With a Powerhouse All-Women Cast, ‘Suffs’ Explores Activists Who Made Women’s Voting Rights Happen

How little the general public has absorbed about the suffrage movement and its myriad players is not an accident.

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The company of Suffs, a world premiere musical, with book, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, music direction and music supervision by Andrea Grody, choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and direction by Leigh Silverman at The Public Theater. (Photo by Jenny Anderson) (Hair and makeup by Shanaya Hewitt, Katie LaMark, Shyanna Lundi, Kat Nejat-Thompson, Amanda Thesen, Gianna Yanelli)

Live theater has returned and among the blockbusters launching this season is Suffs, which opens on April 6 at the venerable Public Theater in New York City.

Full disclosure: As a writer of all things feminist policy and politics, I’m not a theater reviewer. But I have to report that after experiencing Suffs (still in previews), it is a modern marvel of a musical. With its impeccable period costumes and powerhouse all-female cast, Suffs explores the women who drove the 19th Amendment across the finish line a century ago—and whose tactics and strategies continue to shape the fight for social and political equality.

Unlike the limited lessons of women’s suffrage many learn—Seneca Falls and Susan B. Anthony—Suffs digs deep into the gamesmanship wielded by the movement’s early 20th century leaders. Among those are Carrie Chapman Catt, stalwart of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who favored winning the vote state-by-state while wielding elite, inside influence to push for a federal amendment; Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, next-gen radicals of the day, whose National Women’s Party crafted the playbook for civil disobedience; and Chicago journalist Ida B. Wells and activist Mary Church Terrell whose call out of the unique plight of Black women framed the fight for universal suffrage.

Perhaps the movement’s most under-sold and under-told story is that of Inez Milholland—who stunned onlookers as she led the Women’s Suffrage Procession of 1913, riding a white horse down Pennsylvania Avenue while donning a flowing cloak and starred crown. A recent NYU law graduate, she had a wild side as a feminist labor activist and pursuer of passion and romance. And at age 30, during a public speech on the campaign trail, she collapsed suddenly and died. Her final words were shouted to a crowd: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Truly, the stuff of comic book heroes. (It has been said she was an inspiration for Wonder Woman.)

She’s a focal point of Suffs, portrayed by Phillipa Soo with glorious heart and humor. It turns out this particular story was novel to Soo, as well—who lovingly refers to Inez Milholland as a “new woman of the era.” Soo shared that she first learned of her legacy upon reading the script; my own experience is similar. (For me it was in 2016, when my Brennan Center for Justice colleague Michael Waldman wrote about her in his historical account of voting rights in America, The Fight to Vote; at the time, we and our colleagues were so taken by her story and shared connection to NYU Law, the Center went on to dedicate the Inez Milholland Endowment for Democracy.)  

Perhaps the suffrage movement’s most under-sold and under-told story is that of Inez Milholland—whose final words were shouted to a crowd: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Truly, the stuff of comic book heroes.

How little the general public has absorbed about this movement and its myriad players is not an accident, suggests Lucy Beard, director of the Alice Paul Institute, in a 2020 interview. Activists like Alice Paul and Inez Milholland, as well as many of the others portrayed in Suffs—Doris Stevens, Ruza Wenclawska, and Dudley Malone, hardly household names—“represented the radical part of the suffrage movement,” said Beard, “[and] history generally gets written by the moderates.”

Suffs may be just the medium to change that. And a bonus, it also manages to impart a dose of pragmatic wisdom for today’s activists: that radical and moderate strategies need not forever be locked in conflict but rather can be combined to force-multiply and win seismic change. 

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Hannah Cruz, Nikki M. James, Jenn Colella, Shaina Taub, Phillipa Soo, Nadia Dandashi, Ally Bonino and Cassondra James from the company of Suffs, a world premiere musical, with book, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, music direction and music supervision by Andrea Grody, choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and direction by Leigh Silverman at The Public Theater. (Photo by Jenny Anderson) (Hair and makeup by Shanaya Hewitt, Katie LaMark, Shyanna Lundi, Kat Nejat-Thompson, Amanda Thesen, Gianna Yanelli)

To be sure, there’s no shortage of conflict displayed in Suffs: generational, racial, class, political. This historical reality is handled deftly—whether it be the stubborn, singular determination of Alice Paul; the pious exclusive perch of Carrie Chapman Catt; the poignant interactions among Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and her daughter Phyllis about the sacrifice and demands of Black women in the fight; and the myriad men, all wickedly played by women, including President Woodrow Wilson, whose political gains were tied to the movement.

As for the men: Jenna Bainbridge portrays Harry Burn, the 24-year-old Tennessee state representative who ultimately cast the deciding vote for ratification. Though Burn was expected to vote no on women’s suffrage, he changed his mind at the least minute upon receiving a pleading letter from his mother, who wrote him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the rat in ratification.”

Bainbridge discussed that climactic scene, how she came to see the power in all the synergies leading to the not-so-inevitable outcome, and the inspiration she continues to draw from Alice Paul’s creative commitment to non-violent protest. Bainbridge reminds us that at the time these tactics were thoroughly “new and untried”—the vigils of the Silent Sentinels, their brazen protest banners and prolonged hunger strikes—and how much the suffragist movement is reflected in modern day organizing for democracy and justice in America and around the globe.

By the conclusion of Suffs, an elderly Alice Paul (still going strong in the early 1970s, fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, 50 years after drafting it) grapples with the tenets of second-wave feminism, the next generational divide. And a determined finale, angry and joyous at once, picks up in the tumultuous here and now. The fight has not been won. We have not fully succeeded. We march on.  

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Jenna Bainbridge, Aurelia Williams, Grace McLean, Phillipa Soo, Nadia Dandashi, and Liz Pearce from the company of Suffs, a world premiere musical, with book, music, and lyrics by Shaina Taub, music direction and music supervision by Andrea Grody, choreography by Raja Feather Kelly, and direction by Leigh Silverman at The Public Theater. (Photo by Jenny Anderson) (Hair and makeup by Shanaya Hewitt, Katie LaMark, Shyanna Lundi, Kat Nejat-Thompson, Amanda Thesen, Gianna Yanelli)

It is hard not to draw parallels to another historical musical that debuted at the Public—the phenomenon known as Hamilton. Soo, of course, starred in that show as another under-acknowledged woman, Eliza Hamilton, who quietly made her imprint on American life. She said she hopes both Eliza and Inez both will be forever known and heralded for their willpower. Lin-Manuel Miranda himself tweeted this week that Suffs is “gobsmackingly incredible” and its writer and star, Shaina Taub as Alice Paul, is “the FUTURE.” I couldn’t agree more.

And a quick postscript: Beyond having the sheer pleasure of talking with Soo and Bainbridge about their roles and the show, we also talked about their own commitment to activism and advocacy. Soo stepped out on menstrual equity and access (see this excellent video!). Bainbridge, a wheelchair user, is a powerful voice for disability representation and accessibility in the arts. Brava to them both.

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About

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is the executive director of Ms. partnerships and strategy. A lawyer, fierce advocate and frequent writer on issues of gender, feminism and politics in America, Weiss-Wolf has been dubbed the “architect of the U.S. campaign to squash the tampon tax” by Newsweek. She is the author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, which was lauded by Gloria Steinem as “the beginning of liberation for us all,” and is a contributor to Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth. She is also the women and democracy fellow at the Brennan Center. Find her on Twitter: @jweisswolf.