Kirsten Greenidge is the Playwright-in-Residence at Company One Theatre through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
Under a sweltering sun on the Fourth of July, I stood with my husband, two kids, sisters, and mother on the front lawn of the Robbins House in Concord, Massachusetts. As our pre-arranged private tour began, a large family began to roam towards the tiny historic landmark, away from the cars, tour buses, and growing numbers of historical reenactors on the other side of the site. When the family reached us, we made room for them in the half circle we’d created outside the Robbins House stone front step, and our guide asked us each to introduce ourselves and where we were from. Not far, the family explained: Belmont. Around here, Belmont is known as being rather wealthy and rather white. When my mom learns someone has moved to Belmont she frowns and one of us follows up with, “Maybe it’s changed,” sometimes out loud, sometimes silently in our minds. When my father joined the private sector after years as serving as an organized crime prosecutor—a promotion, to be sure—Belmont was a town my parents considered. My mother’s memories of getting an icy reception from realtors and prospective neighbors in those days aren’t fond. Today, we answered silently.
“…they know all this history, they watch old episodes of Liberty’s Kids,” one of the several adults from the family said, waving her hand back in the direction of Lexington, famous for its colonial history and the “shot heard ‘round the world” that sparked revolution not just in the North American colonies but in other areas of the globe as well. She looked towards the children of her group, standing casually next to this house once owned by former slaves and free blacks denied residency in areas more centrally located to Concord’s town center. The grown-ups of the family all presented as white, but several of the kids were of color. When our guide asked questions, one of the youngest, about four, piped up often, prompting his blonde mother to explain, “He’s really hoping to learn about chocolate people who fought in the Revolutionary War.”
Collectively, our hearts, my sisters’ and mine, melted a bit.
Our guide, a trustee of the Robbins House and longtime Concord resident, Maria Madison, lit up, and continued with her introduction of Caesar Robbins and his descendants’ lives in the tiny two room cottage.
Robbins House was the fourth stop on what my sisters and I had been referring to as FemTour…or the fits and starts of what we were hoping FemTour could become. For over a decade I had been trying to get organizations to fund this idea I had: a road trip to landmarks that are female-inspired, that perhaps have been overlooked by a white male dominant culture, that maybe could turn into plays, or maybe just help me be a more informed person as I wrote the plays I’d already started. Was it theatre? Was it history? I wasn’t really sure. I just knew I had this idea. Unsurprisingly, the rejection letters piled up. I probably wouldn’t’ve funded such a scattered idea either. But then the National Playwright Residency Program came along, and with it, opportunity: funding. And last winter when my sister Kaitlyn, a novelist and featured columnist for Lenny Letter, asked what we were all doing over the summer—camping? beaching? maybe the mountains?—I said FemTour.
“Where are those babies going to be during all this?”
“I can’t afford all that childcare. Three weeks? They’ll just come. They’ll be fine.”
She thought a moment.
“I want to go. I’ll write about it.”
So we began.
But if something begins with one sister, it’s got to eventually include all three. Our middle sister, Kerri, holds a PhD in American Studies with a focus on black history in New England. It would be just silly not to include her anyway. So we were off.
The last time the three of us worked together in earnest was when our projects were limited only by who had a music lesson and who had gymnastics practice. Three weeks in the summer uninterrupted by book tours (Kaitlyn), workshops (me), meetings (Kerri—so. many. meetings, woman, go take a nap), and teaching (all of us) proved very difficult to come by. Three weeks was out. We crafted a week and some change around July Fourth. Next, we set out to define what we were actually doing.
“Listen to History Chicks, I think that is kind of what it is,” I said.
Some time went by.
“Did you listen to History Chicks?”
“Did you listen to You Must Remember This?”
“Um. Not yet. I think I did. Yes?”
“Listen to that.”
“Is it like History Chicks?”
“I don’t know. But I think you’ll like it.”
The Greenidge Girls easily spin out when we brainstorm. Kaitlyn’s take is that us working together is “like herding cats. Very intelligent, lovable, hilarious cats. But cats. And not quiet ones.” To get to our agenda, we realized early on that we needed to become clear about our individual and collective definitions of feminism and what that charged term means to each of us.
Feminism means the economic, political and social empowerment of all women (cis and trans). When I say ‘empowerment,’ though, I mean the real embodiment of power—through positions of authority and through influencing conversation and train of thought. I do not, however, believe that every woman in a position of power is inherently a feminist. Basically, if your feminism only affects/empowers/uplifts women who look the same as you and share your income bracket, and you are already in a privileged position, then I don't think you’re feminist—I think you’re working to maintain the status quo.
