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Not so “Strange Ladies”

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It is 100 years since women from of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage were arrested and locked up in the Occoquan workhouse prison in Northern Virginia. Their treatment, which caused indignation and sympathy among the public, was central in the ratification of 19th amendment to the Constitution. The amendment guaranteeing all American women the right to vote.

Strange Ladies, written by Susan Sobeloff, celebrates the women who were part of this event and tells their story in crisp and clear action. Opening at Central Works at the Berkeley City Club this past Saturday, the play is also the company’s 57th world premiere.

The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which evolved into the National Woman’s Party, was founded by Lucy Burns and Alice Paul. Their theatrical counterparts were played by Regina Morones and Renée Rogoff, respectively. Both actors infuse their roles with a calm determination. They are substantial women in gesture and demeanor. They enact a steady passion for their cause, which makes it clear that goals will be achieved, or someone will die in the attempt.

The other roles gave a sense of the range of women involved: Nico Foster plays Mary, the calm and determined African American who insists that the cause include women of all races; Radhika Rao plays her daughter and Phyllis, the delicate upper-class lady who has lost her sister and who falls in love the tough NY unionist woman played by Gwen Loeb. Milissa Carey is Harriet, the moderate suffragist who is unnerved by the militancy of organization and urges Alice, through carefully penned letters, to be less zealous.

Jan Zvaifler directed, moving the actors so that they seemed to follow geometric paths and symmetrical placements, thus creating theater reminiscent of dance, and suggesting cosmic inevitability to the characters.  

The play opens just before the women’s decision to picket the White House, after Woodrow Wilson refuses to take their bid for the vote seriously. In response to Wilson, they decide to picket, standing silently before the White House with their banners. Wilson believed that suffrage was state issue, not a national one, and several of the states had given women the vote by 1917. Women had been given the vote in California six years earlier in 1911, though the law was discriminatory, preventing Chinese or individuals who could not speak English from voting. The San Francisco Bay Area opposed suffrage law, and it was Modoc County that provided the greatest number of yes votes. As in the play, more moderate suffragists, like Harriet (Milissa Carey), also supported the states-first model of suffrage.

The Silent Sentinels began their protest on Wilson’s inauguration in 1917, and in April the US entered the First World War. The women debated whether they should stop the protest because it opened the women up to the charge of treason. Except for Harriet, they all return to the line. But the unpopularity of the cause increased and in June several women were arrested. In July women were arrested again in greater numbers and given the choice of paying a fine or being sent to the Occoquan workhouse.

They chose prison. And, with it, isolation and the threat of brutalization by the guards. Their response to isolation was a hunger strike. Followed, in turn, by force feedings ordered by the workhouse Superintendent.

The play more or less avoids directly enacting the Night of Terror (November 14, 1917), when Superintendent Whittaker ordered 33 returning prisoners to be tortured and beaten, but rather emphasizes the ongoing mistreatment and escalating abuse. She records the women’s courage and resilience under fire, using forms of passive resistance long before Ghandi. The play is laced with songs from beginning to end, and several of them, such as “Shout the Revolution of Women,” were composed by the suffragists while in prison.

Eventually 18 lawsuits, totaling $1.2 M, were filed in December by picketers alleging insults, abuse, and false imprisonment. Public outrage ran high. Supervisor Whittaker resigned three months later. Three years later, on August 26, 1920, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. 

The play resonates all too well our current political situation. As Alice remarks, justifying her resistance, “Those in power are not inclined to share.”

– Jaime Robles


Strange Ladies continues at Central Works at the Berkeley City Club until November 12. For information and tickets, visit

Photo: The cast of Strange Ladies – Gwen Loeb, Milissa Carey, Nicol Foster, Renée Rogoff, Radhika Rao and Regina Morones – stand before a backdrop of women fight in for suffrage in 1917. Photo by J. Norrena.

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