COVID-19 may have altered some plans for the two-year-long The Suffragist Project, celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. But the project will still mark the significance of the passage of the 19th Amendment with several events during the month of August.
Florida Studio Theatre, under the guidance of Project director Kate Alexander, spearheaded the artistic initiative, which continues with Suffragist Saturdays—in-depth conversations taking place virtually over Zoom with Jane Plitt (Aug. 1) and Sonia Pressman Fuentes (Aug. 8). Plitt was the first executive director for the National Organization for Women (NOW); Fuentes is a co-founder of NOW with extensive experience as a lawyer, public speaker and feminist activist. Both of these online forum events are free and open to the public, but reservations are required; visit floridastudiotheatre.org or call (941) 366-9000.
Then, on Aug. 20, 100 years precisely after the 19th Amendment was ratified, FST will hold an online event, Women Unite: A Centennial Celebration, with Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch kicking things off at 5:30 p.m. with opening remarks. The event will feature special performances of some of the greatest speeches given by famous suffragists presented by artists from across the country. Attendees will also get a sneak peek of a new documentary about FST’s Suffragist Project co-produced by BTW Films and METV. The event will close with a moment of silence and recognition as women from around the country light candles in honor of the suffragists. Up to 1,000 people can join online.
Alexander reflects on the origins of this project, which eventually grew to include more than 60 area organizations. “It was about three years ago that Jane Plitt said, ‘I hope we do something for the suffragists.’ It was like light bulbs went off. Richard [Hopkins, FST’s producing artistic director] and I were talking and I decided to take it on. There was no prescient thought that this was going to be a citywide thing; it was just let’s get started and see how many people we can get galvanized.”
What thrilled her, she says, “was that everywhere we spoke, beginning with the media, everyone was charged. There was no hesitation.”
Alexander says among her discoveries during working on The Suffragist Project, “One of the first was the energy and talent in the women in this town, women I got to meet and work with in a much deeper way than I had. Sonia Fuentes…she touched history; she knew [early suffragist leader] Alice Paul. Charlayne Hunter-Gault—she just transcends culture and language. When we started it felt so removed; old black and white pictures of women with placards and buns. Talking with these women brought everything to living color.”
Alexander adds, “I think the irony is not lost on any of us that the ratification took place in a pandemic [the devastating Spanish flu]. A century later we’re in a similar pandemic; it’s a critical time where every voice counts right now. In 1920, if you think about it, half the country was enfranchised in one moment, people who had had no voice. Women are such important voices. It isn’t just a vote for a person, it’s your voice that’s agency in your life. This was a bloody battle. They weren’t given the vote, they took it. It was at the cost of jail, starvation…that history needs to be told and understood.”