Forgotten Heroes and Incomplete Victories

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, left, and Susan B. Anthony, c. 1900

Nancy Pelosi isn’t the only one who’s been visited by the suffragists. In fact, they came to see me first. While I was writing a paper late one night, they appeared in my dining room. Tell our story. Don’t just do an academic exercise, they insisted.That’s not what the professor assigned,” I argued, rubbing my eyes. But they would not be denied. Night after night, as I tried to write my paper, the suffragists demanded, Tell OUR story!

And so I did. I wrote a play about an imaginary reunion of four founders of the suffragist movement. In my script, they comment on the current political landscape using their own words from the 1800s. Sadly, their perspectives and warnings seem timeless.

My play has been performed five times over nearly 20 years, updated each time to include the latest assault on women’s rights. The script keeps getting longer. And after each sold-out performance, I’m flooded with confessions from the audience that they know very little about our foremothers.

The audience doesn’t know the story because history books don’t elaborate on these crusaders who were shouted down, ridiculed, spat upon, kicked, shoved, jailed, force-fed and even killed. All because they wanted to vote, a right we now take for granted—a dangerous apathy since the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act. We must tell the story of these forgotten heroes who put their lives on the line just to participate in the democratic process. Because it is our story.

And there’s not just one story to be told; the suffrage leaders were all very different, yet came together for a common cause. Susan B. Anthony refused several offers of marriage, declaring that she never wanted to be “a man’s housekeeper.” She taught school, earning four times less than her male colleagues. Her family was Quaker so did not vote, yet suffrage became her lifelong passion.

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Lucretia Mott, painting by Joseph Kyle, 1842

Her closest friend and collaborator, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had seven children. She deleted the word “obey” from her marriage vows and refused to be called Mrs. Henry Stanton, saying women deserve names of their own. Her father disowned her for advocating for suffrage; she persisted. Stanton credited Lucretia Mott with teaching her that she had the right to think for herself, to be guided by her own convictions. Mott, called “a brazen infidel,” was a fascinating combination of serene and radical. She was a Quaker minister, yet was not allowed to speak because of her gender when she traveled to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. She then co-authored the Declaration of Sentiments with Stanton, the first salvo for women’s equality in this country.

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Sojourner Truth, c. 1870

Sojourner Truth is the fourth woman brought back to life in my play although, in reality, white suffragists were not inclusive of black women. Truth was a slave who saw most of her 13 children sold into slavery. Freed at the age of 46, she traveled the country preaching for the liberation of her people. Yet the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870, granting black men the right to vote first, troubled her: “… If colored men get their rights, and not colored women, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. …” She became a strong advocate for women’s suffrage, as was abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Lucy Stone, who re-wrote her marriage vows in 1855 to protest the civil laws that gave the husband custody of the wife, was the first woman known to have kept her birth name after marriage. But Stanton did not invite her to this theatrical reunion because they disagreed over their primary mission. Stone stuck to voting rights, but Stanton held out for total equality, even writing The Woman’s Bible in 1895. Stanton believed, “… The battle is not wholly fought until we stand equal in the church, the world of work, and have an equal code of morals for both sexes.” She understood that the feminist whole is greater than its parts.

In my re-enactment, Mott counsels women’s groups to be inclusive, keeping our eyes on the prize. Yet Truth expresses concern that some women in politics today do not embrace the feminist message that all people are created equal, and that the law must uphold such equality.

What troubles me even more than the fact that the audience often doesn’t know the story of these women is that most viewers have seemingly not thought about our lack of progress since that time. Almost 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, the suffragists in the play are shocked to learn that less than 20 percent of Congressional seats are held by women, only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups. Theirs was an incomplete victory, they realize with great disappointment.

