Dear friends and readers,
Last night I went to the first of five plays I mean to attend, just a small number of the many events sponsored by the Capitol Fringe Festival this summer. It was a one-woman story-telling play: The Hello Girls: A Tribute to Women Veterans of WW1 written and performed by Ellouise Schoettler. I was attracted to it because I so enjoyed The Bletchley Girls (a BBC mini-series) about young women hired to break codes during WW2: I did not realize this show was also about women doing hard important work who are not recognized for it. Schoettler is a professional storyteller whose plays include Eloise, I presume an amalgam of the Eloise books which my older daughter when she was 11-12 just reveled in.
In this 75 minute play Schoettler enacted three historically real women who around 1914 volunteered for military duty as switchboard operators in France in WW1. What happened is when the war was over, and the women came home, an official person phoned each and told them they were not regarded as veterans, were not therefore entitled to benefits, and the only recognition or thank they would be getting was the parade of ceremony General Pershing went through once when all the women from all the stations (over 100) were brought together and thanked. Each was chosen as representing a type: Schoettler could not know what was their personality so I assume she extrapolated from what she could find out about their previous and subsequent jobs, their education and what they did precisely when they were in this military corps.
She began as Olive Shaw, the least educated and most timid of the three, the most trained to acccept, who had been, working in some kind of shop and had taken French in high school. She was one of the ordinary switchboard operators. Then we met Grace Banker Paddock, the most upper class of them, had gone to Barnard College, and put in charge of the first group of 33 women. These first told us where they were right now: it’s 1989 and Olive is in assisted living and is just thrilled because at long last she was visited and thanked by a general; she had been told that she was recognized as a veteran as a codicil to a GI Improvement Bill of 1977, but after that heard nothing about it. Alas all her friends from the corps had died, one two weeks ago; there were now only 18 women left. It is 1938 when Grace is talking to us; she is now married and has tried to find out why the women were not recognized as vets — and presumably denied benefits, thought this was not said. An unfortunate lacuna. As part of their riveting stories (as told by the story-teller actress), we heard of the hardships, the way they were treated as in servitude (the way men in the armed forces are especially when of lower rank), the real dangers, the moving about, never told where they are going, warned everything is a secret (or they will be in trouble), and briefly about their return.
The third woman, Merle Anderson had the shortest speech. It is 1977 and she is exultant. She is clearly a pushy kind of woman, mid-western accent (from Montana she tells us) and tells much less of her experiences in the war; but rather how she led the political fight to get the women recognized and managed it in 1977. How indignant she was when she was told she would not be recognized (no talk about money again). How she lobbied and fought with this and that other group, how the bills they brought up were buried before they got to the congress floor. She told us about the group leader, Grace, who died in 1938 and so will not know. She regrets that.
When she was done, she asked if we had anything to say. There were but two minutes and I was not quick enuogh to ask a question.
The problem with the play was it was conceived as a tribute to being “feisty,” and the moral was that if you fight for something steadily (like Merle) did you can move mountains or some such idea. Its subtitle is A Tribute to the Women Veterans of WW1. That’s why I regret not asking if they got any money for pensions. But I’m not sure that this was not a ploy on the part of Schoettler because what her playlets showed was the exploitation, lack of respect, the (I presume) lack of compensation at least until 1977 for these women. Perhaps afterwards for those still alive. Her title does emphasize that the women were endlessly greeted by a “hello” and their job of sending on and receiving needed information began with a “hello.” This was a feminist play but the feminist was muted because of the way it was conceived. The only woman of the three given some words talking about the power relationships exposed and exploitation and lies was the third.
Among the incidents told about how these women were treated and the risks they were made to take (several unnecessary) was one by Grace that struck me most because I have a personal identification or similar experience. Grace shows how the women were often forgotten (she was organizer and would know), and once in a building about to burn down where they were at first hesitant to flee though everyone else did (all men), she gets a phone call just before a bomb did hit, and she was told to get these women out or she would be disciplined. This reminded me of how when my husband was dying of cancer, very weak, emaciated, and I was similarly traumatically pressured as well as treated disrespectfully and without any regard for my or my husband’s true interests.
