Thursday, October 18, 2012

If She Stood - or Sat - with Authority

Illustration of Sarah Grimke
Abolitionist Sarah M. Grimke
from the Library of Congress
My attempt to understand the social and historical contexts for "If She Stood," the play that Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson are writing for Place Philadelphia, has me researching the status of women during colonial America - even though the play is inspired by events from the 1830s. But I wanted to know where women stood from the founding of this country. I learned they - or we - were little better than slaves.

"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage..." from "Of Husband and Wife," by William Blackstone

A woman's status depended upon her marital state. As William Blackstone's commentary so eloquently explains, a woman paid for a spouse with her autonomy.

What was the practical effect? 
"...A married woman could not own property independently of her husband unless they had signed a special contract called a marriage settlement. Such contracts were rare and even illegal in some parts of the country. In the absence of a separate estate, all (personal property) a woman brought to her marriage or earned during marriage, including wages, became her husband's. He could manage it or give it away, as he chose, without consulting her. "- from "The Legal Status of Women: 1776 - 1830" by Marylynn Salmon for the Gilder Lehman Institute of American History
When we consider the past, many of us think that women closed their mouths and stood in the place where society placed them. Yet searching through history reveals that women cocked their elbows, and pushed against the notion they were better seen than heard. Although "If She Stood" concentrates on abolitionists such as the Grimke sisters, these women had a forerunner in Anne Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was an educated woman, a wife and mother who had given birth to 16 children. Her transgression was simple and powerful. She led discussions on scripture in her home. She taught that any one could communicate directly with God, a teaching that directly challenged the religious hierarchy. At first, her audience was women. But her interpretations and explanations were so powerful, men joined the women.

Soon Hutchinson was teaching 50 or 60 people. The Puritan authorities looked at the meetings and saw defiance. In 1638, Hutchinson was tried and banished. She died in 1643, in Long Island during an attack by Native Americans.

Under the codes of the time, Anne Hutchinson didn't have a leg to stand on. She was a wife, part and parcel of her husband yet under his dominion. For as Blackstone wrote: 

But though our law in general considers man and wife as one person, yet there are some instances in which she is separately considered; as inferior to him, and acting by his compulsion.  - "Of Husband and Wife," by William Blackstone

By what right, then, did Hutchinson believe she could expound on scripture. By what right could she sit in the only chair in the house - a right reserved for a man? By what right could she lead a mixed audience - men and women who came to her weekly discussions - to question the authority? By what right had she "rather been a husband than of a wife," as charged by Rev. Hugh Peter, one of the leaders who participated in her trial.

Like the Grimke Sisters, Hutchinson insisted on her right to speak simply by doing so. Such insistence was dangerous for her and for them.  And even for us. Although years have passed and much has changed, but little has not. Just ask the would-be assassins who shot Malala Yousafzai on October 9.

This blog explores issues raised by If She Stood, a play by Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson for the Place Philadelphia project. Please subscribe to receive posts in your email.
 If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

If She Stood: Unpacking the 1830's

By Nadine Patterson October 13, 2012 *** On Tuesday October 2, 2012 the Painted Bride Art Center held the first of several community forums about the play and the issues we will explore within it. Historians Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Phillip Steitz guided the discussion. Here is an inside look to the development process that Ain Gordon and I are undertaking for the creation of IF SHE STOOD. Thanks to Roy Wilbur of the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for providing the video.

Unpacking the 1830s: Ain Gordon from Pew Center for Arts & Heritage on Vimeo.
In the above video,  playwright and director Ain Gordon discusses his inspiration for the work.

Unpacking the 1830s: Nadine Patterson from Pew Center for Arts & Heritage on Vimeo.
In the video above, filmmaker and curator Nadine Patterson describes her contribution to the collaboration.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Standing Mute: When Women Couldn't Talk - or Could They?

I know I"If She Stood,"  the play that's coming out of the Place Philadelphia project, explores women's roles in the early to mid-19th century. In my attempt to understand just where women stood during that era, I'm going to straddle time. I'm placing one foot 200 years in the future, and another 200 years before.

My bridge is a PBS reality show called "Colonial House."

Colonial House was broadcast in 2004. It was one of series based on a concept borrowed from BBC. A cast of amateurs would live like their forebears, and we would watch their successes and failures.

Colonial House, the most controversial , an attempt to build a 17th century settlement in the New World. The "colonists" weren't cut out for their roles. Work was harder than expected, of course. But men and women struggled with gender roles.

One scene stayed with me. The men were having a meeting that, of course, excluded the women. Instead of meekly waiting to hear what had been decided, one of the women eavesdrops on the meeting.

Talk about revolution...

If you cue the video to the nine minute mark, you'll hear the participants speak themselves. In this video, the speakers aren't identified. I think this woman is Michelle Rossi-Voorhees.
Her comment:  "It's a very difficult life, coming from the 21st century with all the freedoms that we have, now to not have a voice, except for through my husband... My place is to do the cooking, do the cleaning..."

Around the 11:30 mark, Amy-Kristina Herbert speaks up. She insists on her right to speak and be heard. And she disputes the notion that colonial women were willingly mute.

"When you do speak up, it shouldn't be construed as negative; it should be construed as your opinion,"she says. "There are plenty of women at home who are getting a little irritated watching this series unfold in regards to... the roles that females played.
"We have come to the point where there are plenty of educated women that can look on this project and say "If we weren't to have a problem, that would be unrealistic, because women back then did have a problem, if all of the women in this colony were to say...Well, this was the way it was...I'm just going to do it, there are plenty of historians who would say that wasn't realistic."

So which woman was correct, Michelle Rossi-Vorhees or Amy-Kristina Herbert? History being history, both were. Stay tuned....

If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Place Philadelphia Project is officially named!

Photo courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia

Ain and Nadine have begun crafting the theatrical piece that will result from the Place Philadelphia Project research, and the show officially has a name! Drum-roll please…. 
If She Stood.

If She Stood considers a small but vital collection of women who worked to radically upend numerous societal wrongs through personal and collective action. In 1833 many of these women joined in the founding of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a multi-racial collective fighting variously for the end of slavery, boycotting of goods produced by the labor of enslaved people, protection of newly freed men and women, and education. Through their work in the Society many of these women individually happened upon what was then called “the women’s question.” They went on speaking tours crusading for their abolitionist cause only to find themselves pilloried both for their politics and for standing at the head of a room; the outrageousness of a woman taking center stage to instruct both men and women on any question. In response, many of these women fused abolition and women’s rights into a crusade for equal rights for all citizens. What prompts an individual to relinquish her personal life to public necessity? What makes a crusader? How does personal faith motivate public action? What happens in the moment before you act?  If She Stood will explore these questions and muse on the women of 19th century Philadelphia who decided to take a stand.

If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm.  Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE.