The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified a hundred years ago this year, guaranteeing women the right to vote. The amendment passed after a longer-than-expected, and occasionally violent, struggle, more than 70 years after the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y. The play, “I Want to Go to Jail,” presented in a staged reading at Pathways at the Chilmark Tavern at 7 pm on March 10, dramatizes a key moment in the women’s suffrage movement.
In late February 1919, President Woodrow Wilson was returning from the Paris Peace Conference, following the end of World War I. He would be docking in Boston, where welcoming crowds lined the streets to greet him. The president’s motorcade planned to pause in front of the Massachusetts State House. A group of suffragettes brought banners and stood there to demonstrate for their right to vote, but before the motorcade arrived, they were arrested for loitering, and hauled away to jail. It wasn’t the first time suffragettes had been arrested for picketing, but it was the last. Many of the women at the Boston protest had been jailed before, and had endured beatings and hunger strikes. The jailings and hunger strikes brought extensive press coverage attention to their movement. A year and a half later, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment became law, and white women in every state of the union had the right to vote. (That right was gradually expanded to include all women in the country — in some Southern states, African American women were unable to freely exercise their right to vote until the 1960s.)
The playwrights, Pam Swing and Elizabeth Dabanka, are based at Brandeis University, where Swing is a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, and Dabanka is an undergraduate with a triple major in Politics, African and African American Studies, and International Global Studies. Growing up, Swing knew that her grandmother, Betty Gram Swing, had picketed the White House and gone on hunger strikes in jail, but she didn’t discover the full extent of that activism until she read her grandmother’s unfinished memoirs. That discovery led her to her current project, a creative nonfiction book about her grandmother.
In the course of her research, she learned about the events portrayed in “I Want to Go to Jail,” and felt that it merited a dramatic presentation. Together, she and Dabanka wrote the play, which has since been performed in several venues around Massachusetts, including at the State House, only a few steps from where the original events took place.
The six suffragettes in the play represent some of the 16 women who were sentenced to jail time that day, plus Alice Paul (read by Char Seymour), leader of the National Women’s Party (NWP). Alice Paul had been a member of the North American Women’s Suffrage Association, which had been working to secure the right to vote one state at a time. The state-by-state process was slow, and Paul wanted to work on a national level, so she broke away to form the NWP. Martha Foley (read by Rise Terney) was a young woman who had never picketed before, and much of the story centers around her decision to join the protests and risk arrest. The playwright’s grandmother is also represented: Betty Gram (read by Binnie Ravitch) had abandoned her budding career as a Broadway singer to join the protest at the White House, which led to her arrest and her first hunger strike. After that, she went on to become a full-time organizer for the NWP.
This performance is part of a yearlong celebration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, organized by the League of Women Voters of Martha’s Vineyard. For these events, the League is collaborating with many Island organizations over the course of the year, including the NAACP, the M.V. Chamber of Commerce, and the M.V. Museum. The League will also be conducting a voter registration drive, with the goal of registering 100 percent of eligible voters on the Island. A list of upcoming events can be found on their website, at bit.ly/LWVMVevents.
“I Want to Go to Jail” will be read (and sung) by members of the Peter H. Luce Play Readers on Tuesday, March 10, at 7 pm at Pathways in Chilmark. The play is about 40 minutes long, and will be followed by a question-and-answer with playwright Pam Swing. For more information about the play and the suffragist movement, visit iwanttogotojail.com.