College of HUMANITIES, ARTS & SCIENCES

Nancy, National Suffrage Day

The story had everything – the largest parade Washington D.C. had ever seen, unjust imprisonment, train rides crisscrossing the country – and it all ended in the triumphant ratification of women's right to vote.

But what shocked University of Northern Iowa music professor Nancy Cobb was that she'd never heard it before. As she learned more, the captivating events inspired Cobb to begin work on a musical, "The Suffragist," a daunting undertaking that would both showcase the excellence of UNI's School of Music and offer its students a priceless opportunity along the way.

Stories and history lessons about the women's suffrage movement often revolve around Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two celebrated activists who pushed Congress to consider what would become the 19th Amendment, which prohibited state and federal governments from denying the right to vote on the basis of gender.

But what is often forgotten, Cobb said, is that the amendment languished in Congress for over 35 years after it was first introduced in 1878. By the time it was adopted in 1920, Anthony had been dead for almost 15 years.

Cobb's musical, which is being written by playwright Cavan Hallman, tells the story of the women who fought to push the amendment across the finish line between 1915 and 1920, including Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucy Burns and Inez Milholland.

The story follows these iconic leaders as they struggle toward the goal of winning the franchise for women. This battle of ideas and leadership is painted in intimate human moments, and with musical spectacle, bringing to life the parades, rallies and protests the revolutionary activists used to advance their cause.

Cobb who is a recent recipient of the American Association of University Women-Iowa Chapter's Distinguished Faculty Award, which recognizes women faculty's contributions toward gender equity, is very enthused to be sharing the story of the suffragist movement. These women protested in front of the White House for two years and endured abuse and imprisonment to guarantee women's right to vote, but, for many, their story is unknown, Cobb said.

"I am passionate about this project and how it should be in our consciousness," Cobb said. "Sometimes we take for granted what has happened before. These are women who made a huge difference, and we need to know about them."

But before the musical can premier in 2020, there is a robust and lengthy process to bring it to life. Several workshops are needed to examine and improve the production. For assistance in these steps, Cobb turned to a group of hand-picked UNI freshmen, who would be in college long enough to see the project through to completion. The students will even get paid, thanks to a grant Cobb secured from UNI's College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences.

It is a mutually beneficial relationship. Cobb gets young, talented and passionate performers, and the students get the type of professional experience that is rare for an undergraduate.

"It's a unique opportunity," Cobb said. "I've been a faculty member around institutions for about 40 years, and I've never seen the premier of a musical at my place."

The students are expected to learn the music on their own, just like a professional actor.

"It becomes a little bit of a test of a professional situation," Cobb said. "They'll get to see the whole process unfold and have the opportunity to premier something that has never been performed before. It's something they can put on their resume."

In the end, Cobb hopes that she can use the power of music and performance to make history captivating — perhaps even sparking the journey toward greater discovery.

"The idea is that people will say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn't know that. I'm going to go read a book about it,'" she said.

Cobb's group of students will be performing three scenes from the musical with a live orchestra on March 8 during a School of Music concert in honor of International Women's Day.