March is Women’s History Month, and to honor this month Michigan Humanities reached out to our 2019 Humanities Grant awardee: The Center for the Arts of Greater Lapeer. The Center has been working on a play titled “It Happened Here: A Story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement,” and we are featuring their work in retelling and rediscovering the stories of the Lapeer women who were leaders in the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the region. We also want to remind our community that not all women obtained the right to vote with the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920. For instance, in 1920 Native American groups were yet to be granted U.S. citizenship which prevented Native American women and men from voting. Moreover, there were other barriers that women experienced that kept them from gaining access to vote such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and other suppression tactics that disproportionately affected women of color. In the Lapeer region, the Women’s Suffrage Movement started as early as 1879 which points to the long struggle that preceded the passing of the 19th Amendment and one that persisted long after 1920.

We invite you to learn more about the project below via our interview with Jill Lyons, Executive Director of the Center for the Arts of Greater Lapeer.

What is the Women’s Suffrage Project about?

The short answer is the telling of the Women’s Suffrage Movement with an emphasis on how it happened here in Lapeer, MI. The project evolved into a 45-minute play appropriate for middle school age students and up. The play tells the broad story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement with some of the national figures and some of the local Lapeer figures in the movement.

In 2021, why is it relevant to recount the history and struggle that led to the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution?

This project came about because of our student advisory council called Generation Art. The mission of Generation Art is to provide opportunities for high school-aged students in all aspects of the arts and humanities. The Center for the Arts provides a safe environment for these students to explore creative ideas and a platform for them to demonstrate their vision to the community. The centennial celebration of the passing of the 19th Amendment by Congress on June 4, 1919, was in the news. This created a topic for discussion during a Generation Art council meeting:  Does this 21st Century generation realize the sacrifices made by women, 180 years ago, so that subsequent generations could have the options allotted them now?  This led to a fascinating discussion; the simple answer was no, they do not know the sacrifices made. The majority of the group did not know that the Women’s Suffrage Movement was the fight for women’s right to vote. Of six girls, five had heard of the movement, but no one knew it took eighty years to come to fruition. Nor did anyone know that the word suffrage, simply meant, the right to vote, and that the word is not exclusive to just the women’s movement.

There is a saying you don’t know what you have until you lose it; you also don’t know what you have, if you’ve always had it.  As high school students many in the group were getting ready for their SATs and they were filled with dread and angst. We were able to turn the conversation around from ‘OMG I’m dreading this test’, to ‘OMG how lucky I am to have the opportunity to go to college and pursue whatever I want to do in life’.  As 21st century females we need to pay homage to those that sacrificed so we have the opportunities we have today.  That story should not be lost, or glossed over in an American History Class.

From a Lapeer and regional perspective, what have you learned through the process of talking about this lesser known part of the history of women’s right to vote?

Primary source research done at the Michigan Library in Lansing, the Marguerite deAngeli Library in Lapeer, the Lapeer Genealogy Society and the Lapeer Historical Society revealed the Women’s Suffrage Movement as it happened in Lapeer. Newspaper articles confirmed that in 1879 Susan B Anthony spoke at the Opera House in Lapeer. In 1903 Carrie A Nation had tried to speak in Lapeer, she wasn’t let off the train by an angry mob at the station. In 1912 Women’s Suffrage Association started in Lapeer.  In 1918 Mary E Craigie, representing the National American Woman Suffrage Association spoke at a patriotic rally at the Lapeer Courthouse. The rally was organized by the Women’s Suffrage Association in Lapeer. Lucy White Williams and her husband Judge William Williams were noted in different publications as having been very significant in the passing of the 19th Amendment, Lucy was the national president of the Women’s Club and her husband was active in Michigan State government.

The confirmation that the women’s suffrage movement from the history books and documentaries, happened here in Lapeer brought a new light to the project.  Rallies, meetings, and speaking engagements happened in the same buildings that are still standing today, and two of the buildings are across the street from the Center for the Arts.  This information brought the story home, and made it real for everyone involved in the project.  Our informational project about the women’s suffrage movement really came to life.

Who are the women involved in retelling the history of women’s right to vote? How has their project involvement impacted their views on this crucial part of women’s history?

