Near the end of “The Woman’s Party,” Clubbed Thumb’s clever, stylishly designed three-part dramatization of an odd, little-known moment in the history of the fight for women’s rights, Alice Paul (Rebecca Schull) is shocked to hear that the Equal Rights Amendment never became part of the U.S. Constitution.
In real life, Paul, who was the longtime leader of the National Women’s Party, had been instrumental in the adoption of the 19th amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote, and lived to see Congress pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, more than half a century after she co-wrote the original version of the ERA.
But after Paul died at the age of 92 in 1977, the ERA failed to gain ratification by the necessary three-fourths of the state legislatures, due to pushback by anti-feminist leader Phyllis Schlafly.
In this play by Rinne B. Groff, the character Alice Paul learns this news from Doris Stevens (Rosalyn Coleman), Paul’s long-time colleague in the Woman’s Party who became her antagonist.
Most of the likely audience for “The Woman’s Party” probably already knows about the fate of the ERA. What they are less likely to know are the decades of surprising history leading up to it.
The playwright chooses to tell this history by focusing in on a single day in 1947, when Doris Stevens led a faction of the party that tried to remove Paul as leader. And Clubbed Thumb has chosen to present Groff’s play about this incident, in a production directed by Tara Ahmadinejad, by releasing three half-hour episodes one week at a time over the past three Thursdays, which are now available together online for free through August.
Having watched these episodes week by week, I’m left wondering why the creative team chose such a narrow frame for its narrative. The ninety minutes feel not so much repetitive as stretched out; by the end, the play had not convinced me that this sometimes comic confrontation could have been the single most pivotal “crossroads” moment in the history of the ERA or even of the National Women’s Party. Why not take advantage of the episodic approach by dramatizing three different pivotal moments?
Yet, if I might have appreciated a more wide-ranging approach, the creative team doesn’t let its narrow dramatic frame get in the way. It takes playful liberties with the characters’ personal frames of reference; several talk knowledgeably both about past and (for 1947) future history. It takes the time to explore the specific competing personalities and their personal concerns. The confrontation between Alice and Doris to which the series seemed to have been leading from the get-go includes an eye-opening exchange:
“You sold out Negro women time and again,” excluding Black women from the party and writing an editorial “promising Southern Democrats that if they passed women’s suffrage, then the Woman’s Party would support the poll tax, and every other means invented to deny people the vote. You publicly stated that giving women political agency would have the added value of increasing white supremacy.”
“I was being politically savvy, as I had to be. “
“You had to be a bigot?”
“My strategy worked. We needed Tennessee, we got it. We got suffrage”
“At the cost of legitimacy. At the cost of a huge number of women’s dignity..
Near the end, Alice Paul asks of the gathered suffragettes: “Do we have to agree about the past to agree about what we want for the future?” It’s one of the questions that gives “The Woman’s Party” its resonance.