256px-LucyStone-sigWhen commenting on which political party is more supportive of women’s rights, the suffragist characters make it clear that women’s suffrage was closely aligned with the Republican Party (Democrat Woodrow Wilson was not a fan), but they felt abandoned by that party once abolition was achieved. As they broke away, Stanton stated, “So far from giving us a helping hand, Republicans and Abolitionists, by their false philosophy—that the safety of the nation demands ignorance rather than education at the polls—have paralyzed the women themselves.” The suffrage newspaper The Revolution concluded, “The party out of power is always in a position to carry principles to their logical conclusions, while the party in power thinks only of what it can afford to do.” Perhaps that is the crux of our incomplete victories as feminists today.

My play is titled The Stone that Started the Ripple [PDF], drawn from one of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s last speeches: 

Our successors have a big work before them—much bigger, in fact, than they imagine. We were only the stone that started the ripple, but you are the ripple that is spreading and will eventually cover the whole pond.

Echoing her impassioned speech from 1870, Susan B. Anthony declares in the play,

I do pray … for some terrific shock to startle the women of this nation into a self‑respect which will compel them to see the abject degradation of their present position … which will make them proclaim their allegiance to women first. …Oh, to give them the courage and conscience to speak and act for their own freedom, though they face the scorn and contempt of all the world for doing it!

That “terrific shock” has come: Dwindling access to health care and contraception. Transvaginal ultrasounds. Gender slurs by media personalities and politicians. “Legitimate” rape. Pay inequity. Human trafficking. In short, a surge in the War on Women.  It’s long-past time to be startled.

None of these suffragists lived to legally cast a ballot. On her deathbed, Susan B. Anthony told a New York Times reporter, “To think I have had more than 60 years of hard struggle for a little liberty, and then to die without it seems so cruel.”

She died 108 years ago today, on March 13. Let’s recommit to changing the narrative so that our descendants will not have to tell yet another story of forgotten heroes and incomplete victories.

All images from Wikimedia Commons

Nugent

 

In addition to her play about the early suffragists, The Stone that Started the Ripple, Patricia A. Nugent is also the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of vignettes portraying the stages of caring for and saying goodbye to a loved one. 

Comments

  1. An enlightening and inspiring reminder of the women’s stories forgotten by history, an eloquent call to action to carry on the struggle for equality. Thank you, Pat Nugent – for this and for your wonderful play, changing lives each time it’s staged.

    • Nooooo…………. it should be called something like “Ripples of a Stone” or “Rippling Stone” …. audiences don’t want too much detail in a title – but they need to be Pulled IN.

      Rethink that.

      Sounds like a wonderful story. I wish you the best.

      Mary Ann Ivan
      Broadway Musician

      • Thanks, Mary Ann – I tried to be true to the actual words of the suffragists, and this title came from a speech by ECS, in which she encourages us all to carry on. There is some original music by Bob Warren that opens the performance, but there are no plans at this time to transition it into a musical. Best of luck in your musical endeavors! -PN

  2. Tamalyn Kralman says:

    Thank you for this. I wish everyone could know and appreciate these women for the phenomenal human beings they were and the work they did. Thank you for reminding us to tell their stories.

  3. Eleanor Cady Busby says:

    How do I get a copy of this scripts and rights? I am the proud Great Grand Niece of Elizabeth Cady and have been an activist all my life and a theater director. Please let me know as soon as possible.
    Ellie

  4. Thank you for writing this important reminder. I would love to see your play.

  5. Thank you Patricia- both for writing this play and posting this blog. Did you even imagine when you wrote the play a few years back that Anthony’s quote would be more relevant than ever? How much more do women need to be startled?

  6. You’re a woman after my own heart. I must say, though, the erasure isn’t quite as severe as you say–there are actually many books and plays about these foremothers of ours and enacters who portray them and…I for one am working on the story of the NY votes for women win, which has a Centennial in 2017 (a book, a celebration)–and my “discovery” is the shift from these 19th century heroes to a huge grassroots movement in the 20th century, including Jewish and black women left out of the official “history”….anybody who wants to know more on this, get in touch and look for VotesForWomenNY on Facebook. It’s all very much alive!

  7. Thank you for this article to both Ms. and to Ms. Nugent. I would love to see your play. Is there anyway to get on an alert list? What a beautiful reminder of these powerful women. Thank you.