Feminism is automatically ‘intersectional,’ as the young folks say, and it is therefore by design historical. Feminism means equal access to resources, to one's body, and to one's economic stability regardless of race, class, or gender. And this can only be attained through the economic, political, and social equality of men and women.
And I suppose, because I have small children and appreciate their ability to think in nuanced ways but also their need for concrete explanation, I found myself sounding like a bumper sticker during some of these conversations. For me, feminism at its root means men and women—and those who are non-binary, too—are equal and should be treated that way, but it must grow and expand to address the notion that women and individuals who identify as women deserve respect and representation because they are human beings and to deny that is to deny a basic human right to live and thrive. I grew up under Reagan and Bush, but both men were married to women who “spoke up,” as my grandmother called it. Because of the way our mother raised us, it never occurred to me not to be a feminist. To me, this was just a matter of basic human decency. It was not until I became a parent and joined mothers groups and interacted with a variety of different women that I finally realized some women really, really do not grow up thinking this way. I knew perhaps men didn’t. But women? Alive today women not on TV? Huh.
These early conversations shaped the content of “the tour.” One approach could have been to start at the “birthplace” of modern feminist thought in America—Seneca Falls—which was indeed our approach early on. But Kaitlyn wasn’t feeling it, and as we dug deeper into conversation, our commitment to inclusion made us question this, because doing that would essentially ignore centuries of history of indigenous and enslaved women. We chose to start at Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot Museum instead.
Just setting up an itinerary was daunting and grueling but revealing. Some museums had websites that were so difficult to navigate, we had to forgo a visit until we could spend more time cultivating a relationship with a curator or trustee. Kerri’s wish to include Madam C. J. Walker’s home Villa Lewaro on this leg got curtailed when we realized we’d be driving a day out of our way to see the outside of a private residence, making the trip a nice thought, but impractical. Most ominous was the message on one site that a major set of museums dedicated to women’s history in upstate New York was closed indefinitely.
The internet has a way of making the world seem as though it spins on an electronic axis, information churning by an invisible hand. As we began to visit websites and make contact with the curators of these sites that specialize in history that is not widely known, that tell the stories of people who are not widely celebrated in history books, it became apparent to me that an aim of FemTour is to make the invisible visible, and that that only happens when individuals in a community take the time and effort to do the painstaking work of making them so. The heroes are not just the historical women we are researching, but the individuals who create and maintain these museums and landmarks, who go to the meetings, sit on boards, raise money: they are incredible stewards of history and do not get enough recognition for the work that they do on a very granular level.
Our prep for the tour also consisted of asking: “What the hell is this? Like, when people ask us, what do we say? It sounds crazy.” And disingenuous. A tour of feminist landmarks of the United States? Many of the places on our list included historic homes whose inhabitants would not have considered themselves feminists. And our truncated week meant we were relegated to just Connecticut and Massachusetts. Forty-eight states down from the grand caravan that included a photographer and videographer we’d envisioned (yeah, we dreamt it. We woke up). And we are each from different disciplines, needing different things from FemTour. Maybe a play, maybe a novel, maybe a historical piece…or maybe something else. Maybe those things are for other people. Hopefully, as we expanded the tour and finally made it to more landmarks and more states, made more of the invisible visible, there’d be so many stories from these trips other writers would be inspired to write about these women and their communities. How to explain that in this mythological elevator pitch?
We spent much of the spring not entirely sure, but one thing that has always brought me and my sisters together is how desperately we crave story. We ended up estranged from our father, but before that, one thing that was lovely about our family was how he’d bring home books from the Barnes and Noble downtown for each of us. Another favorite pastime was listening to our mother talk to us about “when she was little.” We share a mind’s eye, but we are also, at the same time, fiercely stubborn about our individual opinions. We tugged and pulled about where to go, how to divide our time, who to consult, how often to break for meals. The ghosts of past family “vacations” flitted menacingly around the corners of each phone call: Maine 1986. DC 1989. Iowa 1998. But this would be different. Now we had Google Docs. Everyone was free to edit, to contribute. Every woman could lean in.
It turns out the Greenidge Girls really hate Google Docs. Despite this, Kerri describes working together not like cats, but
Awesome! It has made me understand ourselves in relationship to one another as adult professionals and not merely as sisters whose lives are forever intertwined in such intimate and significant ways. It makes me appreciate the fact that I grew up in a family that had so many issues, but learning and education and analysis is not one of them.
