Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Opera and Politics

The Steiny Road Poet has been telling her friends and colleagues lately that The Mother of Us All, Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera that premiered in 1947, seems to inform the race for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. The Poet will say up front that she believes American voters for the first time in history have two worthy choices in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but quite frankly, the Poet is ready for a bigger change than what Senator Obama can offer—a woman leading, and an experienced leader at that.  


The subject of The Mother of Us All is Susan B. Anthony’s life-long struggle to gain voting privileges and civil rights for women in the United States.cartoon3-cr In real life, Anthony used the 14th Amendment, which guarantees civil rights to all citizens to convince petty officials in Rochester, NY, that she was eligible to vote and vote she did for Ulysses S. Grant. For this act, she was arrested and because she was a woman she was neither allowed to defend herself nor have a jury of peers. Subsequently the 15th Amendment was ratified. Although it prevents states from prohibiting the right to vote based on race, color, or previous servitude, it restricted illiterate men, non-tax payers, and women from voting. The 16th amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified after Anthony died.


During the Civil War, Anthony and most members of the women's votesposter-crmovement worked toward the emancipation of slaves held in the United States. In 1863 she helped form the Women's Loyal League, which supported the policies of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. After the war, Anthony and others tried to connect women's suffrage with freeing the slaves. However, once the 15th Amendment was made a law, women’s groups lost the support of Abolitionists.

In the opera libretto, Anthony, known as Susan B., asks for help from a black man on the women’s voting issue.  

Susan B

Negro man would you vote if you only can and not she.

Negro Man

You bet.

Susan B

I fought for you that you could vote would you vote if they would not let me.

Negro Man

Holy gee.

Susan B

If I believe that I am right and I am right if they believe that they are right and they are not in the right, might, might, might there be what might be.

Negro Man and Woman following her

All right Susan B. all right.


Although these two black characters hear Susan, they have no power to help her. Eventually, Susan B tells her friend Anne that it is “wonderful as the result of my work for the first time the word male has been written into the constitution of the United States concerning suffrage.” However, she goes on to say that although men have kind hearts and will help women if they faint or if their houses catch on fire, men are afraid and that they fear women.

Susan B

They fear women, they fear each other, they fear their neighbor, they fear other countries and then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other, and when they crowd together and follow each other they are brutes, like animals who stampede, and so they have written in the name male into the United States constitution, because they are afraid of black men because they are afraid of women, because they are afraid afraid. Men are afraid.

When Anne questions Susan B about whether women are also afraid. Susan B says women are only afraid for their children.

Susan B

Ah women often have not any sense of danger, after all a hen screams pitifully when she sees an eagle but she is only afraid for her children, men are afraid for themselves, that is the real difference between men and women.


Wellesley College valedictorian in 1969, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first student to deliver the commencement address, during which she stated, “The challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.” As a high school student in 1962, she met the Reverend Martin Luther King and purportedly he made a big impression on her. Clinton’s campaign for rights has crossed color lines in her efforts to improve women and children’s rights.

In the opera, Susan B debates Daniel Webster who refers to her as sir as an indication that women were not seen in his day as public leaders and in order for him to debate with her, Webster had to see her as a man.

Daniel Webster

We have thus heard sir what a resolution is.

Susan B

I am resolved.

Daniel Webster

When this debate sir was to be resumed on Thursday it so happened that it would have been convenient for me to be elsewhere.

Susan B

I am here, ready to be here. Ready to be where. Ready to be here. It is my habit.

Daniel Webster

The honorable member complained that I had slept on his speech.

Susan B

The right to sleep is given to no woman.


Apparently as a woman knows, being ready to serve and to carry the weight of one’s brothers and sisters is not good enough. Furthermore Susan B tells Anne, her friend and fellow suffragette, that once women get the vote they will also be afraid.

Susan B

Yes some day some day the women will vote and by that time. …By that time it will do them no good because having the vote they will become like men, they will be afraid, having the vote will make them afraid, oh I know it, but I will fight for the right, for the right to vote for them even though they become like men, become afraid like men, become like men.



Here the Steiny Road Poet, who is no politician but knows her standing in the world as an American had been brought down by an arrogant man—our current president—and his advisors, will step out on the edge and say maybe Hillary should have kept her good name and not taken her husband’s five years after they were married. Yes, changing her name to Clinton probably helped him, but now the shadow of her husband seems to color how people view the person born Hillary Rodham.

In Stein’s opera (identity and naming are big themes throughout Stein’s work), the name you go by carries a lot of weight and the subject of names shows up immediately when the prologue begins. Also note that in Stein’s libretto before it was set to music, Stein spells out her main character’s name in full in the opening section—the prologue. Subsequently Stein shortens the full name to Susan B.

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony is my name to choose a name is feeble, Susan B. Anthony is my name, a name can only be a name my name can only be my name, I have a name, Susan B. Anthony is my name, to choose a name is feeble.

Later in the opera, Stein seems to make fun of women changing their names because they marry. Friends of the operatic Anthony marry and the woman says she will change her name but not because it is his name.

Jo the Loiterer

She has decided to change her name.

Indiana Elliot

Not because it is his name but it is such a pretty name, Indiana Loiterer is such a pretty name I think all the same he will have to change his name, he must be Jo Elliot, yes he must, it is what he has to do, he has to be Jo Elliot and I am going to be Indiana Loiterer…

Jo the Loiterer

All right I never fight, …but what can I do, if I am not she and I am not me, what can I do, if a name is not true, what can I do but do as she tells me.

The gloss on Jo the Loiterer is that he has already told Susan B that he would abide by her laws if they get passed as long as he does not have to change his name. By the way, he cannot help her get voting rights passed for women because he is a loiterer and therefore disenfranchised.


The Poet strikes a big gong now to remind everyone who has the right to vote that trivial details often decide for whom one will vote.  Also consider this, if Senator Obama were running against move star-activist Brad Pitt and let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Pitt had served as governor of the state of California or better yet the governor of Louisiana (and therefore had equal experience to Obama), then would Obama be enjoying his current rock star acclaim? After all, we know Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t know how to get down and boogey. The Poet by comparison is just trying to raise the question of qualifications and who will be able to hit the ground running once elected to the Oval Office.  

Susan B at the end of Mother says “Life is strife, I was a martyr all my life not to what I won but to what was done.” She prefaces this life is strife declaration by saying “going forward may be the same as going backwards.” The Poet thinks this race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is not about a black man versus a woman. It’s about what can be done and who has the track record to do it.  In the prologue of Mother, Daniel Webster sings the following dirge: “He digged a pit, he digged it deep he digged it for his brother. Into the pit he did fall in the pit he digged for tother.” Let’s hope we of us (as in U.S.) aren’t saying oops, I slipped after we go to the polls in November.

Images - Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


©2008 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
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april 2008

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