As stated earlier this project is a part of the Generation Art student council for the Center for the Arts. The research was conducted by two high school students — Jessica Cummings and Aleah Hayes — as well as me, Jill Lyons. The play was written by Mary Beth Burns, the director, and the cast. The four actors are Jessica Cummings, student; Madyson Knickerbocker, student; Aleah Hayes, student; and Kella Carter, Center for the Arts Board Member.  I created a 15-page timeline of all the significant national, regional, and local events of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.  Mary Beth and the cast took that timeline and improvised scenes throughout the eighty-year struggle. The scenes were recorded and from those recordings Mary Beth created a script. Throughout the rehearsal process Mary Beth and I would edit and refine the script, Mary Beth from the acting directing viewpoint and me from the historical storyline viewpoint. The play starts at a Get Out the Vote in 2020, and then travels back in time.

I am extremely proud of “It Happened Here: A Story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement” and one the greatest disappointments of the pandemic has been having to put this project on hold. The costumes and props are still backstage. I don’t want to put anything away physically; that out of sight out of mind thing is real. I know it is harder for the rest of the team, because most of them have not been in the building since the first night of dress rehearsal, as we left that rehearsal we agreed that if there was school we would have rehearsal. The next day everything shut down.

Personally, the creation of “It Happened Here” gave me a new appreciation for my family. I didn’t realize I came from a line of strong independent women.  Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers worked outside the home, as did my mother and all her sisters and all of my great aunts on both sides of the family. Both grandmothers were born in the early 1900s. My paternal great grandmother had to give up her job as a teacher because women were not allowed to be teachers once they married.  She and my great grandfather were married on January 1, 1900. Both of her daughters attended MSU and were teachers in Lake Orion until retirement in the 1970’s. I had always known these things, but the significance of these family facts were brought to life because of “It Happened Here.”

Jessica Cummings, one of the two high school students involved in the Project, also shared with us:

“The project itself has made me open my eyes to the history of the women’s suffrage movement. In school, I’ve only learned about Susan B. Anthony, along with women being granted the right to vote. Now, I feel lucky to be a part of a project that organized a timeline of Michigan’s contribution to women’s suffrage. By reading many articles of people against it in the past, it makes me connect similarities in what I see with today’s issues. I often hear people say: ‘I support it, but don’t push it to my face,’ ‘I don’t understand why they want more rights when they have enough.’ These are common phrases that people say about LQBTQ community, wage gap between genders, global warming, etc. The project itself has inspired me to speak out and have a voice in current movements today. It also has helped me learn the dedication, and hard work that was pushed to where we are today, and I thank the activists for their contributions.”

Additionally, Mary Beth Burns, the play’s director, reflected:

“My involvement with the women’s suffrage project has significantly expanded my understanding of the power and fragility of the vote. It has brought into sharp focus just how deeply patriarchal the United States continues to be and that more education and outreach needs to be dedicated towards this part of women’s history. The narrative that equality exists because there are women with political power or influence such as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or Justice Elena Kagan is false. In reality the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923, is still not part of the US Constitution. This begs the question, ‘Why after almost one hundred years doesn’t the US Constitution afford the same equal protections under law that men are granted?’ Women influence how society functions when they vote; Women need to vote in every election and my involvement with the women’s suffrage project has shown me why.”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected this project? What other challenges has the project faced?

One of the original partners in the “It Happened Here” project was the Lapeer PEO club.  The women were making their own 1900s iconic white long skirt costumes.  The CFA was going create banners and picket signs for them.  At the beginning of the play the PEO ladies would march down the aisles of the theater, chanting and shouting Votes for Women. Once they were on the stage, they would circle once as a video of the 2016 Women’s March on Washington started on the screen. The video was a montage of women’s marches and equal right protests, as the video ends we see the girls in modern dress waiting in line for a Rock the Vote concert.

The women were excited, we were excited.  A month ago I saw one of the PEO ladies and I mentioned that we are still hoping to have the “It Happened Here” project come together. She said that most of the women are no longer interested. It was a blow to me, I didn’t think people would just change their minds. As we come up on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic and everything shutting down, we also come up on the one-year anniversary of a show in limbo. I don’t know if that will help or hurt.

The play, sets and costumes have all been created to fit in a van or the back of an SUV.  The length of the play is 45 minutes so it can be presented in schools.  The target audience being the middle school (6th-, 7th-, 8th-, and 9th-grade level.  Old enough to understand and make a lasting impression.

Michigan Humanities hopes that the “It Happened Here: A Story of the Women’s Suffrage Movement” project can still take place in the near future. Projects like this one are crucial for younger generations to learn and connect with the complex histories of our American society and how these histories were experienced across our own regions in Michigan.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or Michigan Humanities.

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