Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.
Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.
—Coretta Scott King
This year we’ve vowed to explore the work of activists and social action organizations and movements through the heroine’s journey lens. We believe that a heroine’s journey perspective can help activists to sustain themselves and their commitment in the face of what seems like failure or regression. We begin our examination by reviewing a new play about early 20th century U.S. women’s struggle for the vote written by Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center Resident Scholar Pam Swing and her student-scholar partner, Elizabeth Dabanka.
Rather than focusing on a single protagonist, I Want to Go to Jail follows a group of women suffragists and their struggle for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The drama generally follows Maureen Murdock’s articulation of the heroine’s journey and also demonstrates how a heroine’s journey often skips forward and loops backward rather than proceeding in a single arc or cycle.
The play opens in February, 1919 at the National Woman’s Party Headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. Since politely asking for the vote hasn’t persuaded men to enfranchise women, Suffragist Betty Gram announces that they must picket—e.g. she issues a clarion call to separate from their culturally prescribed feminine role. Several well-known and lesser known members of the National Woman’s Party voice their support—consistent with stage 2 of the Murdock version of the journey: identification with the masculine and gathering of allies. But I Want to Go to Jail isn’t so much about a central protagonist gathering allies, as it is about a group of individuals with distinct personalities working as a body to move the story and their shared cause forward.
In the first scene we are introduced to half a dozen characters of different ages, political experience, commitment, and concerns. They prepare to picket the U.S. President Wilson’s motorcade that is coming to Boston, knowing that they are likely to be arrested. Together, they plan for their road of trials, but of course, planning and experiencing are two different things.
The following day the women take their places outside the State House. Their demonstration has barely begun when the Boston Police Commissioner informs them that if they don’t move before the President’s motorcade arrives, they will be arrested for loitering. Their decision to remain and express their First Amendment right to demonstrate peaceably results in their being forcibly taken into custody. Suffragist Alice Paul foresees their imprisonment as a means to increase publicity and sympathy for their cause. Thus, their arrest actually appears to be a boon of success even though President Wilson doesn’t arrive until after they are arrested and are being taken to the courthouse.
In Act II the suffragists, triumphant at having been able to march past a line of marines holding banners, continue their unified protest in the courtroom by claiming they are all named Jane Doe and insisting on their right to go to jail rather than pay a fine for exercising their constitutional rights. Up until this point, it seems as if the story could be a hero’s journey: women protest, gain support from the public after going to jail, and force the legislature to support a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Indeed, we know that something like this in fact, happened. But both the play and the historical facts are more complicated.
Outside the courthouse, a journalist asks passersby how they feel about women having the right to vote. There is support and dissension. The dissenters point to tradition and use self-righteous references to religion– the same arguments used today throughout the world to justify limiting women’s rights. Both sides claim to have moral values on their side.
Inside the Charles Street Jail, the suffragists, who have vowed to go on a hunger strike, have been separated and housed in cold cells with buckets for toilets. Suffragist, Betty Gram, who has been jailed before, starts to experience what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or Acute Traumatic Stress since she is again in jail), as she recalls rats dragging food from her cell during her previous time in jail as an advocate for women’s rights. From their own cells, other suffragists call out their sympathy and support. Others muse about how the world and their homes households are proceeding without them. Eventually, they access their strength and commitment to sisterhood by singing together.
The play then loops back for another road of trials: the father of one of the suffragists comes to bail her against her wishes. When her father threatens to turn her out of the house if she does not leave, she reluctantly puts on her suffrage sash and departs, still protesting. Another suffragist hails the jailer to complain that he isn’t delivering the packages that she knows are being sent to them. The Sheriff appears and tells Suffragist Katherine Morey that her fine has been paid by a mystery man that the women believe is is trying to undermine public sympathy for their cause. The remaining prisoners again find a “boon of success” when they discover that they’ve received 268 telegrams from supporters and are being covered in newspapers across the country. One of the suffragists writes a letter to President Wilson calling upon him to reconnect with his prior promises to enfranchise women. When all of the suffragists except Mrs. Rosa Roewer–whose husband supports her political action– is released from jail, the released women gather outside the jail to sing to the Mrs. Rosa Roewer in their own reconnection with their sister suffragist.
In the last act of the play we learn that the last anti-vote Senator they needed to win the vote had decided to vote for the constitutional amendment, but other anti-suffrage Senators had prevented the amendment from coming to the floor for a vote. Suffragist strategist Alice Paul urges the dismayed activists to regard this as a temporary setback. Mrs. Rosa Roewer, the last suffragist to be released from jail, points out that Susan B. Anthony worked for women’s right to vote throughout her life and died without seeing it. One of the new, young suffragists promises Mrs. Roewer that this won’t happen to her, but we know that she can’t be certain of this. In the last scene, the women hold a ceremony at a local theater to honor those who went to jail for the cause and present them with “jailhouse door pins.” It is a momentary pause and time for celebration, for the play appropriately ends with Alice Paul announcing that there is more work to be done, and a new cycle of activism must begin.
I Want to Go to Jail will be performed at Brandeis University on Saturday, February 9, 2019 during their [Bran]“Deis” Week of Social Action, and at the Massachusetts State House in Boston, MA on February 28. Both performances are free and open to the public. For more information on the performance at the State House, click here. To see more about the Heroine’s Journey in contemporary literature and drama, click here.
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