  8. Betty L. Sarafin says:

    OMGoddess: What a wonderful and most needed endeavor. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am so excited about it. I want to see the play and want it to be brought to Berea College to be performed. BC has a woman and gender studies and the Director is Peggy Rivage-Soul. If she does
    not know about this, I’m sure she would be very, very, interested. I can’t wait to talk with my NOW sisters and see who’s interested in bring it to our neck of the woods for performance. Can’t wait!

  9. I would love to see and/or read your play! Is it available to the public at this time?
    Phenomenal work! Thank you SO much for all you are doing!

  10. I would love to see your play, Ms. Nugent. Moreover, I would love for the feminist movement to start demanding that the mainstream and progressive media give the early feminists the recognition they so richly deserve. The feminist movement deserves as much respect as the civil rights and environmental movements and it is a disgrace that the great suffragists are ignored by the media on Women’s Equality Day, Int’l Women’s Day and Seneca Falls Day.

    • Thank you to all who commented on this article and inquired about my play, The Stone that Started the Ripple. I’m not privy to your email addresses, so I cannot respond individually. To contact me directly, please visit my website at http://www.journalartspress.com and click on the Suffragist Play tab to leave your contact information. I look forward to considering future collaborations with you! Thanks again.
      – Patricia A. Nugent

  11. petrujviljoen says:

    I’ve been informed and inspired.

  12. If you need original music for your play’s transitions or anything like that please get in touch with me. I’m a composer in NYC and would be most happy to help. I can send you a resume and sound samples. I have some music posted at http://www.soundcloud.com/maryannivan
    Keep up the wonderful work !
    Mary Ann :-)
    ivanmaryann@gmail.com

  13. My friend Pat’s play works on so many levels. In looking back, it helps us move forward with stronger footing. If anyone would like to hear the song that opens the play, go to http://www.onlythemessagemattered.com/music.html. The album of songs about Susan B. Anthony is available through the site as well.

  14. I read about these women and others in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and then the Women’s Movement and then the Feminist Movement. I would love to see this play. These women have been an inspiration to me most of my life.

    I’ve been a feminist since I was 8 years old and realized that boys could wear jeans to school but I had to wear a dress.

  15. Sally Gill says:

    It’s good to see so much positive response to Pat’s article and her play “The Stone that Started the Ripple.” I’ve known Pat for many years, and her commitment to justice and equality – in addition to her skill as a writer – has always amazed and inspired me. Thank you, Pat, for reminding us about things that matter.

  16. I am so glad I found this article; I had missed it until today, and it tells me I’m on the right track. I am working on a dramatization of the 19th century Woman’s Rights Movement, which is a screenplay rather than one for stage, done in several episodes. The screenplay draft for Episode One was sent out for copyright registration just this week, and I’m working on Episode Two.

    The story of the Woman’s Rights Movement is an essential one for all of us, and there is certainly room for it to be told in as many media outlets as are available. I hope for my work to be produced one day.

    • Best of luck with this project, Susan. I agree that the story needs to be told many times and in many different ways until we realize that the month of March does not suffice for commemorating women’s history.

  17. Kaleigh C. says:

    I absolutely loved working on this play! (I was lucky enough to portray Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the January production in Saratoga, NY). The fact that it uses the exact words the suffragists said makes it even more powerful. Although I am busy finishing my B.A. in Theatre, searching for internships, etc., I hope to work again on this wonderful show. It has been more than two months since the performance, but I still remember my favorite line: “Confer on me the glory of white manhood so that henceforth I shall enjoy the most unlimited freedom.” Well said, Elizabeth Cady Stanton! Thank you Pat for sharing the story of these women.

  18. Ginny R. says:

    I am sorry I was not able to see this play. You are carrying on the suffragette mission with your play and articles. I commend your passion and the steps you take to keep this mission moving forward.

  19. Thanks for your encouragement, Patricia, and I would love to see your play one day as well. :)

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