and the importance of rights over family. Patrick Dempsey played Ben Weissman in the film.

(watch from beginning to 1:20)


Senator Tom Leighton and Mrs. Emily Leighton

Lucy Burns and Emily Leighton

In Iron Jawed Angels, Tom Leighton was a state senator, and his wife, Emily became involved in the fight for suffrage. Emily initially made primarily monetary contributions, but once her finances were cut off by her husband, she continued supporting the campaign by donating her time. In the film, she assisted in putting out publications by the National Women's Party, she picketed the White House, served time in prison, and participated in hunger strikes.

Senator Leighton was very much against suffrage for women; when he found out about his wife’s participation, he cut off her finances and took away her children. Mrs. Leighton is taken to prison and her husband pays her a visit. When he sees her in her withered state (she had been on a hunger strike), he has a change of heart. Alice Paul is given a piece of paper and pen while imprisoned, and the note gets circulated amongst the prisoners. Mrs. Leighton manages to slip it to her husband, who leaks it to the press and exposes the atrocities of the conditions in the Occoquan Workhouse. The movie makes it look like the force feeding was a secret, when in reality it seems as if it was a well-known fact. The movie also presents the circumstances in a way to make it appear that this exposure by Senator Leighton served at a catalyst for President Wilson’s endorsement of women’s suffrage, when obviously that wasn't the case since Leighton is a fictional character.

(Watch 4:45 to 9:25)

According to Kris Myers, Director of Heritage and Outreach at the Alice Paul Institute, who provided a list of 50 facts about Iron Jawed Angels and the suffrage movement, “The character of Emily Leighton (the Senator’s wife) is a composite character of the woman who worked for suffrage against the wishes of her husband or family and also a woman who was married to a politician and the influence she might have upon his political decisions (especially after he saw her in prison).” The characters serve an important purpose by telling the story from a different perspective, but their presence brings some incorrect information forward, making facts unclear and confusing. Senator Thomas Leighton was played by Joseph Adams and Emily Leighton was played by Molly Parker.


Next we will discuss characters in the movie that were, in fact, real. We will analyze the accuracy of the film's portrayal of these characters and also the accuracy of their portrayal in the media of the time.

Alice Paul

Alice Paul was raised as a Quaker; this was the origin of Paul’s feelings about gender equality. Paul’s mother Tacie had a huge influence as well. Tacie was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and may have taken Alice to meetings as a child. Alice quoted her mother when explaining why she dedicated her life to fighting for equality: "When you put your hand to the plow, you can't put it down until you get to the end of the row."

Paul left for England in 1907 initially to study social work, but this is where she began her suffrage career. She was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and worked closely with the Pankhursts. Here, Paul was first exposed to the more militant strategy used by British suffragettes. The Pankhursts “engaged in direct and visible measures, such as heckling, window smashing, and rock throwing, to raise public aware about the suffrage issue. Their notoriety gained them front-page coverage on many London newspapers, where they were seen being carried away in handcuffs by the police." Paul later applied these militant strategies to her fight for suffrage in America. While in England, Paul was “arrested several times, participated in hunger strikes and was force-fed,” something she also experienced while imprisoned in the United States.

In 1912, Alice Paul and her friend (and fellow suffragist) Lucy Burns joined the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Paul used her militant techniques to push for a national amendment for women’s suffrage. This technique conflicted with the rest of NAWSA, who focused on campaigning states. Another point of conflict was that Paul used the technique of holding President Wilson and the Democratic party responsible for the alienation and discrimination of women. These factors eventually led Alice Paul to break away and create the National Women’s Party in 1916.

Paul was a very well educated woman. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Swarthmore College in 1905; a Masters in Sociology and a Doctorate in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907 and 1912, respectively; a Bachelor of Laws from Washington College of Law in 1922; a Master of Laws and a Doctorate of Civil Law from American University in 1927 and 1928, respectively.

After the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, Alice Paul wrote and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment until she died in 1977. 

The film accurately portrayed Alice Paul for the most part, except for a few minor characteristics. In the film, Alice is seen drinking in a bar with Inez Milholland. According to the Alice Paul Institute, because of her Quaker heritage she wouldn’t have drunk alcohol at all. In fact, photos of Paul celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment show her raising a glass of wine; the “wine” was actually grape juice and the photos were taken before the Amendment had officially passed (see photo below). Alice Paul was played by Hilary Swank in the film.


