Women have been able to vote in this country for less than 100 years. That’s something we’re all taught in school, whether or not we remember it, but it bears repeating. It’s been less than a century since half the adult population ceased to be automatically disqualified from voting on the basis of gender.
Oakland playwright Susan Sobeloff looks at the later years of the long fight for suffrage in her new play “Strange Ladies” that closes Central Works’ 2017 season at the Berkeley City Club. The story takes place a hundred years ago in 1917, three years before the 19th Amendment was finally passed giving women the right to vote. It also features period music with musical direction by Milissa Carey, one of the actors in the piece.
“The seed of the play came actually from being approached by Custom Made,” Sobeloff says. “They were interested in a suffrage play about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. That was the first iteration of the play, and then I quickly realized I wanted to deal with a later time period, different set of conflicts.” A member of the Central Works Writers Workshop for the last five years, Sobeloff continued to develop the play there.
“The play focuses on six women who are really pushing that they want women voting,” she says, “They feel like if this doesn’t happen now, modernity will have passed, women won’t be part of the electorate, and it’s not going to happen. The country’s identity will be so shaped that it won’t be changeable. This is the third generation of women working to get the vote. They’re rebuffed by President Wilson, and they make the decision to picket the White House, which had never happened before.”
The U.S. entering World War I only escalates this conflict, and some of the women are imprisoned. “Each of these characters is faced with choices like do you picket a sitting president when the country’s at war?” Sobeloff says. “The women in prison were basically being tortured, and they decide to go on hunger strike. The prison was notorious, and the real superintendent of the prison did eventually get taken out because the place was so horrible and so abusive.”
The play also explores the fact that this movement, like most activist movements, was far from a united front but a lot of different groups and individuals with different concerns and divergent ideas about tactics, goals and priorities. “One of the main things that keeps coming up is the challenges of all these groups to work together,” Sobeloff says.
“The Woman’s Party is made up of women of all races, creeds and nationalities who are united on the one program… https://t.co/Ed7AitNeNh
— Central Works (@CentralWorks) October 11, 2017
The mood and seeming direction of this country has changed considerably in the time Sobeloff has been working on the play, but in ways that make it all the more important to know and really consider our history.
“It was so difficult to get the vote, so for those of us who are lucky enough to have it, we ought to be using it,” Sobeloff says. “And that struggle to get enfranchisement is not in any way over. When I think about the contemporary political moment, I think about the problems with voter registration and voter suppression, the problems with gerrymandering, the fact that when people have committed a felony, their ability to regain their right to vote is based totally on the states. People in Washington, D.C., do not have the full representation. People in Puerto Rico do not have full representation.”
With so much work left to do to move the country forward, at a time when it seems to be slipping backward, remembering the struggles that got us to where we are is instructive.
“These women were told constantly told no, to wait, to do things more quietly,” Sobeloff says. “And they said, we’re quite ladylike, but we still want to vote, and we’re going to do these peaceful things.”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Susan Sobeloff, presented by Central Works
When: Oct. 14-Nov. 12
Where: Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley
Tickets: $15-$30; 510-558-1381, www.centralworks.org
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