So I admit their hardships are not just experienced by women who as a group didn’t (and most still don’t) matter, but anyone without power who others treat as if they don’t count because they don’t count. Jim counted even less than me. But there was only one man in the audience, and he was there as one woman’s husband. Most of the women in the room were past forty and somewhat older. Schoettler looked in her sixties. She said on the stage after she had finished she was pleased to see so many younger women. Maybe it was 20%? Wasn’t she pleased with women over 50? don’t we count too?
I now have a preponderance of older women in the classrooms am teaching in with me — in their 50s to 60s. At Oscher Lifelong Learning Institutes, the women outnumber the men full-stop, and in literature and art courses, there is one man for every 7-8 women. Most people avoid the world feminism; it is now a word that stigmatizes. Most are reticent to speak of oppression as this is “complaining,” and may ostracize them, or (heavens forfend) make a man in the room uncomfortable; some will deny the meaning of what they see if you make it too clear. But these women older women having had much experience of the world (unlike younger ones) at least are quick to see misogyny, recognize it and remark on it, or conversely feminist stories. They are not fooled by faux feminism (apparent strength, mainstream capitalist behavior, imitations of men), and not fooled by presentations of women as violent as necessarily positive. In a way they don’t wouldn’t need explanations for The Hello Girls. Except without explicit talk, it is not clear who understands what. Not everyone can go further than experiencing their instincts since they too are reticent to speak — as if it were complaining (a no-no), not protest, reluctant to be seen “as feminist” as that’s now a stigma, want men about and men don’t come back when feminism begins to be discussed openly too often. You can only stand up for yourself if you are “feisty,” not questioning any deeper values that give rise to the situation.
I don”t know how many other events were on at the Fringe at this time — there is a perpetual cabaret in a tent this year. There are raw caucus kinds of plays going on, electronic music. I doubt any young men would come to a play like this on their own; this helps explain why despite good ratings The Bletchley Circle was cancelled after the second season (they were told the ratings weren’t high enough; or the new Upstairs Downstairs similarly cancelled.
The Fringe Festival does have here and there real feminist pieces in its at least 50 events — I don’t know how many they put on, it goes on for 3 weeks, a few starting at mid-day, most at 6 pm and ending around 11 pm, most about 1 to 2 hours at most, one after another in numerous venues. This is the only one I picked out — the other political play is about the Israeli soldiers who refused to carry on slaughtering Palestinians and spoke out against the slaughter last summer. Then I chose 2 Shakespeare and one Middleton play (transposed to the French revolution). Mine is actually a staid and conservative taste aesthetically (see Season 1; Season 2).
They seem to be in different venues this year from previous — few in the center of DC, hence harder to find the first time. The Hello Girls was done in a seemingly gentrifying neighborhood in northeast Washington — I say seemingly as it was also clearly poor, many of the shops in open air hovels below high-rise buildings, most though art stores, for and selling painting, some book stores too, two theaters in not bad shape, people sitting out on the sidewalk in front of cafes. I was almost late getting there because my pro-quest map gave me unnecessarily and puzzling instructions once I got off the Metro stop: Brookland-CUA (Catholic University of America). Luckily I had the nerve to ask people and several directed me aright. Then when I got there, the doors on the building were all locked. I almost left in despair, but went next door which was a building decorated with signs from the Fringe Festival. Yes it was next door and I was told to go back. I said the doors are locked. It transpired the doors are kept locked and someone was supposed to be sitting by that door with nothing else to do but let patrons in. A young man got a key from a chain of them and crossed over with me and let me in. Just in time.
I did not have the kind of acute anxiety and STUGS I experienced last summer. I think about what Jim would have said (making the second man); he might have remembered key incidents in his life from his time as a day boy (ages 11-17) wearing a different colored shirt so as to stigmatize him as there because he was so smart but could not pay, much less board. When I got back by Metro and car, I bought myself some penne (pasta) from a nearby Noodles and Company and settled down with wine in front of my computer to watch Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow.org. Had Jim still alive we would have gone to one of the bookstores, eaten out in one of the cafes.
Normally I would have “filed” this blog under My Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog as about women’s art, or my Sylvia one as partly autobiographical and political, but I thought I’d put all the Capitol Fringe reviews I do on this blog site so they may be found together.