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'Suffs highlights styles of activism among women who fought for equal rights

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As Americans this week celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, we turn to another fight for independence - one that took nearly 150 years more. The new Broadway musical "Suffs" is about some of the personalities who led the fight to give women the right to vote. Shaina Taub recently won two Tony awards for her work creating the show, and NPR's Elizabeth Blair brings us the history behind some of the songs.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Let's start with some of the people involved here. There's Carrie Chapman Catt, a veteran of the movement, in her 50s, using the charm offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

JENN COLELLA: (As Carrie Chapman Catt, singing) Let Mother vote - we raised you, after all. Won't you thank the lady you have loved since you were small? We reared you, cheered you, helped you when you fell.

BLAIR: There's Alice Paul, an eager radical in her 20s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

SHAINA TAUB: (As Alice Paul, singing) I don't want to have to compromise. I don't want to have to beg for crumbs from a country that doesn't care what I say. I don't want to follow in those footsteps. I don't want to be a meek, little pawn.

BLAIR: And Ida B. Wells, a journalist and anti-lynching and civil rights activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

NIKKI M JAMES: (As Ida B. Wells, singing) How many more thrown in nameless graves? How many more falsely charged with crime? How many more whipped and shot like slaves? How many more murdered in their prime?

BLAIR: These women may have been fighting for the same cause, but when it came to winning the right to vote, their strategies clashed. "Suffs" begins as the women are organizing a march in Washington, D.C., in 1913 - the first of its kind. There were obstacles. Before she died in 1977, Alice Paul was interviewed for a suffragists history project. The audio is with the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. She said, at first, the police wouldn't let them march where they wanted to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALICE PAUL: So we said, we just must have Pennsylvania Avenue. And they said, well, that's fine but we certainly won't let you have it - it's totally unsuitable for women to be marching down Pennsylvania Avenue.

BLAIR: But these women were well-connected and got permission. Another issue? They were getting letters from supporters saying they would not march if Black women were walking alongside them. In "Suffs," Alice Paul tries to convince Ida B. Wells, a co-founder of the NAACP, to compromise. Historically, organizers called for Black women to be segregated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

TAUB: (As Alice Paul, singing) I think we all must do whatever it takes for the march to go on, even if that means waiting your turn.

JAMES: Almost every time the music stops, in the audience, you hear some of them really gasp.

BLAIR: Actor Nikki James plays Ida B. Wells.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

JAMES: (As Ida B. Wells, singing) Wait my turn? When will you white women ever learn? I had this same old talk with Carrie Chapman Catt 20 years ago. I thought you might be better, but you still don't know. You want me to wait my turn?

Basically, Ida says you're asking me to put my race before my sex. You're asking me to compromise part of my identity to serve your purpose without registering how much that costs. I would say that, as a Black woman in 2024, it feels very relevant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

JAMES: (As Ida B. Wells, singing) Deeds, not words, says the button on your jacket. I'm so sick of rhetoric with no action to back it. If you don't have the spine to stand with us now, what will it take? You do have a choice. There's always a choice. Which one do you make?

BLAIR: Ultimately, Ida B. Wells did march - not in back, but with her state delegation of Illinois. Many Black women ignored the segregation request. Author and historian Michelle Duster is Wells' great-granddaughter. She says she grew up hearing that Wells was uncompromising.

MICHELLE DUSTER: I think she was really, actually willing to die for her convictions because she believed so strongly that she is an American, and she deserves to have first-class citizenship.

BLAIR: The racial and generational tension within the women's movement was messy, and the human drama behind it resonated personally with "Suffs" creator Shaina Taub.

TAUB: When I was busting out of college and when you're the young person and you're like, this previous generation did everything wrong - I'm going to shake it up - this sort of youthful bravado is necessary for a movement to have. And then when you get a little older and you see the younger version come along, and you think, oh, that was me.

BLAIR: And that's how it was between veteran suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt and 20-something Alice Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

TAUB: (As Alice Paul, singing) I made allies. I took action. Who cares who gets the credit or the blame? What matters is the work gets done. As the woman who has started writing suffrage memoirs...

MARJORIE SPRUILL: Their relationship was not good.

BLAIR: Historian Marjorie Spruill has written books about women's history. She says their styles of activism were very different. As the country was gripped by World War I, Catt wanted the suffrage movement to support the war so that the administration would see the movement as an ally - a kind of quid pro quo. But Paul and her National Woman's Party remained militant.

SPRUILL: Catt, though she was very much an idealist and a pacifist, she was also a pragmatist at this point in her life. Meanwhile, the National Woman's Party was picketing the White House, criticizing the president, even burning his speeches, burning him in effigy.

BLAIR: In 1917, Paul and dozens of her fellow protesters were thrown in jail. Some were beaten. They went on hunger strikes and were force-fed. Paul was nearly sent to a mental institution. Shaina Taub wondered what having her sanity questioned must have been like.

TAUB: And so I had to think, OK, Alice, who has been so stubborn and so unrelenting and so action-based in this moment, what would she say to sort of pour her humanity out?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

TAUB: (As Alice Paul, singing) Is it worth it? Is it worth it? Is it worth it? Is it worth it? Is it worth it? Is it worth it?

BLAIR: The fact that women can now vote means that it was. The 19th Amendment became law in August 1920, over 70 years after women began to organize for it. When Ida B. Wells' descendant Michelle Duster saw "Suffs," she was taken by a song all of the suffragists sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

TAUB: (As Alice Paul, singing) I want my mother to know I was here.

JAMES: (As Ida B. Wells, singing) I want my sisters to know I was here.

TAUB: (As Alice Paul, singing) I want my great-granddaughter to know I was here.

DUSTER: I want my great-granddaughter to know I was here. And, of course, that, you know, resonated with me 'cause I am here, and I'm sitting here watching this as a great-granddaughter of one of the characters. I'm like, whoa, this is powerful. It really hit me, just the idea that these women were doing the work so that their descendants would be able to have rights that they did not grow up having.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SUFFS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I was here. I was here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.