Film documents long road to women’s suffrage, movement’s ties to Nevada City (VIDEO)
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the long battle to win the women’s right to vote, The Union is currently in the process of making a film, “Women’s Suffrage” — the fifth in the newspaper’s popular historic film series, “Golden Stories of Our Past.”
Featured prominently in the documentary are Aaron and Ellen Sargent, a Massachusetts-born couple who came west during the Gold Rush, eventually settling in a gold mining camp that was to become Nevada City.
While Aaron Sargent alone is credited with introducing the 29 words that would eventually become the first paragraph of the Women’s Suffrage Act, historical documents confirm that Aaron and his wife, Ellen, were clearly working steadfastly together to push this legislation forward. Close friends with Susan B. Anthony, Ellen founded Nevada City’s first women’s suffrage group in 1869 and became a leader in the suffrage movement on both state and national levels.
“Keep in mind that in the late 1800s, women didn’t become involved with the suffrage movement without the support of their husbands,” wrote Bill Sargent in an Aug. 17 piece for The Union commemorating his great-grandparents’ accomplishments. “Aaron and Ellen Sargent were a team, working together to get women the right to vote. Without Aaron’s willingness to introduce the resolution back in 1878 and his efforts to move that ball down the field it might never have happened and we might not be celebrating its anniversary today.”
With filmmaker Andrew Rolland behind the camera and in the editing room, “Women’s Suffrage” is co-produced by The Union’s advertising director Julia Stidham and event manager Deana Graydon. A fan of the award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Rolland said the feature-length film includes well over 100 historic images, an action sequence and interviews with Nevada County history experts and buffs. Production assistant Cole Petitt has been an invaluable and integral part of the process as well, said Rolland. In development prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many initial plans for the film had to be axed, he said, but he doesn’t feel that has detracted from the project.
“There are so many amazing stories I’ve learned about while making this film,” said Rolland. “So many colorful characters who played smaller parts in the bigger story.”
A year and a half ago, Linda Jack of the Nevada County Historical Society approached Stidham about promoting the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in 2020. Stidham instantly recognized women’s suffrage as the perfect subject for The Union’s next film in their “Golden Stories of Our Past” series. Impeccable records kept by the Historical Society helped to finalize the decision to go forward with the project.
“People need to really understand the value of our Historical Society,” said Stidham. “You can go in there and actually see letters written between Ellen and Aaron, as well as handwritten correspondence with Susan B. Anthony. I get goose bumps thinking about the resources and access to stories they have. I could spend days there.”
Real documents also provide a glimpse into the motivations behind these historic figures, which aren’t always commendable by today’s standards, added Stidham. For example, Aaron Sargent was a strong advocate of The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, now considered one of the most discriminatory acts ever passed on the national level. The federal legislation was designed to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality.
But few would argue that the ratification of the 19th Amendment was not a step forward in the realm of human rights. Some of today’s women leaders in Nevada County were only too happy to take part in the film as a way to acknowledge the struggles of the women before them who broke trail.
“I was honored to be asked to participate in The Union’s film on women’s suffrage,” said Lisa Swarthout. “As an elected official and one of only five women to serve as the mayor of the city of Grass Valley, I feel a strong connection to the women who fought so bravely for women to gain the right to vote.”
“In school, I learned the very basic, bare bones about women’s suffrage,” said Graydon. “With this film, I feel like I’m actually marching alongside these women and joining the rallies and feeling all of the excitement. In the film, the wonderful women in our community today paint such a vivid picture of what life was really like during the women’s suffrage movement.”
“I said ‘yes’ (to participating in the film) because history — and women’s history in particular — are at the core of my writing and a good deal of my life,” said Lynn Wenzel of Grass Valley. “Communities never seem to have a problem remembering and honoring the men in their history — less so the women. So, it is doubly important to recognize the important women who helped make Nevada County what it is today.”
Serving briefly as Nevada County’s district attorney, Aaron Sargent was elected to the California State Senate, then the United States Senate in 1873. In 1878, Sargent first introduced the language that would ultimately be ratified as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Suffrage was reintroduced to Congress annually for decades before American women finally won the right to vote. Sadly, Aaron and Ellen Sargent did not live to see it.
In reviewing some of the initial footage, Stidham said she was struck by historic similarities to certain human rights issues that still endure today.
“In watching this footage I felt every emotion,” she said. “When I heard what women’s lives were like I felt sadness, anger and disbelief that women — and anyone who’s not Caucasian — are still fighting familiar battles 100 years later.”
Yet the victories that were hard won should not be minimized, said Grass Valley author and historian Chris Enss.
“The role the women in the American West played in securing women’s right to vote is a big story that deserves to be told,” she said. “The fact that the authors of the 19th Amendment were Nevada County residents is a point of great pride and also deserves to be told.”
The initial “Women’s Suffrage” premiere planned for November has been postponed due to COVID-19. The event is tentatively planned for February 2021.
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at email@example.com or call 530-477-4203.
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