And I agree it made me understand ourselves as professionals. Professionals who do not like organizing shit. Nevertheless, by mid-June we had an itinerary. Not bad for no-tech-please-cats. We agreed that since Kerri’s expertise is history, and because she already had some working relationships with some of these sites, she would work to find point people at each site if possible. Since I was bringing my kids and sometimes my husband—i.e. the most friggin cats—my job was to maintain the itinerary. Our tour broke down as follows: Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, Connecticut, the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury, Connecticut, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts, the Robbins House in Concord, Massachusetts, the Sojourner Truth Walking Tour in Florence, Massachusetts, and the Emily Dickinson House Museum, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Each night we had a debrief meeting where we discussed our take-aways from the day and our goals for the next day. Each day we planned down-time and time for my kids to get away from this history love fest. It was a careful mix of using meetings to discuss the work, but allowing meals to be times when additions to our tour—our mom, my husband, my kids—could talk about the history they’d seen.
One of the more powerful moments of FemTour was on our third day as the uberly knowledgeable Penny Outlaw, co-president and consultant of the Royal House and Slave Quarters in Medford, began our tour of what was once the home of Belinda Sutton, who petitioned Massachusetts for a promised pension that her former owners, the Royalls, did not give her, and won. She’s the subject of my Oregon Shakespeare Festival American Revolutions commission. As Ms. Outlaw spoke, we stood between the Royal’s mansion, large by even today’s standards, and the slave quarters, a horseshoe for luck nailed ironically above one of its doors. Ms. Outlaw pointed out the brick wall of the main house and its lack of windows—the few that dot the wall are small squares of glass that provide light to the “servant” stairwell inside. Across the way, on our left, large windows cut into the slave quarters wall looking out towards the shared length of grass. The house of the oppressor—opulent, enormous—visible always. The house of the oppressed invisible unless, of course, its inhabitants were called to be used.
Other moments on FemTour sang as well: at the Prudence Crandall House, where Ms. Crandall, a Quaker, established a boarding school for the daughters of free blacks in 1833 after all her white students abandoned the school when she admitted one black student. When Crandall’s neighbors grew upset and Connecticut took her to court, her case led to the establishment of the Black Laws, prohibiting blacks to be considered citizens. Prudence Crandall was eventually run out of town, but her house is now a museum. (Sidenote: Neil De Grasse Tyson is a direct descendent of a student of Prudence Crandall’s school. What?) During this visit we met Museum Guide Mark. Upon hearing our missive, Mark got very animated, explaining his usual post was another historic house and it was too bad we couldn’t meet the regular staff, and then he took care to include my kids in his tour, who, truth be told, looked like they were melting into the floor on this very hot day in a building without air conditioning.
The inclusion they felt at the Prudence Crandall Museum was in sharp contrast to how they felt three days later in Amherst, when the hotel pool sported a sign with its hours on the door. My son stood at the glass door, adding in his head, tapping his Croc-ed foot.
“Adults get fourteen hours a day in this pool. We get twelve. This is not fair.”
“No, it is not fair. I think they do it because some adults like quiet.”
“But it is not fair.”
On a FemTour, as we had talked about equality and inclusion and access to prep these two small people for this thing, I could not really argue about its not being fair. I could only posit the idea that adults sometimes like quiet and swimming in straight lines. I felt like a hyprocrite.
Western Massachusetts brought us to Emily Dickinson which almost got waitlisted from our first round of FemTour. None of us was thinking of Dickinson as overtly feminist, and our attempt to include women of color and women in the margins of mainstream history made us wary of well-known women like her.
What was lovely about Emily Dickinson’s House and Museum the following day was it was a reminder that to be her was to live an empowered life, no matter what she or others chose to call it, and despite the reality that she chose to remain at home for much of the latter part of it. That she lived by her choices and not the prescribed ideals of woman or personhood is, to me, a bit feminist in itself. And our entire party was in awe of our tour guide, Jo, who was able to recite long passages of Dickinson poetry and lore by heart and capture the attention of even my son, who at seven, and during this, our last museum, had had quite enough of any tour. There is a room in the corner of the house where visitors help select which words Dickinson could have used as she worked. My kids were dumbstruck listening to Jo and all the possible combinations of interlocking words that a Victorian woman who said yes to her life’s work and her proclivities tried out with pen and paper over a century ago.
Feminism has perhaps come into sharper focus for many in the wake of the 2016 Election. In the year of Hillary and Trump, it has made many communities notice our collective cultures’ treatment of women and girls. I asked my sisters about this, about feminism and if it has changed for either of them during the past year.
“No. I do appreciate that feminism and its understandings are becoming more nuanced,” says Kaitlyn. “I see a lot of people throwing the word ‘intersectionality’ around which is potentially good—but I also see a lot of people use that word and still be terrified/absolutely refuse to read the work of the black woman who coined it. That, to me, is feminism in its current state. And it is exhausting.”
