I just finished watching MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, and a few things about the Frank Capra-directed classic bother me. And I feel the need to vent about it. I hope you forgive me if my writing is a bit more stream of conscious today. What follows is a rough draft of thoughts I wanted to get down while the movie was still fresh in my mind:
First, the scene that threw me for a loop was the one where Jimmy Stewart gets schooled by Jean Arthur about the ways our government works. It’s hard to believe that even the most naive simpleton did not get some basic civics course in high school, or that he could not go to the local library and look up a few things when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. The fact of the matter is that Arthur’s character, a woman, knows more about the government and its processes than Stewart, a man. Clearly, she is ten times more qualified than him, yet he is the one who gets to be Senator? I know, I know, the goons (played by Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee and Claude Rains) want an idiot in the seat so they can manipulate him. But why doesn’t Arthur or the other women like her fight for the job themselves?
As if that is not enough, Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin keep hammering the point that Stewart can get a bill passed for a law that would benefit a boys scout-type group. This is repeated several times, and we even see a throng of clean cut all-American boys in the Senate chamber on the day that Stewart is trying to introduce the bill. They, of course, applaud him enthusiastically. Never mind the fact that there are no girls in attendance– they simply were overlooked or not invited. And why couldn’t Stewart introduce a bill that would benefit both boys and girls in America? There are long speeches where he talks about boys in nature, and how they need to know the way our government works. Again, aren’t girls allowed to know that, too?
The sexism of this movie becomes increasingly apparent when you realize that there are no women on the Senate floor. And none are seen even as extras in crowd scenes involving politicians. Surely Arthur’s character cannot be the only woman in the nation’s capital. The filmmakers give the impression that the boys club is running Washington while the female sex is back at home preparing dinner.
I looked up a list of female U.S. Senators on wiki (see the link below). The first woman senator was appointed to fill a vacancy just like Stewart’s character, back in– wait for it– 1922. Granted, she was only in office for 24 hours (presumably so they could find a man to take the job full-time), but by 1931 a woman from Arkansas named Hattie Caraway became the first fully elected lady senator, a position she held until 1945.
Ms. Caraway was not the only female elected to the Senate in the 1930s. The year Columbia Pictures made MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, there were three other women in the Senate. So that’s four women who should have been seen in the Senate chamber scenes of this film. But they are not there, not even on the sidelines or in the background.
Just for the heck of it, I looked up whether or not there were women in the House of Representatives at this time. And from 1917 to 1939, there were 23 congresswomen serving in that capacity. One woman was an elected member of the House from 1925 to 1960. So there is no reason for Capra and Riskin to make it seem like there are no females in the legislative branch of our government in 1939.
I am not saying this film necessarily had to be called MISS SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, but there is way too much gender bias in this film. And I don’t see the purpose of it, unless the goal is to show that women do not have any say in our way of life in America. Doesn’t that just seem wrong to you? I think it does.