Before the show the girls in Mrs. Wright’s class chattered like kids. They reminded each other of shared swim classes and giggled as a one put down her phone to announce that a classmate had just arrived at the wrong library. That evening they were gathered to celebrate a very adult movement that had fought for one of the cornerstones of modern democracy: voter equality between the sexes.
The collection of dramatic vignettes was the penultimate presentation in the Benicia Public Library’s speaker series celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage in California. Superintendent Janice Adams (who bore and raised me, full disclosure) contacted Kathy Wright at Benicia Middle School to see if she would be interested in involving students in producing a dramatic work to celebrate the struggles and eventual success of California women. Mrs. Wright jumped at the opportunity and the members of her advanced drama class were equally enthusiastic. Drawing on materials taken from turn-of-the-century sources, the girls assumed the roles of different suffragists and used their dramatic flair to channel the past.
Before the performance, Mrs. Adams gave a speech putting California’s centennial in the context of the suffrage movement. California was the prize of suffragists working to establish equal voting rights in the newer states and territories of the West. It wasn’t just the nascence of the Western lands that made them appealing targets; the region had an overwhelming male population who, tiring of saloon doors and spittoons, were amenable to any concessions to that would send womenfolk their way. The California legislature actually secured women the right to vote in 1893, but Governor Markham vetoed the bill.
Next, Benicia Historical Society member Bonny Silveria gave an informative speech on the history of female elected officials in Benicia. She had plenty of praise for the women who served, but recited a rather dispiriting statistic: in over 150 years of local governance, only 12 women have served on the city council. It’s an embarrassingly small tally, but it left Silveria time to extol each woman, giving special notice to Marilyn O’Rourke, the first female mayor of Benicia. “If Marilyn weren’t a woman, there’d be a statue of her at the bottom of First Street.”
After some fascinating tidbits of local history—one of them implying that the downfall of this city’s red light district led to the construction of our city pool—Silveria left the podium and the costumed students lined up for their recitations. They channeled a variety of different voices; one played an affluent “Gold rusher’s daughter” whose lively, intellectual household empowered her thinking and another played a woman who had been instrumental in empowering the Union of Waitresses.
Nobody gave a perfectly memorized delivery, but it was a charming, enriching event conducted with a real sense of purpose. And it gave the young women involved a chance to practice a vital leadership skill: the ability to address an audience and speak for something larger than one’s self. The final event takes place November 19, when Solano Community College’s debate team takes on the pros and cons of voter equality.