By Dr. Lisa Merrill
Professor of Rhetoric and Performance Studies
In 1870, Victoria Woodhull published an article in the New York Herald, where she noted that “the disorganized condition of political parties in the United States at the pres-ent time affords a favourable [sic] opportunity for a review of the political situation.”
Woodhull went on in this editorial to announce her plans to run for the presidency of the United States in the upcoming 1872 election. She was the first woman to do so, and this was half a century before all women in the United States even had the right to vote.
I have long been fascinated with Woodhull and with the nomination of Frederick Douglass as her Vice President and running mate (a position he refused, to continue instead to work for the re-election of president Ulysses S. Grant). In this election Susan B. Anthony and other women’s suffrage activists were arrested and tried for the “crime” of having voted while female.
And exactly one hundred years later, in 1972, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, was the first (and so far, only) black woman to run for President of the United States.
The debate held at Hofstra, for the first time, pit a female candidate who has received the nomination of a major political party against a male candidate who (like Horace Greeley in 1872) has had no political experience, and has changed his political affiliations. As in 1872, and 1972, current issues of income inequality, of race, of gender and of whose lives matter are being fought in the streets, and contested in polling places.
As we showed onstage, the speeches from campaigns almost half a century – and a century and a half ago – reflect an urgency to address these issues, just as they are currently being debated in the streets; in social and political movements – such as Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements – and the Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders campaigns.
I am a performance historian, and professor of rhetoric, performance studies and women’s studies. As such, I examine performances – both onstage and in everyday life – as both a subject of study and a way of understanding social and political issues, and their impact on spectators both in the past and in the present.
Never in my lifetime have these approaches been more apt, or more timely than in today’s debate between a male reality TV star and a female politician.
I hope that in staging events that draw upon the words of two earlier women who ran for the presidency, Woodhull and Chisholm; and 19th century activists for the causes of women’s rights and the rights of black people – Anthony and Douglass, we encouraged audiences to think about the issues in the current debate at Hofstra from a broader perspective that reflects the potential of activist energy in earlier historical moments, and in so doing, hopefully inspire them today.
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