Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Evening at the Theatre

It wasn't a play at all. I knew I would like it, but I went expecting a play about two 19th century Feminists battling through their letters. What I saw wasn't a play, but a very stimulating presentation by the directors of the Susan B. Anthony House and the Matilda Joslyn Gage House--each reading letters from the two women. Ironically, Sally Roesch Wagner (Executive Director of the Gage Center) read the letters of Anthony, and Deborah Hughes, President and CEO of the Anthony house, read letters by Gage.

That sounds a bit confusing. I think the producers of Brimstone, Booze, and the Ballot took on a bit too much, but by the end a fairly clear picture of the important figures in women's history emerged, and the audience (if I am typical) came away fired up and eager to learn more of the facts obscured by time and deliberate fog machines.

Both performers are eminently qualified to play either role. They are immersed in the study of the women's movement of the 1800's, of which far too little is known today. I felt a little stupid when I heard of Matilda Joslyn Gage for the first time, but I needn't have. Her name has been erased from history except for a few who, for various reasons, choose to seek it out. With Susan B. Anthony, Gage was one of the founders of the suffragist movement. She broke with the group the introduction of religion into the mix. She was firmly committed to getting the vote for women, but would not bend to the forces approaching churches to get involved. Anthony thought it worth the gamble--enough women voting could cancel out the zealots on any topics with zealots on the other side.

Mention was made in the presentation last night of the fly in this particular ointment at that particular time--Frances Willard, founder of the ever-so-passionate WCTU, a women's temperance group that also was working to obtain the vote for women. It seemed to me that, by introducing a religious aspect into the fray, Willard was the cause of rift between Anthony and Gage. Far from a bit player in the drama, she comes over as a powerful force, ultimately very useful in winning that vote, but bringing along with her the Volstead Act and doing a lot of damage to the nation in the name of change. Collateral damage was the loss to the movement of the voice of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a truly brilliant star who should have shone brightly through time, but instead is hardly a footnote in the struggle.

The q-and-a session was far too brief, as I wanted to bring up some questions about Willard's role. One questioner very aggressively made the point that in those early organizational meetings--behind closed doors and unknown to Gage--she was removed from the process unfairly. Wagner and Hughes conceded that that was the way Gage saw it, but their presentation was not about the politics of the organization but rather about the competing philosophies.

The discussion revealed that there is much more to study about the time and its outcomes. And, to me, the role of Frances Willard is every bit as compelling and consequential as the others of that time.

And they all have wonderful stories. It was an inspiring night!