A story that needed to be told

The story had everything – the largest parade ever in Washington D.C. up to that point, a tortured stretch of imprisonment, train rides crisscrossing the country – and it ended in the triumphant ratification of women’s right to vote.

But what shocked University of Northern Iowa Music Professor Nancy Cobb was that she’d never heard it before.

University of Northern Iowa music professor Nancy Cobb plays from her musical "The Suffragist."
UNI Music Professor Nancy Cobb plays selections from her musical, "The Suffragist."

It was three years ago at the UNI Yager Luncheon. Cobb was sitting next to Catherine Palczewski, a professor of communication studies, who was discussing a book about her research on the rhetoric in Congress during deliberations of the 19th Amendment, which prohibited state and federal governments from denying the right to vote on the basis of gender

“She discussed the parades, whistle stop tours, Silent Sentinels and imprisonment of those women who were working hard to get the 19th Amendment passed,” Cobb said. “I sat there and was amazed that I didn't know these important stories about how I got the vote. I said to Cate, ‘This is a musical.’” 

True to her word, Cobb started work on a musical, “The Suffragist,” a daunting undertaking that would both showcase the excellence of UNI’s School of Music and offer its students a priceless opportunity along the way.

Stories and history lessons about the women’s suffrage movement often revolve around Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two celebrated activists who pushed Congress to consider what would become the 19thAmendment.

But what is often forgotten, Cobb said, is that the amendment languished in Congress for over 35 years after it was first introduced in 1878. By the time it was adopted in 1920, Anthony had been dead for almost 15 years.

Cobb’s musical, which is being written by playwright Cavan Hallman, tells the story of the women who fought to push the amendment across the finish line between 1915 and 1920, including Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucy Burns and Inez Milholland.

The story follows these iconic leaders as they struggle to justify the means for their ultimate goal of winning the franchise for women. This battle of ideas and leadership is painted in intimate human moments, and with musical spectacle, bringing to life the parades, rallies and protests the revolutionary activists used to advance their cause.

These women protested in front of the White House for two years and endured abuse and imprisonment to guarantee women’s right to vote, but, for many, their story is unknown, Cobb said.

“I am passionate about this project and how it should be in our consciousness,” Cobb said. “Sometimes we take for granted what has happened before. These are women who made a huge difference, and we need to know about them.”

But before the musical can premier in 2020, there are several workshops that are needed to examine and improve the production. For assistance in these steps, Cobb turned to a group of hand-picked UNI freshmen, who would be in college long enough to see the project through to completion. These students will get paid for their participation in the workshop, thanks to a grant Cobb secured from UNI’s College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. 

It is a mutually beneficial relationship. Cobb gets young, talented and passionate performers, and the students get the type of professional experience that is rare for an undergraduate.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” Cobb said. “I’ve been a faculty member around institutions for about 40 years, and I’ve never seen the premier of a musical at my place.”

The students are expected to learn the music on their own, just like a professional actor. 

“It becomes a little bit of a test of a professional situation,” Cobb said. “They’ll get to see the whole process unfold and have the opportunity to premier something that has never been performed before. It’s something they can put on their resume.”

In the end, Cobb hopes that she can use the power of music and performance to make history captivating - perhaps even sparking the journey toward greater discovery.

“The idea is that people will say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that. I’m going to go read a book,’” she said.

Cobb’s group of students will be performing three scenes from the musical with a live orchestra on March 8 during a School of Music concert in honor of International Women’s Day.