Women's History month and a look at a one-woman play called "She's History"
March 20, 2012 1:12 p.m.
Amy Simon, writer, performer of She's History
Ashley Gardner, Executive Director, Women's Museum of California
Related Story: Women's History Month: A Humorous Look At Famous Women
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A couple years ago, the history channel unveiled a special series of programs called America, the story of us. It could just as easily have been called America, the story of him, considering how few women were featured in the programming, but that is in the unusual. Even after 2 generations of women's studies programs, Americans still don't know much about the courageous and fascinating women who shaped this country, from revolutionary times to now. Luckily, we can get a humorous crash course in famous American women this week in a 1-woman play called she's history, the most dangerous women in America, then and now. It's being featured by the women's museum of California as part of their women's history month events. My guests, Amy Simon, writer and performer of she's history. Welcome.
SIMON: Hi, thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Ashley Gardner is here, executive director of the women's museum of California. Welcome back.
GARDNER: Great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Amy, you're the mother of two girl, and it was one of their school projects that got you starred creating she's history.
SIMON: My daughter came home from school, she was about 10 years old, and she said I want to do my women's history report on Cher. And I said Cher? And she said or Janet Jackson. So of course that planted a seed, and I started to simmer about why my daughter thought it was okay to even think about doing a women's history report on Cher or Janet Jackson.
CAVANAUGH: Was that the extent of the famous women she was familiar with in American history?
SIMON: I think this was about fourth grade. I think they knew about five women, Abigail Adams, Florence nightingale, and no, I don't think she knew much. And throughout the years, they do learn about a few others. The curriculum here in California, middle school, and they learn about the colonial time, so they learn a few things. The Seneca falls convention, and just a drop in the bucket. But that's not till eighth great. So no, we're not learning.
CAVANAUGH: So who are some of the famous women we meet in your play?
SIMON: Well, I know you only have a little while, but I could tell you for hours. The Mary Walston close, who write -- the title alone says a vindication of the rights of women, so women have been fighting just to be recognized as human beings in her day. Women didn't even have right, they couldn't own their own body, they couldn't own property, they couldn't sign a legal document. They had nothing. They were considered --
CAVANAUGH: When you were doing research, did you ever say to yourself why haven't I heard about this particular woman before?
SIMON: Yes! That's what got me going, and gets me going every single day. It drives me crazy, and I heard you mention, I watched America, the story of us, and I was biting my lip the entire time. And I remember a few years ago, this was a Time magazine anniversary, big glossy issue, most important famous people of the past hundred years, and there were three women in it. It makes me crazy.
CAVANAUGH: You often present the stories of women inicalical whose contributions have been all of forgotten. Why?
GARDNER: Well, I think we have to look at who was writing the history book. They were being written by men, and women were excluded to a large degree, and still are today, and I think in our modern world because this information isn't readily present. But being taught is part of the curriculum. I think our education system is a little behind that. But it leaves a void of information and young women, young girls are seeking out people who they can look at as role models. So pop culture tends to come in and fill in that void so much we get this split no spears, and the Cher. And I love Cher, I think these amazing. But beyond that, women who are doing things and naming things. How many women can name the first woman attorney in California? That's an important thing when women were not allowed to go to law school. Clara photos, trained herself, sat for the bar, and wrote legislation to allowed women in California to voters.
