Michelle Ferrari received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in American history, and yet, she says, she knew “next to nothing” about women’s suffrage when she entered talks to write, direct and produce a documentary on the 19th amendment for PBS’s American Experience.
“Given my background in history, I knew I couldn’t be alone” in not knowing the story behind the amendment granting women the right to vote, she says. “The story is usually condensed to a paragraph in a history book that starts in Seneca Falls and ends with women being given the right to vote. What’s obscured is an incredibly complex and dramatic story that spans 72 years. A lot of it came as a surprise to me as I researched.”
The Vote, the project that emerged from Ferrari’s deep-dive into women’s suffrage history, airs in two parts, starting tonight on PBS and wrapping up Tuesday night.
The documentary fights the notion that women were “given” the right to vote—they battled for it, using militant tactics that Ferrari says they receive little credit for today.
“American women were the first Americans to picket the White House. Women fighting for the vote were jailed and force fed and really introduced a lot of the forms of civil disobedience that continue to be used today,” she says.
The project was also a welcome balm for Ferrari personally. “I was also excited because I would say I had a pretty callous, cynical view of electoral politics following the 2016 election,” she says. “The idea of telling a story about not one, not two, but three generations of American women who had such faith in the power of participatory democracy—and many of whom dedicated their lives to being able to participate in it—was kind of a cheering prospect for me.”
Part one explores these tactics, some of them sourced from the British suffragette movement of the early 20th century. Part two focuses on the disputes over strategy that led to two factions fighting for the vote, one a more moderate group working within the system and the other, led by Alice Paul, embracing more controversial and confrontational methods.
“I would really hope that viewers come away with a kind of enhanced understanding of the dynamics of social change and the way social movements work,” Ferrari says. “In general, they take a long time. It’s a slow, painstaking process, and what matters most is commitment and endurance—you just have to stick with it.”