Silent Sentinel: Then & Now

We all know that history has a way of, if not exactly repeating itself, then certainly resonating.

The history: One of the most charged periods of the women's suffrage movement took place in 2017, 100 years ago. After decades of polite and not-so-polite protests, suffragists chose jail over compromise.

The resonance (besides the obvious): How will high school students respond to a play about this movement?

Signature in the Schools

For the past 22 years, Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, has conducted a program called Signature in the Schools. A playwright creates a short, topical play in which high school students perform--this year, Joe Calarco wrote the play, called Smile Lines. Through their English classes, students learn about the topic of the play and, more broadly, about live theater.

I have ushered at Signature for the past 5 years, usually on weekend nights escorting patrons to their assigned seats. Yesterday morning, I volunteered as school busses disgorged students from H.B. Woodlawn and Washington & Lee in Arlington and T.C. Williams (my sons' alma mater) in Alexandria. Kids in all shapes, sizes, colors, and degrees of sophistication filled the normally quiet theater lobby. Many thanked me as I pointed them into the theater. They listened respectfully and participated in a discussion after the performance. 

The Original Suffragists

Most of the play focused on the years 1913 to 1917 in Washington, with flashbacks to Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth in the 1800s and fast-forwards to the current day. By the mid-teens, suffrage pioneers Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were both dead. A new generation came in their stead, including Alice Paul, who had learned new, confrontational tactics from suffragettes in England. (The English used "suffragettes", the Americans, "suffragists.").

On the day of Wilson's inauguration in 1913, 5,000 women had protested in front of the White House--an unprecedented event. (Several smaller protests had occurred before this, but not this large. So that's how #resistance protests, including the Jan. 21, 2017, march, got their start!)

Four years later, in January 1917, they began daily protests in front of the White House.

They urged President Wilson to place his imprimatur on Congressional efforts to extend suffrage. He did not. Meanwhile, the country first tiptoed around and then entered World War I--as the women pointed out, Wilson stated the war was to make the world safe for democracy yet it did not extend legal suffrage to half of the country's citizens.  "Mr. President," read one banner of many, "How long must women wait for liberty?"

The women chose nonviolent protest--indeed, they called themselves Silent Sentinels--but their presence evoked violence and hatred. On several occasions, mobs attacked them while the police stood aside. Judges slapped fines on them for "obstruction of traffic"--at first, not wanting to go too hard on "the ladies." From July to November, 1917, however, "militants" were sentenced to time at the Occoquan Workhouse and very harsh conditions. As can often happen, their treatment by those in power ignited public sympathy. 

The war also played a role in Wilson finally supporting the 19th amendment in 1918. It passed Congress in 1919 and the sufficient number of states--36 at the time--ratified it in 1920.

A 21st Century Lens

One of the unfortunate realities of many white suffragists was exclusion of black women, and to a lesser extent, white immigrant working class women, in their attempts to get the vote. The play did not ignore this reality, and the students were very much aware of it. In the Q-and-A, the first comment from a student: "The first half hour, I thought this was just going to be a play about white women. I was glad it wasn't."

Two examples (of many) depicted in the play: In 1895, Susan B. Anthony wanted to host the organization's annual suffrage convention in Atlanta, to involve Southern (white) women. She dis-invited longtime supporter Frederick Douglas. Another: during the 1913 march, white women organized by state, but made black women march together at the end. Ida Wells, an African American from Illinois, stood up to the leaders. 

Another way to involve the audience relates to its title--Smile Lines. The audience didn't feel like smiling through most of the play, which included several powerful scenes, based on reality, of the prison conditions and force-feeding when the women went on a hunger strike. Rather, the actors (females played all the roles, women and men) had a few current-day scenes when they dealt with sexism and expectations to look and act in a beguiling way. The Q and A dealt with these issues, and the need to speak up.

I left with hope in how theater can touch young people and the fact that, in all their occasional chaos and mess, most of them really have their heads screwed on right!