‘Women’s Suffrage Puppet Pageant’: Bringing powerful stories to Celebrate Mansfield

Students and community members attend the the opening of the ‘Women’s Suffrage Puppet Pageant” at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. File photo/The Daily Campus.

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted and secured women’s constitutional right to vote. While 1920 marked this historic moment, the fight for women’s suffrage dates back to America’s founding, with many activists urging for change and making strides in the fight for equality long before the 20th century. The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry sought to tell some of these stories on Saturday’s “Women’s Suffrage Puppet Pageant,” as part of 2020’s Celebrate Mansfield Festival. 

The Ballard Institute has played a large role in the Celebrate Mansfield Festival since the event was conceived. In years past, the Ballard has chosen a theme and created a show to engage with the Mansfield community and showcase the creativity of the talented Ballard puppeteers. Past themes include: “Pollinators!,” “Shakespeare,” “CT Authors” and “Mansfield Historical Figures.” The weekend’s festivities typically included a community puppet building workshop, followed by a pageant to feature the newly-created works.  

While the pandemic prevented the festival from being carried out in the usual way, the Ballard continued its tradition, producing a virtual pageant on Facebook Live on the topic of women’s suffrage. The event was hosted by the Ballard’s director, Dr. John Bell, second-year MFA candidate Felicia Cooper and associate justice to the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  

Yes, you read that correctly. Justice Ginsburg made an appearance as the show’s co-host, albeit in puppet form, to help honor the legacy of the suffragettes discussed and to remind audiences that the fight for women’s equality is far from over. 

The event began with an original song performed by members of the Ballard Brass Band, titled “Nana Was a Suffragette.” The song captured the event’s message in its lyrics, “votes for women is just the beginning, you haven’t seen anything yet.” 

The event featured toy theatre presentations put together by puppeteers from places as close to home as Mansfield and as far off as Puerto Rico, South America and Palestine. All of whom sought to tell the stories of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, highlighting the strides made by women of color, Native American women, working-class women and immigrants.  

A vast array of suffragists were chosen to be highlighted with their own show in the Women’s Suffrage Puppet Pageant. While more well-known figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth were featured, the majority of the women discussed were lesser-known individuals, like Tennessee Celeste Claflin who was the first female stock brokerage owner on Wall Street, and Djuna Barnes who published her experience being force-fed by doctors as one of the suffragettes who went on a hunger strike. 

Many of the leaders who aided in the fight for women’s equality also championed other causes. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a fierce abolitionist, Jovita Idár championed Mexican-American equality through the press in 19th century Texas and Zitkala-Ša worked for the rights of Native Americans.  

Outside the U.S., the Ballard puppeteers brought to life the stories of Juana Colón, Louisa Capetillo and May Ziadeh, who fought for women’s equality in their own nations and beyond. 

All of the event’s stories utilized a variety of different puppetry styles, using music, poetry and quotes to enhance the performance and shed light on the often overlooked figures of American and world history. 

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