I Want to Go to Jail: A Heroine’s Journey Drama on Women’s Struggle for the Right to Vote

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.

Suffragists Protest Against DisenfranchisementRather 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.Alice Paul

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.

Suffragist Warning AdvertisementInside 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.  Replica of Jailhouse Door PinIn 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.

Thanksgiving Reflections

Until women can visualize the sacred female, they cannot be whole and society cannot be whole.  – Elinor Gadon

In late November in the United States, Thanksgiving is a holiday to celebrate the harvest and gratitude. Many of us also share food with people from other cultures and circumstances. The first “American” Thanksgiving was celebrated by 53 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans in 1621. Thanksgiving was officially declared a federal holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the American Civil War to express hope for an end in civil strife, and as a day of gratitude. Some Americans  also observe American Thanksgiving as a day of mourning to commemorate genocide against Native Americans by United States settlers.

Not surprisingly, the United States was not the first to celebrate harvest feast days.  The Canadians held October harvest feast celebrations years before the Pilgrims arrived, and the French and Spanish have been celebrating harvest feast days since at least the 16th century.  Wisdom practices such as honoring female deities connected to nature, expressing gratitude, sharing, and giving, are integral to many indigenous cultures and communities.

Regardless of your geographical location or cultural identity, the season of harvest seems appropriate time for The Heroine’s Journey Project to review some of the year’s gifts.  WP_20160823_002

We appreciate the thousands of site visitors from around the world who read our blog posts, send comments and suggestions, and ask us questions. We are grateful for the essays, plays, books, and stories sent to us by our readers. In particular we’d like to give a shout out to Jean Marie Bishop who sent us her plays about Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to hold federal office in the United States when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, and Mary Dyer, an American Puritan turned Quaker who was hanged in The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1660 for defying Puritan law banning Quakers in the colony.  We would like to give a shout out to Jody Gentian Bower, author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters;  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story who sent us an essay on the Heroine’s Journey; to Duda Dorea, who is translating The Heroine’s Journey Project site into Portuguese so that it can be more widely shared in Brazil, and Judah Quinn, a filmmaker in Australia who is making a documentary on five women’s experiences with the Heroine’s Journey in their lives.  We are hoping to feature some of this work in the coming months.

Elinor GadinThis year we are sorry for the passing of Elinor Gadon, cultural historian, Indologist, art historian, Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center. She is the author of The Once and Future Goddess; a visual chronicle of the sacred female and her reemergence in cultural mythology and was an exuberant student of the heroine’s journey throughout her long life. Filmmaker Megan McFeeley put together an excerpt from her two-hour interview with Elinor in 2000 for Elinor’s Celebration of Life at Brandeis. We hope to introduce you to Elinor Gadon’s and Megan McFeeley’s work in the near future.

Your most-requested items are the names of books, films, and stories that include a Heroine’s Journey.  This fall we have begun to compile lists  which we plan to add as permanent page to the site  this spring.

Some of the books with heroine journeys that we’ve reviewed in the past year include:

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill (fiction); Tell Me a Story 3A with printing

Fun Home by Allison Bechdel (graphic novel, later made into a musical);

Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (non-fiction with many heroine journeys depicted in the descriptions of the lives of non-conventional families);

Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverni (historical fiction);

Lila by Marilyn Robinson (fiction);

Once and Future King by T. H. White (the first portion of the book known to many as the story of The Sword in the Stone is a Hero’s Journey, but the book as a whole is a Heroine’s Journey);

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by  Adrian Nicole LeBlanc  (nonfiction); and

Chalice and the Blade; Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler is not a heroine’s journey story but traces the origins of the descent of goddess worship and the psychological impacts of the denigration of female deities on men, women, and cultural values through archaeology, anthropology, history and religion.

Movies we have recently reviewed and plan to blog about in the future include:

Boys on the Side directed by Herbert Ross and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Mary-Louise Parker, and Drew Barrymore;

RBG,  a 2018 American documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, on the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg  which includes both elements of the Hero’s Journey and Heroine’s Journey. RBG was chosen by the National Board of Review as the Best Documentary of 2018; and

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, the story of a Native American’s health worker’s search for the truth about the death of prominent transgender activist Marsha Johnson.

In the next few weeks look for an upcoming post on “Kicking the Stone,” a wonderful short story by Barbara Leckie in Salamander, one of the literary journals that’s one of the offerings from the Journal of the Month Club.

Later in the winter and spring we will be exploring work by Jean Marie Bishop, Elinor Gadin, and suffragist scholar, memoirist, and playwright, Pam Swing and her student playwright co-author, Elizabeth Dabanka.  We are also seeking to interview several others working with the Heroine’s Journey in a variety of disciplines.

We will also be focusing on how the Heroine’s Journey can be applied to social activism and, hopefully, collaborating with others working on similar projects.

We would love additional suggestions from our site visitors. Send the name of a book, story or film with a sentence or two on why you think it follows the Heroine’s Journey and we will review it as we work to expand our lists. Meanwhile, may your lives be full and your burdens light.

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This chalkboard mural by Coty can be found at the wonderful Green Goddess Cafe in Stowe, Vermont.