In the Moment: Looking Forward to ‘A Night of Suffrage Theater’ at Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

It has been 100 years since suffrage pickets began in front of the White House for women to have the legal ability to vote in the United States. Over 70 of the suffrage picketers were arrested and imprisoned under harsh conditions, including forced feedings, at what is now the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, VA.

Suffragettes protest outside the White House. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Suffragettes protest outside the White House. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The work of the suffrage pickets led not only to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 26, 1920. Their work led to recent election results with a record number of women, about 125, who will serve in the U.S. Congress in January 2019. This is an increase from the 107 women serving in the current U.S. Congress.

The suffrage movement leaders have always fascinated local playwright Ann Timmons. Her fascination led Timmons to examine the difficult journey to ratification of voting rights for women brought about in the 19th Amendment and then pen a new play, It’s My Party! A reading from It’s My Party! is part of the upcoming A Night of Suffrage Theater at The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, DC. The evening will explore the dramatic, uplifting, and under-told stories of the battle for the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote.

“I hope audiences will see the connections between what the suffragists did to win the vote and what women and minorities are doing today to win seats at the table. This story shows different tools these women used as they spoke truth to power and accomplished an important goal,” said Timmons.

According to Timmons, It’s My Party! explores “what happens when two different factions ignite political change using wildly different tactics. This play revolves around competing strategies, daring stunts, and bitter rivalries that propelled the suffragists’ fight for the 19th Amendment.” There was a fierce battle for leadership of the American suffragist movement between the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (the larger, more mainstream group led by Carrie Chapman Catt) as well as members of the National Woman’s Party (the “radical” wing headed by Alice Paul), in a country already divided on whether or not to enter the Great War, noted Timmons.

“Using modern vernacular and protest chants for some—but not all—characters, the play’s language highlights the generational and philosophical split between the two major factions,” said Timmons. “This story shows different tools these women used as they spoke truth to power and accomplished an important goal. I would love to see the stories of these heroic women inspire new audiences to keep fighting the good fight!

“These women managed to keep their ‘eyes on the prize’ and not get distracted by forces (internal as well as external) trying to pit them against each other to neutralize their argument,” she added.

Catherine Tripp is directing the reading of excerpts from the full It’s My Party! “It is important for us to remember how hard women fought for the vote,” said Tripp. “We need to remember the strength of these women heroes, to bolster our own strength as we fight for equality for all women. These women were harassed, jailed and beaten so that women could have a voice.”

Diane Cooper-Gould will read the role of Alice Paul. “History and popular culture have long ignored, silenced and devalued the voices and contributions of women and minorities,” Cooper-Gould said. “It is thrilling to perform the role of Alice Paul, one of the most influential people of modern American history. She was a woman whose name is known, but whose story is seldom told. As a citizen of the world, and as an artist, I crave the experience of bearing witness to and giving a voice to the experiences of those of us who have largely been erased from the narrative.”

Marni Penning will portray Lucy Burns, a women’s rights advocate, close friend of Alice Paul and co-founder of the National Woman’s Party. “What we’re going through right now is so similar to our foremothers’ fight, but now we actually have the vote,” notes Penning. “We need to learn how to work together – the conservative women and the liberal women – to make life better for all of us. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were the Women’s March-ers of their day. They went through so much pain and disappointment to get us where we are today – we need to learn from their stories the art of resilience and playing the long game.”

Ann Timmons. Photo courtesy of Ann Timmons.
Ann Timmons. Photo courtesy of Ann Timmons.

Playwright Ann Timmons ended our conversation with this: “The Suffragists went for and got something done few others expected.” Now audiences will have the opportunity to hear and learn some of what they went through so that there is a 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

A Night of Suffrage Theater plays November 27, 2018, at Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, 144 Constitution Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002. This program is free and open to all. Registration is encouraged but not required.

Note: A Night of Suffrage Theater will feature not only scenes from the play It’s My Party! by Ann Timmons but aspects of the musical 19 by Doug Bradshaw and Jennifer Schwed. A Q&A will follow the A Night of Suffrage Theater performances.