The film focuses on the American women's suffrage movement during the 1910s and follows women's suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns as they use peaceful and effective nonviolent strategies, tactics, and dialogues to revolutionize the American feminist movement to grant women the right to vote. The film was released in the United States on February 15, 2004.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns return from England where they met while participating in the Women's Social and Political Union started by radical suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and led by her daughter Christabel Pankhurst. The pair presents a plan to the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to push directly in Washington for women's rights to vote nationally. They see that their ideas were much too forceful for the established leaders, particularly Carrie Chapman Catt, but are allowed to lead the NAWSA Congressional Committee in DC. They start by organizing the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration.
While soliciting donations at an art gallery, Paul convinces labor lawyer Inez Milholland (Julia Ormond) to serve as a figurehead for the parade and meets a Washington newspaper political cartoonist, Ben Weissman (a fictional character, played by Patrick Dempsey), causing a romantic fire to start. In a fictional scene, Paul tries to explain to Ida B. Wells why she wants African American women to march in the back of the parade in order to not anger southern Democrats in the movement, but Wells refuses and joins a white group during the middle of the parade. (Wells did refuse to be segregated and marched with her state delegation but never met with Paul about it.) After disagreements over fundraising, Paul and Burns are pushed out of the NAWSA and found the National Woman's Party (NWP) to support their approach. Alice Paul briefly explores a romantic relationship with Ben Weissman.
Further conflicts within the movement are portrayed as NAWSA leaders criticize NWP tactics, such as protesting against Wilson and picketing outside the White House in the Silent Sentinels action. Relations between the American government and the NWP protesters also intensify, as many women are captured by the police their actions, charged with "obstructing traffic."
The arrested women are sent to the Occoquan Workhouse for 60-day terms. Despite abusive and terrorizing treatment, Paul and other women undertake a hunger strike, during which paid guards force-feed them milk and raw eggs. The suffragists are blocked from seeing visitors or lawyers, until U.S. Senator Tom Leighton visits his wife Emily, one of the imprisoned women. News of their treatment leaks to the media after she secretly passes a letter to him during the visit. Paul, Burns and the other women are released.
Further pressure is put on Wilson as the NAWSA joins in the NWP call for a nineteenth amendment to the Constitution. Finally, he accedes to the pressure, rather than be called out in the international press for fighting for democracy in Europe while denying its benefits to half of the U.S. population. During the amendment's ratification, Harry T. Burn, a member of the Tennessee legislature, receives a telegram from his mother at the last minute and changes his vote for the amendment to pass.
The film derives its title from Massachusetts Representative Joseph Walsh, who in 1917 opposed the creation of a committee to deal with women's suffrage. Walsh thought the creation of a committee would be yielding to "the nagging of iron-jawed angels" and referred to the Silent Sentinels as "bewildered, deluded creatures with short skirts and short hair."Hilary Swank as Alice Paul
Frances O'Connor as Lucy Burns
Molly Parker as Emily Leighton
Laura Fraser as Doris Stevens
Lois Smith as Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw
Vera Farmiga as Ruza Wenclawska
Brooke Smith as Mabel Vernon
Patrick Dempsey as Ben Weissman
Julia Ormond as Inez Milholland
Adilah Barnes as Ida Wells-Barnett
Anjelica Huston as Carrie Chapman Catt
Margo Martindale as Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch
Bob Gunton as Woodrow Wilson
Vinny Genna as Fiorello La Guardia
Joseph Adams as Senator Thomas "Tom" Leighton
Brett Boseman as Ben Weissman's child
Fictional characters in the film are Ben Weissman; his child; Emily Leighton; and Tom Leighton.
Film critic Richard Roeper gave the film a positive review, writing, "Iron Jawed Angels is an important history lesson told in a fresh, and blazing fashion." Scott Faundas of Variety gave the film a negative review, writing, "HBO's starry suffragette drama, Iron Jawed Angels, latches on to a worthy historical subject and then hopes noble intentions will be enough to carry the day. Alas, there's no such luck in this talky, melodramatic overview of the dawn of equal rights for women in America. Gussied up with a comically anachronistic use of period music on the soundtrack and flashy, MTV-style montage sequences, pic misguidedly strives – but ultimately fails – to belie its instincts as an assembly-line movie-of-the-week."
Robert Pardi of TV Guide gave a mixed review, "All the elements for a splendid film about the early days of the women's rights are in place, but director Katja von Garnier's use of distracting cinematic trickery and jarringly modern music meshes poorly with the period setting... Blessed with a flawless physical production, von Garnier distorts her epic tale with music that belongs on a Lilith Fair tour; it sometimes feels as though she and her writers conceived the fight for women's suffrage as a 1912 version of Sex and the City. Only when the anachronisms finally subside in the film's final third is the moving core is allowed to shine."
The film was nominated for five awards at 56th Primetime Emmy Awards, though none of which were won; three awards at the 62nd Golden Globe Awards, winning one; and two awards at the 9th Golden Satellite Awards, winning one. Anjelica Huston won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film and the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actress – Series, Miniseries or Television Film for her performance in the film.