Opera Explores Untold History of Upstate New York’s Women’s Suffrage Movement

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Situated on the lands of the matriarchal Haudenosaunee and located less than 100 miles from the site of the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, Colgate sits near the epicenter of 19th and 20th–century women’s suffrage history.

Therefore, it was only fitting that a performance of the opera Pushed Aside: Reclaiming Gage, on Matilda Gage’s efforts — alongside those of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — for women’s right to vote, made its way to campus on March 24. Here, the Persis Parshall Vehar composition, with libretto by Gabrielle Vehhar, illuminated the historic fights for freedom that took place so close to home.

Projections above the Memorial Chapel stage of a speech by New York State Senator Rachel May introduced Gage and her modern-day relevance. May spoke in favor of adding Gage’s name to a resolution that recognizes March 2019 as Women’s History Month in New York State. She discussed the fact that Gage is often left out of the history books because she refused to compromise her seemingly radical beliefs.

“She was not only an advocate for women’s rights — her house was a station on the Underground Railroad, she became very close to a lot of Native American women, and she recognized that Haudenosaunee women had enormous amounts of power within their own communities,” May said. “She took their example as something other women should follow.”

After May’s introduction of Gage and her politics, conductor Heather Buchman proceeded to inform the audience that the Sunday afternoon performance coincidentally fell on Gage’s birthday, and invited them to help sing the “Battle Hymn of the Suffragists” in commemoration. The lyrics projected above the stage and the entire cast, in full period costume, marched up the aisles, holding “Justice for All” signs and singing lyrics such as “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the flame of women’s rage / Kept smoldering for centuries, now burning in this age.”

Once underway, the opera followed Gage’s life in Fayetteville, N.Y., between 1852 and 1890. Scenes included Gage’s first public speech likening women’s suffrage to the abolitionist movement, her welcoming a runaway slave into her home, and her eventual betrayal by lifelong friends Stanton and Anthony, who believed Gage’s inclusive views were too radical and left her behind.

A recurring theme throughout the piece focused on Gage’s admiration of Haudenosaunee customs. She was particularly impressed by their divorce laws, which give women the right to their own property and children. This fostered her belief that a Christian viewpoint should not be written into women’s rights propaganda, as it would exclude Muslims, Jews, atheists, and Native Americans who deserve equal rights as well.

“All freedoms are equal and interconnected,” Gage, portrayed by Danan Tsan, sings.

Pushed Aside is bookended by Gage’s daughter and son-in-law reflecting on Gage’s life next to a replica of her gravestone. Frank Baum sings about Gage’s support of his writing career, and it is revealed that he authored the Wizard of Oz, modeling his strong heroine Dorothy after his late mother-in-law.

The final moments of the performance leave the audience reflecting on the gravestone itself, etched with the sentiment, “There is a word sweeter than mother, home, or heaven and that word is liberty.”

The fully staged opera was presented by the Colgate Department of Music in collaboration with the Society for New Music. The Colgate Chamber Singers assisted under the direction of Director of Choral and Vocal Activities Ryan Endris.