Lucy Burns


Lucy Burns met Alice Paul in England while she was studying at Oxford. The two met at a police station and stuck up a conversation when Paul noticed an American flag pin on Burns’ lapel. They had both been arrested after a suffrage demonstration. Burns joined the WSPU in 1909 where she became an effective street speaker. She was imprisoned at least four times while in England. She later worked as a suffrage organizer in Scotland from 1910-1912.

After breaking away from NAWSA, Burns helped create the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1913; it later became the National Women’s Party. The Library of Congress says "Burns organized campaigns in the West (1914, 1916), served as NWP legislative chairman in Washington, D.C., and, beginning in April 1914, edited the organization’s weekly journal, The Suffragist."

Burns picketed the White House and was imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse. Burns, along with fellow suffragists, was placed in solitary confinement after going on hunger strikes in 1917. November 15, 1917 has been dubbed the “Night of Terror,” because Burns was beaten, her arms were handcuffed above her head, and she was force-fed. Lucy Burns “spent more time in jail than any other suffragist in America or England.”

The film’s portrayal of Lucy Burns seems to be accurate. She was known for her bright red hair, a characteristic they applied to Frances O’Connor who played Lucy in the film. The film doesn't focus much on how Lucy and Alice became friends or their excursions in England; however, the film begins in 1912 so they would have returned to America by that time.


Inez Milholland (Boissevain)

Inez Milholland was a lawyer and social activist. In addition to women’s suffrage, Milholland fought for abolition of the death penalty and rights of working people. Milholland was a member of the Women’s Trade Union League, the NAACP, and the Fabian Society of England. Milholland led two suffrage parades atop a white horse, one in Washington and one in New York. 

Milholland helped spread the word about women’s suffrage in the West. She was aware of her medical condition (pernicious anemia) and had been warned by her physician about touring, but went on her speech tour regardless. During a speech in Los Angeles on October 19, 1916, she collapsed and passed away ten weeks later on November 25. According to the Alice Paul Institute, “She was the first woman to be given a memorial service in the U.S. Capitol, a Christmas Day service attended by 10,000 or more mourners.” 

One of the biggest results of Milholland’s death was the NWP’s change to a more direct strategy to catch attention of the President and Congress. Instead of lobbying, the suffragists decided to start protesting by picketing the White House.

After her death, Milholland’s image became the logo of the NWP and she became the symbol of women’s suffrage. 

Milholland’s character was portrayed accurately, although some events were condensed for the sake of time and flow of the film. There wasn’t much information about how Milholland and Paul became acquainted, but they both were involved in WSPU in England and probably met through their various suffrage promotions. The only noticeable inconsistency was that in the film during the suffrage parade in 1913, Milholland wore wings atop her white horse, while realistically the wings never existed. Inez Milholland was played by Julia Ormond in the film.


Ruza Wenclawska (aka Rose Winslow)

Winslow was born in Poland and brought to the US as a baby. She started working when she was 11, and spent time working in factories, textile mills, and shops. Winslow participated in White House picketing and was imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse. In 1917, she was the first to join Alice Paul in a hunger strike.

At the beginning of the film when Winslow is first recruited, Alice Paul brings up a factory fire that killed 146 workers "a month ago." The movie starts in September of 1912, however the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire she must be referring to took place in March of 1911. Paul wins Winslow over by explaining that “a vote is a fire escape.” By gaining the power to vote, these factory workers could make fire escapes mandatory by law.

Winslow’s character is underplayed in the film and it neglects to mention her differences with Alice Paul. Winslow wanted to reach out and assist male miners and factory workers in addition to women; however, Paul’s focus was primarily on suffrage for only white women. 

An inconsistency of the time period was some of the language used by Rose Winslow. In the film, during a speech by Lucy Burns, Winslow yells, “Screw the politicians!” to which Burns replies “Go ahead if you think it’ll help.” According to, the word “screw,” “meaning ‘an act of copulation,’ is recorded from 1929,” meaning that women in 1912 probably wouldn’t have used the word “screw” in that context. It’s possible it could’ve been used, but the first time it was in print was in 1929. In the film, Ruza Wenclawska is played by Vera Farmiga.


Carrie Chapman Catt

Carrie Chapman Catt became the head of field organization for NAWSA in 1895 and 1900. She was a founder and president of the International Woman Suffrage Association from 1904-1923. She promoted supporting the Democratic Party and President Wilson in an effort to become allies in order to achieve suffrage. She also focused on lobbying individual states rather than hoping for a national amendment.

Catt's role was crucial to the passage of the 19th Amendment. If it wasn't for her focus on recruiting the individual states, the Amendment never would have passed. Her character was majorly underplayed in the film and she was also portrayed as an antagonist to an extent. In the film, Carrie Chapman Catt was played by Anjelica Huston.