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Three Generations of Women Thinkers: Seneca Falls to Inner-City Arts

The modern women's movement emerged from the abolitionists in the mid-19th Century. Courageous figures like Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, the Grimke Sisters, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton campaigned against slavery and for women's suffrage. The persuasive influence of these pioneering women took Antebellum America by storm and helped turn it on its head. I've often said "three generations on the same stage, all the ancestors on the same page." This week L.A. Letters shows the kindred ideas of three generations of women thinkers over the last 150 years.

In 1848, over 150 women and 30 men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to promote women's rights and protest male supremacy. One of the key figures in the convention was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her manifesto "Declaration of Sentiments" crystallized the rising tide for equality. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, her "Resolutions" made within the document made it clear that anyone who opposed women's rights was really "at war with mankind." For example:

Resolved, That all laws which prevent women from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority.
Resolved, That woman is man's equal -- was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be of such.
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"Tree of Fire" is a recent play by Jesse Bliss that uses Seneca Falls as a starting point. Set in a contemporary women's prison, three women of color dialogue with each other on how they ended up behind bars. The plot escalates as the old prison they are in begins to burn. As it burns down the women reflect on their lives. Chronology is played with as flashback scenes are sprinkled throughout the two act play. There's a dash of the supernatural when ghosts from 150 years before visit each of them with messages about their lives and the burning prison, as the characters reflect on growing up under poverty and oppression. The story moves between hostile prison guards, psychologists, abusive ex-boyfriends and extended monologues.

Bliss wrote the play after her 10 years of experience teaching theater workshops in women prisons for the Inside Out Writers Program. After hearing hundreds of stories, and also knowing the history of the women's movement, the play was written with the intention of telling the story of these forgotten women and the emergency of mass incarceration.

One of the main characters is a poet that muses on U.S. history and women's rights. Covering the prison-industrial complex, the Black Codes of the Reconstruction era, the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution, Jim Crow laws and the Seneca Falls Convention, her character is shown scribbling furiously in her notebook and voicing her thoughts to anyone that will listen, "the books are all we have." The three characters vow to never give up in spite of the challenges they face.

"Tree of Fire" covers a lot of ground. The accomplished film and stage actors that comprise the five-person cast -- Romi Dias, Miriam Glover, Julanne Chidi Hill, Lizzie Peet and Hansford Prince -- deliver a compelling performance full of witty dialogue that moves quick and packs a punch. A moody original score composed by Jesse Bliss, Fanny Franklin, and Geoff Gallegos accompanies the action.

Jesse Bliss in Downtown L.A. from the "Tree of Fire" Indie Go Go campaign video

Another thing that adds to the veracity of the play is the theater itself. Located in the heart of L.A.'s Skid Row, Inner-City Arts Theater is devoted to serving underserved inner city youth. The state of the art theater is the outgrowth of an organization started by Bob Bates and Irwin Jaeger in 1989, called Inner-City Arts. Following the budget cuts of arts instruction in the late 1970s, they decided to fill the creative void for underserved children in downtown neighborhoods, offering programs in music, theater and dance.The first location on Olympic Boulevard served over 60 elementary schools in its first year of operation. Their current space is the result of many successful years and their growing role in the downtown arts scene.

While I was at Inner-City Arts, I saw a flier for another upcoming event there -- the "Say Word Youth Team Poetry Slam Final" on March 16. Say Word is an organization founded by the award-winning poet Kat Magill. Their mission is to "encourage young people to speak for themselves and document their stories through spoken word." Several of Magill's writing students have gone on to receive university scholarships over the last few years.

A few years ago I had Magill as a guest at my former high school teaching position, and she was one of my students' favorite guest poets. I remember a decade ago when Magill began reading at Besskepp's "A Mic & Dim Lights" in Pomona, when she herself was just out of high school. Within a few years she became a touring poet and started working with underserved youth in the Inland Empire. She has travelled with the teen poets across the county to poetry competitions and literary festivals. Magill's fiery verse and uplifting teaching style is reminiscent of the pioneers from the Women's Rights Movement.

Another link in the same spirit is the poet Lola Ridge. Born in 1879, Ridge grew up in Australia and New Zealand, but gained fame for her writing when she moved to New York in her 30s. Her portraits of women factory workers, rising skyscrapers, and the social conditions of her era remain striking to this day. Her 1918 book of poems, "The Ghetto" is about Manhattan in the Gilded Age. Ridge went to live in the Bowery and the poems in the book are her report. Her nine-part, 22-page poem "The Ghetto" shows her sympathetic to the plight of working women and the city's underdog. These eight lines about a woman named Anna speak volumes about the changing role of women in the 19-teens:

Anna is different.
One is always aware of Anna, and the young men turn their heads
to look at her.
She has the appeal of a folk-song
And her cheap clothes are always in rhythm.
When the strike was on she gave half her pay.
She would give anything --- save the praise that was hers
And the love of her lyric body.

Ridge's poems reveal her to be a radical and a stylist. She writes beautifully about New York at the onset of the Modern era, but exposes the underside of unchecked commerce. Ridge has been loosely connected to the Imagists poets, but literary scholars have always had a hard time categorizing her work or placing her within the canon. The elegance of her diction is matched by the acuity of her observations. Her poem titled "Spires" comments on the hypocrisy of a monumental religious structure. Here's the seven-line poem:

Spires of Grace Church,
For you the workers of the world
Travailed with the mountains...
Aborting their own dreams
Till the dream of you arose ---
Beautiful, swaddled in stone ---
Scorning their hands.

Ridge is now considered a literary pioneer and one of the first feminist poets of the 20th century. Furthermore, she is revered by anarchists and Marxists for her dedication to social justice.

The continuum of ideas is an eternal chain. The spirit started by the early women's movement moves from the Civil War era, to the Gilded Age poetry of Lola Ridge, to the contemporary play "Tree of Fire," and the poetry writing workshops taught by the Inside Out Writers Program, and by powerful women like Jesse Bliss and Kat Magill. Though there's much more work to be done, these pioneering women have helped shift the consciousness of our world.

There are many other writer-activists doing similar work and next week in L.A. Letters will cover even more women artist trailblazers. This week celebrates the work of these invaluable ambassadors for social justice, these women are each towering figures in the timeless field of L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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