SIMON: I'm so happy to hear you mention Clara photos, in LA, we have a building named after her, and I think people only hear about her because of the OJ trial. I was grateful for at least her name being known, but yeah. One of the women -- I don't portray her, I wanted to put in a word for Anne Hutchinson. Some people call the mother of the first amendment. And that is a name that some girls and people are familiar with. I touch on her story briefly. She was banished in the 16 hundreds because she had the audacity to speak in public to other women about religion. She ended upholding meetings in her own house and discussed religious matters, and she had a different idea. So she was a fascinating woman because she was a mid-wife, and a Bible teacher. When she was put on trial, she was pregnant. Women back then had 15, 16 kids. And her story, she's put on trial, and hounded and grilled by the governor, and the problem was that she had an answer for every single question. She was smarter than the men, and it pissed them off so much that they banished her. So I briefly touch on her story. But some of the women that I portray, one of my favorites is Elizabeth Katie Stanton. Elizabeth and Susan were the greatest partnership in women's history. And Elizabeth came from a rich, privileged background, born in 1815, her father was a lawyer and a Congressman, and a big sexist. And that really informed her life. She worked her whole life trying to change the laws. She had five kids, and she hooked up with Susan B. Anthony who came from a poor -- she was a Quaker, and Quakers have a big part in my show. Because they educated their women, and they were a very cool group. They worked on the 14th amendment, and all kinds of things, worked for years, for their entire life. And I do a wonderful scene in the play, where she's in the kitchen, cooking, she's stirring the puddings, and she's crying because she's tired of being left at home all alone, her husband is off traveling, she's raising the kids, the servants aren't helping her. She's lonely, pissed off because she has no rights. And she's working with Susan B. Anthony on the 14th amendment
CAVANAUGH: One of the things that you mentioned is you were watching Nancy Pelosi's speech when she became speaker of the house. And you were moved to tears over that. And it didn't seem to affect your daughter.
SIMON: Right. This is -- what Ashley was referring to, how pop culture sadly has a much bigger influence on our children than the real heros and her wins. In 2008, when she won first female speak are of the house, I was laying in bed with my younger daughter, and I was so emotional because it was so beautiful. And I said to my older daughter, calling her into the room, rose! Come in here! It's Nancy Pelosi! First female speaker of the house. Two heartbeats away from the president! History is being made! So she comes in, I go what do you think? She goes, oh, yeah, mom, that's kind of cool. Do you have a headband? And I was like, oh, no! This is important! But that's the way it is. They're not interested in that.
CAVANAUGH: Could it be that the women's movement is in a sense a victim of its own success? Young women can't imagine a world where they wouldn't have a nearly equal opportunity.
GARDNER: Right, I think women today feel they have the opportunity to do whatever they want. But there's still huge gaps in their education, and pressures that our society puts on women. We still have a lot in our work place, sexism that goes on, certainly -- the simple example of a young woman going to work in a restaurant. They're often asked to look for sexy, and yet their male counterparts aren't asked to do the same. So it's still out there. Look at the Victoria secrets ads, they're beautiful, come close to being porno graphingic in my mind. So we need to reach women and know their power is mainly in their minds and heads and education, and not in thebling they're wearing or the kinds of jeans they have on, ownership the guy on their arm. And to be able to assert that power, and know that it comes from within.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us what events the women's museum still has coming up?
GARDNER: We have a full weekend. A poetry performance at the YWCA downtown. If you haven't been to the Y lately, it mainly works with domestic violence women and children, and they're doing great work, but they have restored their auditorium. This building is over 100 years old, and their auditorium is charming and historic, and it has a small stage. So wee using that facility, Friday night for a poetry performance of young women who found their voices and are going to perform. Then Saturday night, we have Amy Simon with she's history, and on Sunday afternoon. We're going to be looking at the local and global issues of human trafficking as it applies to women. Ya so a few more events, and then speaking in lots of place. But those are the main events. It woulding great for people to see it, because it is part of San Diego's history, and we'd love to invite you to put your toe in the water of women's history in some level, in an interesting way. That's why Amy was so appealing to us. In this day and age, you have to educate through entertainment. And it comes together so beautifully in her package.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us just briefly what kind of reactions you get to your show, she's history?
SIMON: I'm so provide to tell you, people stand up and applaud, they come up to me afterwards in the lobby, men, women, children, everybody. I have a comment book, people write things in there that are so touchingly. They are hungry for this information. And I found there's sort of a collective feeling of guilt this we're not being taught, and we're not teaching our society about the accomplishments and struggles and the pioneering women that came before us.
CAVANAUGH: I've got to end it there, Amy Simon's show, she's history, the most dangerous women in America, then and now will be presented by the women's museum of California at the downtown YWCA, Saturday night, and a matinee performance this coming Sunday. Thank you both very much.
GARDNER: Thank you Maureen.
SIMON: You're welcome.