“We have been having the same arguments that emerged in the Trump-Hillary campaign since the ante-bellum era,” say Kerri. “Namely, is ‘pro-woman’ automatically ‘anti-man’? Is ‘woman's right’ merely a right to support and maintain exploitative systems of power? Can women be feminist without completely advocating for woman's right to her own body? We have to do better, as educated liberals, to ensure that more people understand these as facts, not as opinion.”
And then there is the question of what all this has to do with our work. Who cares? I think each of us is acutely aware that if we could each stop worrying so much about all of this and write work about people who are easily recognizable, our professional lives might be less daunting. Just writing can be hard. Why make it harder by dragging the woman and race and class stuff into it? Maybe representation doesn’t matter and we’re too hung up on this all the time and should just enjoy being artists, just enjoy the intellectual pursuit each of our disciplines offers. But a nagging feeling usually takes over, as well as the whisper: that’s not enough.
For Kaitlyn’s part, she’s
interested in telling stories about the lives of men and women as they actually live them. Not as they believe they ought to be lived, and not the script that we've received as ‘true.’ In that way, I hope the work I produce is feminist. It's funny, growing up, I would always hear these stories or watch these movies or hear these jokes about ‘men’ and ‘women.’ Even as a kid, the premise seemed obviously false. So false, I assumed everyone was using those categories with a wink. Biggest shock of my life: realizing how many people take gender roles deadly serious.
For Kerri’s part,
Feminism impacts how I see African-American history and how I research black stories, including how I analyze personal statements and actions of the historical figures I study. Can W.E.B. Du Bois still be considered ‘feminist’ given his treatment of both his wife and his daughter? What does it mean to be a black male feminist in an age of patriarchal racial norms and intense anti-black politics? Can we take it for granted that black women were at the center of African-American history, or do we have to reiterate it over and over again? It has made me a more careful and thorough historian—I never take at face value the personal statements of many of the black male figures I study, particularly when it comes to their statements of the ‘negro woman.’
It was this refusal to take how history is taught at face value that made three of us really listen to that little boy on the grass in front of the Robbins House on the Fourth of July. There’s got to be brown people somewhere in the story of our country, right? I know there are. During that tour, our minds went flying—podcasts (scary! I concluded. I have two kids and all these plays to write), books, and connectivity. What became clear to us when we visited each museum, but particularly the Pequot Museum, is that in our desire to be inclusive, we did not want to become obtrusive: three misplaced Miss Annes, seeming to slide into communities just to say we’d been there. I’ve seen theatres do this to underrepresented groups and that is not what FemTour is about. What helped to solidify this when my daughter spilled water while we ate lunch in the pristine cafeteria of the Pequot Museum. When I rushed to find paper napkins to clean up the spill, I couldn’t find any. A custodian came over to help us, and I quickly understood. No extra napkins. Care for the environment that surrounds us. Leave a space the same way or better than as you found it. Don’t use materials blithely for your own personal need.
It will take a long time and a lot of care to build relationships with other underrepresented groups that we hope to include in FemTour, other women of color, and LGBTQ groups whose history can be included in this endeavor.
I think FemTour has become realized at a particularly exciting moment for the three of us. It’s exhausting and terrifying—many days I say to my sisters, “I am so tired. I can’t believe this is happening—” but it is also critical. “We are having a nationwide debate about the uses of history and what we choose to remember and include in the story of the US. I hope that this tour reminds people of how varied, and interesting the story of this country is,” says Kaitlyn. “And how we, as a people, have continually saved ourselves, over and over again. Very rarely did a ‘Great Man of History’ do anything for us that we weren't already working towards ourselves. I find that liberating, and hope others do, too.”
Kerri’s aims for the tour are lofty and are in keeping with our debriefs about funding and how to organize ourselves for our next trip in summer 2018 (more money, less problems: we’re gonna need an intern who can keep us, um, herded together), “I want this tour to be national and international in scope, so that when people go to a historic plaque or site (either in person or online) women are never absent. At a very basic level, I want women (all kinds of women) as visible as possible.”
For me, I hope, as we spread these lesser known bits of history around, people write cool stuff about these women, regardless of how they identified and represented themselves when they lived. The founding fathers are great. They’ve shown up in more than a few of my plays. But they’ve held center stage long enough. My hope is that that little kid from Belmont will be able to say one day, “Give me those keys. I belong here, just like the other folks who lived here before me.” ‘Cause they were here. Until then, we have a lot of driving to do.