New film features suffragist with Island ties

Blanche Ames Ames was a remarkable woman by any stretch of the imagination, and you will be muttering a lot of “Wow, I didn’t know that” throughout Kevin Friend’s thoroughly engrossing documentary “Borderland: The Life and Times of Blanche Ames Ames.” This 55-minute film, available soon for streaming, chronicles the life of a woman who was born in the 19th century, worked to change the 20th century, and whose wisdom still very much resonates with us today. The Chilmark library will host a screening and talk about the film on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 5 pm.

Ames (1878–1969) was, among many things, a birth control maverick and a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Massachusetts, and even in her young undergraduate years delivered a speech to President McKinley as president of her class at Smith College.

Interestingly, Ames, who came from a family of privilege, was not afraid to take on society’s elite nor the Catholic Church, or even her in-laws, while advocating for women’s rights. With her partner, husband Oakes Ames, who was equally dedicated to women’s rights, the couple wrote, illustrated, rallied, and organized, all while raising four children at their home called Borderland, now a Massachusetts state park in North Easton, which includes a massive mansion that she designed herself.

Ames’ Massachusetts connection is in fact partially responsible for how the documentary came to the Island. Tracy Thorpe, programs coordinator at the Chilmark library, explains, “I wanted something to commemorate getting the vote, and I had been looking for a program to honor the suffragists. I wanted something people here in Massachusetts could relate to and find interesting. She was a leader of the suffragists in Massachusetts, drew politically inflaming cartoons, attracted scandal as the governor’s daughter, and was arrested in Boston for publicly demonstrating the use of condoms. I noticed that the Forbes library in Northampton was showing this film, so I contacted the director, Kevin Friend. Then Kevin told me Blanche’s granddaughter lives here, so it seemed perfect.”

Friend shared with the Times his experience with making the project: “It was interesting and addictive. Blanche was a woman of so many talents. At first it seemed her mark was that of an artist, and particularly as an orchid illustrator for the books and journals of her husband Oakes, Harvard professor and accomplished botanist. Soon after, we visited her archives at Smith College, and it was there that we stumbled upon letters, illustrations, and photos that really shed light on her activism and radical (for a woman of privilege) support of women’s right to vote and women’s health issues. It was a great eye-opener for me, looking back into history and discovering so much more about a person, well beyond what I imagined. The more I learned about Blanche, the more I was hooked on the idea of creating her story … which remarkably had never really been told.

“What surprised me the most was the perception of this woman as an artist was really just a small part of someone much bigger. She combined her many talents and attributes and used her privilege to go way out on a limb for so many important causes, the right to vote, the right to control one’s own body, even the right to die.”

Watching this documentary couldn’t be more pertinent to the current political climate. Friend said he admired Ames’ persuasive style, and said she had found a way to educate people without being condescending. “That said, everything she fought for, women’s rights in particular, seems to be in the balance these days, and that is hard to imagine,” Friend said. “As many people said during the film, ‘Blanche would be rolling in her grave,’ and sadly I think that may be the case.”

Friend, along with Blanche’s granddaughter, Joanie Ames, who lives on the Island full-time, will speak and answer questions after the viewing. “Well, with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I think there will be plenty to talk about, how some of the many causes that Blanche fought for are still up for grabs,” Friend said.

For a sneak preview of the documentary, go to borderlandthedocumentary.com. To register for the Zoom link for the showing and discussion afterward on Oct. 8 at 5 pm, contact Tracy Thorpe at tthorpe@clamsnet.org.