Wednesday, April 6, 2022
Full disclosure: As a writer of all things feminist policy and politics, I’m not a theater reviewer. But I have to report that after experiencing Suffs (still in previews), it is a modern marvel of a musical. With its impeccable period costumes and powerhouse all-female cast, Suffs explores the women who drove the 19th Amendment across the finish line a century ago—and whose tactics and strategies continue to shape the fight for social and political equality.
Unlike the limited lessons of women’s suffrage many learn—Seneca Falls and Susan B. Anthony—Suffs digs deep into the gamesmanship wielded by the movement’s early 20th century leaders. Among those are Carrie Chapman Catt, stalwart of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, who favored winning the vote state-by-state while wielding elite, inside influence to push for a federal amendment; Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, next-gen radicals of the day, whose National Women’s Party crafted the playbook for civil disobedience; and Chicago journalist Ida B. Wells and activist Mary Church Terrell whose call out of the unique plight of Black women framed the fight for universal suffrage.***
How little the general public has absorbed about this movement and its myriad players is not an accident, suggests Lucy Beard, director of the Alice Paul Institute, in a 2020 interview. Activists like Alice Paul and Inez Milholland, as well as many of the others portrayed in Suffs—Doris Stevens, Ruza Wenclawska, and Dudley Malone, hardly household names—“represented the radical part of the suffrage movement,” said Beard, “[and] history generally gets written by the moderates.”
Suffs may be just the medium to change that. And a bonus, it also manages to impart a dose of pragmatic wisdom for today’s activists: that radical and moderate strategies need not forever be locked in conflict but rather can be combined to force-multiply and win seismic change.
“Suffs” is opening in the same theater where “Hamilton” — and America’s runaway romance with the roguish “ten dollar founding father” — was born. Are audiences open to seeing Taub’s feminist founding mothers as similarly three-dimensional heroes, shaded by their flaws rather than simply damned by them?
“Suffs” may be about women. But their long fight for the vote, Taub said, can stand in for any of the great social movements in American history, all of which were also messy, fractious, imperfect — and unfinished.