‘Suffs’ Star Jenn Colella Can’t Believe the Suffrage Movement Isn’t Taught in Schools 

"I had no idea what these women went through," Colella, who stars as Carrie Chapman Catt in the Tony-nominated musical, told Jezebel. "I just couldn't believe the only names I'd heard were Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony."

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‘Suffs’ Star Jenn Colella Can’t Believe the Suffrage Movement Isn’t Taught in Schools 

“The old stiff minds must give way. The old selfish minds must go. Obstructive reactionaries must move on. The young are at the gates!” Lavinia Dock, a nurse and feminist activist, wrote in The Suffragist in 1917, just before Alice Paul and scores of suffragists picketed the White House to pressure President Woodrow Wilson into supporting the 19th Amendment. That protest would famously last months and result in a hunger strike, countless suffragettes being jailed, and ultimately, the amendment’s ratification in 1920 (though countless Black women wouldn’t be allowed to vote for nearly five decades).

Over one hundred years later, Dock’s sentiment can now be heard in the Tony-nominated musical, Suffs. Written by and starring Shaina Taub as Paul, the story follows some of the triumphs and tensions of the suffrage movement in the United States from 1913 to 1920. The fight for women’s suffrage began some 70 years earlier at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. By the time Paul joined the cause, some (emphasis on some) considered her the youthful answer to an aging movement.

After decades of work, the old guard—then led by Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association—was no closer to securing suffrage. Where Catt’s campaign asked permission (“Let Mother Vote“), Paul commanded protests. Not every woman was there, however. Black women within the movement like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell were, more often than not, cruelly shunned from much of the action. By the time the suffragists reached the White House gate in 1917, there was enough racial and generational strife to severely compromise the entire cause. Black women were justifiably tired of being told to wait their turn, and Catt and co. feared the rigor and guerrilla tactics of Paul’s wave would put a stop to any progress they’d already made.

On the night I attended Suffs, hordes of today’s youth stood together at a different gate uptown. Just two days earlier, hundreds of students at Columbia University were brutalized by a fleet of NYPD officers in riot gear and taken into custody for protesting the ongoing genocide in Gaza. For weeks, students at universities across the nation faced arrest and castigation from elder generations for supporting Palestinian liberation. Thus, several numbers—”The Young Are At The Gate,” for starters—were resonant, if not totally on the nose.

But Suffs is about as perfect as its source material. Any comparisons to Hamilton for its—sentimental and, at times, sanitized—portrayal of American feminism are earned. It’s palatable enough to be produced by Hillary Clinton and attended by Bee Shaffer (who was seated right in front of me). But even as an entry point to the history of women’s lib, there are still valuable lessons to learn. Politicians are not to be trusted; all cops are bastards; and every movement co-opted by white women will come apart as fast as it came together. But, perhaps the most critical at this point in time is that the young will always be at the gate.

In a recent phone interview, acclaimed Broadway actor, Jenn Colella—who plays Catt—spoke to Jezebel about what she’s learned from Suffs, how its message is lingering with audiences, and her character’s…complicated legacy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You’ve been attached to Suffs since the beginning. What were your first thoughts after reading the script? How familiar were you with the suffrage movement in the U.S.?

Well, it was really extraordinary to read the script for the first time seven years ago and to grasp the fact that I knew nothing about the women’s suffrage movement. I just found it to be absolutely stunning that it’s not taught in schools and that it really feels like it’s been suppressed. I had no idea what these women went through. I just couldn’t believe the only names I’d heard were like, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony. Then, as soon as I heard Shaina’s music…the feeling that I got when I was combining music with the lyrics and with this story…there are just moments sometimes when you read a new score where the hair stands up on end. You can tell that something special is going on from the very first read-through.

This show is sparking a lot of conversations—for better and for worse. What sorts of reactions are you being met with at the stage door?

It’s mostly women with tears in their eyes and they say, “I’m so proud of what we’ve done and there’s still so much work to do.” The vibration of what these women did for us is resonating and we are still feeling how, unfortunately, we still have a great deal of work to do in our country, as far as women’s rights are concerned. This is highlighting the fact that we’ve been fighting for over 100 years for equality and we’re not quite there yet. There’s a hopefulness about it. These women organized when there was no email. They literally did it via telegram and trains. To change an amendment during that time, to be able to join forces in this way and then make that kind of change is pretty remarkable. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s also this realization that we’re still not where we need to be.

When it comes to its portrayal of the history of the women’s movement in the U.S., I wouldn’t say Suffs takes a warts-and-all approach. It does, however, give some glimpses at the generational discord between the old guard like Carrie Chapman Catt, and the new, like Alice Paul. But also, the out-and-out racism white women who posited themselves as arbiters of the movement exhibited toward Black women, like Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells, who were repeatedly told to “wait their turn.” 

It’s good that Shaina included it. I love that she didn’t shy away from conflict within the movement itself… people fighting for the same thing and wanting different ways to do it and really believing that their way is the only way. That’s the truth. Anytime humans get together, even though we’re fighting for the same thing, we have different ways of doing it. So, I love that Shaina showed that and it helps me as my character really believes in what I’m doing.  She was able to look at it from all of these angles and understand that for something to be theatrical and moving and real and authentic, we have to have this conflict.

 

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Catt’s legacy is often disputed due to racist statements in her speeches, especially when trying to win ratification votes for the 19th Amendment in the South. Many have easily made the case that the rights of Black and marginalized women were not at all a priority for her. What did you make of that in your research and preparation? 

Reading about her not including Black women and actually pushing them aside, I, at first, was like, “I hate this because I want to believe in this person.” But I also believe that she thought that was the only way that people would listen to her. If she included these women, she means that she would be dismissed immediately. She was really afraid that she was going to be viewed as like, a hysterical harpy and that she was just another loud woman asking for things. But I don’t think it was right. I think she was doing what she felt was best for the movement at the time.

It’s clear that the old guard and the new are both flawed in their own ways. Catt wasn’t the only person telling Black suffragists to wait their turn. Paul, who was then known as this young revolutionary, did too. But where Catt led with pseudo politeness and pandered toward men in her organizing, Paul’s strategy was more about unapologetic, attention-getting actions. Which, to you, is more effective?

I think I definitely have more Alice Paul in me. I’m more of a like, “This is how I feel and I’m going to stand up and be heard” kind of person. I have learned through Carrie that, actually, the most effective way is to utilize and try to get in touch with both sides. Be reasonable and have some patience, but know when to stand up and fight. There are moments when you have to come out arms swinging and guns blazing. I think it’s about reading the temperature of where you are in this moment.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Speaking of this particular moment, during the week I saw Suffs, hundreds of students at universities across the country were being brutalized for protesting the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Hearing “The Young Are at the Gates” as students were quite literally at the gates at Columbia University was pretty surreal. Do you the audience is drawing those kinds of parallels? 

We do. We can see them jump on board and we can feel the light go on in their heads in terms of realizing that you just have to keep marching. We have to keep this torch lit. We’re not going to complete the work, but that doesn’t mean that we can put it down.

You recently became a mother to a daughter. What’s being a part of this production given you in terms of teachable moments for her? 

I keep saying that the only thing that could take me away from her in these early days would be to be a part of something like this because I really feel so passionate that it’s not just an entertaining piece of theater, but a part of a movement that we need. The most important thing that I want to pass on to my daughter is that she has a voice that is valuable, that her ideas are important, and that when she feels like she needs to stand up and speak, that she does.

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