“The reason women should go to college is because it gives them something to think about while ironing.” This line didn’t come from performer Ellouise Schoettler, but was inspired by her show Pushing Boundaries. As we stood outside the Goethe Institute post-performance, one of the audience members offered this quote, and it made Schoettler laugh a lot. Her performance documents her involvement with the push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) between 1979 and 1982. Although most of the performance occurred within the theater at the Institute, the discussion afterwards took place on the sidewalk in front of the venue after a fire alarm went off at the end of the show. No one was injured; the staff said it was probably triggered by the restaurant’s kitchen next door.
The vibe Schoettler had created was so sociable in the theater, it seemed natural for the 10 to 12 of us to stand around and chat afterwards. Another audience member speculated that the fire alarm was triggered by some conspiracy to stop women’s rights.
It was a great night: the show had us consider the efforts and tribulations of fellow human beings, and then connect with those around us, to listen to others’ histories and perspectives. This is no easy task which Schoettler accomplished, but she had such a disarming way of presenting her story, it made sense to stay a little longer and get to know one another.
Asked if the alarm cut off any of her narrative, she said no, that the show ended at the line where she acknowledged the sadness of the loss – the push to find enough states to ratify the amendment failed – but that she believed a seed had been planted.
Her efforts may not have produced the result she aimed for, but other achievements emerged and have made it possible for women to pursue a variety of career paths which she never considered growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s. She said if we had stayed in the theater she would have asked if people in the audience had their own memories of the ERA and the changing role of women in the United States. Instead this conversation happened outside.
Her tale begins when she is a senior in high school presented with three options: to become a librarian, a secretary or a nurse. Since she had never considered her career path, she exclaims she will be a nurse and plans to move to Baltimore to enter Johns Hopkins’ nursing school. Later in the story she reveals that these “options” presented to women at that time were little more than pastimes to explore before the next step in life – marriage – presented itself.
She tells these anecdotes with a sweet blend of humor and hindsight. She can see now how little she knew then, and delivers the memories straight-up.
From the get-go we know she won’t disclose everything: she says early on “Some parts of this story I like to forget and I’m not telling you about those…”
I admire how she gives us the necessary names at the appropriate times – people she met like Gloria Steinem and artists she admired like Alice Neel — but leaves the people who do the more egregious things nameless.
For instance, towards the end of the show, after 1982 when the ERA failed to be ratified, her application for a job was rejected – after she passed through three interviews – because of her involvement with the ERA. She says this moment was especially difficult because it was a woman who informed her of the decision, but the person remains unidentified.
Although the focal point of the story are the three years Schoettler was the ERA Campaign Director and Organizer of the National Business Council for the ERA at the League of Women’s Voters, she includes enough biographical information leading up to these roles to give a sense of their significance and her lack of preparation for the jobs.
Pivotal points in her story connect with any audience member, regardless of gender or political persuasion. She tells of a time of “abject sadness” and an old friend who was no longer willing to listen to her despondence. Trying times hold the potential to motivate all of us, and the best friends are those who tell us the truth, however painful. This moment motivated her to go back to school, to earn a college degree, while raising three young children. Her stories of attending Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross in 1968 – surrounded by women who were “agitated and agitating” — are fascinating.
Especially poignant is the dedication and bond between Schoettler and her husband. He is the one who brought home “The Feminine Mystique” for her to read at a time when she felt “I wasn’t easy in my skin.” And he is the companion who stood by her during her exploration of classes at Dunbarton, albeit “Jim and I had a few quiet nights about these new ideas roaming around in my head.”
From a historical perspective the show is riveting because it coincides with the anniversary of the protest that occurred July 9, 1978 when one hundred thousand women marched in support of the ERA. Hard to believe, given the expanded opportunities that women have today, that the ERA was never ratified.
Schoettler says it was hot then, like it is hot now, and she wears a white blouse and pants in the show, just as the women 22 years ago wore white. She describes her involvement with the National Business Council and meetings with Polly Bergen who became involved in the movement to ratify the ERA. She recalls appointments with congressmen and changes in policies of the NEA such as gender-blind judging that resulted from her efforts. She acknowledges mentors such as visual artist June Wayne who served as her advisor on politics and policy.
There’s an element of democracy that traces its roots to ancient Greece called parrhesia, the ability to speak boldly and to speak truthfully. It came to mind while listening to Schoettler’s story, someone who acted with conviction, who believed in shifting the options not only for her career but also for her children’s generations, and who now tells us about her choices and decisions.
Many of our popular films and shows today spotlight the courage of someone committed to change – like Thurgood or Milk or Invictus. What makes Pushing Boundaries so appealing is that we share the space with this person who carved a path to make the future a better place for us.
Written and performed by Ellouise Schoettler
Reviewed by Kate Mattingly
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?