When I was down in Nashville 20 years ago covering the local scene for American Theatre magazine, I came across a surprising monument: a plaque near the Tennessee statehouse commemorating the fact that Tennessee was the crucial state to ratify the 19th amendment making it part of the US Constitution. Surprising, yes? This is after all the state of the Scopes Monkey Trial, so its surprising that they passed it, and perhaps also that they were ever proud of it. But think about it. Is women’s suffrage a progressive cause? Ought it to be? A right to vote for HALF of the population??? Apparently it was and is, and nowadays we can take nothing for granted. It took so bloody long to achieve even that milestone. The Seneca Falls Convention was in 1848! Full rights for women has moved glacially, so much so that, that the origins of the movement, with all its unrealized objectives, is nearly 200 years old. It is older than 20 American states. How can it be radical?
My grandmother Ruth Cady was a distant cousin of early feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and today happens to be the birthday of Nellie Bly, whom I wrote about here — both important suffragettes and both characters in Toby Armour’s new play Aunt Susan and her Tennessee Waltz which chronicles that crucial moment in Tennessee in 1920, just over a century ago. “Aunt Susan” is obviously Susan B. Anthony. It’s at Theater for the New City through May 15. I’ll be seeing tonight; I’ll let you know how I liked it!
On Tuesday I learned that another show on a related topic is on the boards at the moment as well: Shaina Taub’s musical Suffs, directed by Leigh Silverman, at the Public Theatre, just a few blocks from TNC. (This one unfortunately is already sold out) Why did I learn about that show on Tuesday? Members of the cast performed at the rally at Foley Square to protest the leaked news that the Supreme Court of the United States intends to overturn Roe v. Wade in an upcoming session in June. If the right to vote was a struggle, the right of women to preside over their own bodies has been easily as divisive. As it happens, women have enjoyed that right (with increasing restrictions, depending on geography) for roughly half the time they have been able to vote, just about 50 years. Which means that all of the women to whom this right has any current application have lived under that decision’s imperfect and fragile protection their entire lives. But the struggle never ceased — I first attended a march about the issue in Washington DC almost 30 years ago. At Foley Square the other night, amongst the thousands of young people, I also saw numerous older women, women who clearly were agitating for this right when I (not a young man now) was in diapers. 70% of the public approve of women’s right to have an abortion, yet somehow in this supposed democracy, making it the law of the land has been like trying to move the ocean with a nutshell. This right needs to be the law of the land, codified, so that it can never be taken away again — along with many others that the Medieval theocrats and unprincipled demagogues of the right can’t dismantle all that progressives have been working for, for most of this country’s history. They really do seem to want to turn back the clock 500 years. One wonders if Tennessee would vote for women’s suffrage today! There are ways in which this might as well still be 1920, or even 1820.