Finding her voice

A Single Woman

The play that Jeanmarie Simpson wrote in 2002 (and stars in) about Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin has gone national.

The play that Jeanmarie Simpson wrote in 2002 (and stars in) about Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin has gone national.

Jeanmarie Simpson is a liberated woman. The founding artistic director of the Nevada Shakespeare Company, Simpson grew up during the women’s liberation movement; her heroes were feminists. A passionate pacifist, she protested the Vietnam War and remains fervently opposed to the war in Iraq. In 2002, Simpson stumbled on the name Jeannette Rankin while online, and it changed her life.

Rankin, a leader in the suffrage movement, became the first U.S. Congresswoman in Montana in 1916, four years before women could even vote. “I was flabbergasted that I had never heard of her before,” remembers Simpson. “Within five minutes of reading about her, I knew I’d write a play about her life.”

Simpson bought books on Rankin and printed out every online biography she could find, including all 283 pages of a transcript of an interview Rankin did at the age of 92 with the University of California, Berkeley’s Suffragists Oral History Project. The result was A Single Woman, the play Simpson wrote, directed and now performs as Rankin, along with her husband and partner Cameron Crain.

Known for having said, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake,” Rankin lived between 1880 and 1973. A suffragist and pacifist, she voted against U.S. entry into both world wars and led the Jeannette Rankin Brigade of 5,000 women in Washington, D.C., against the Vietnam War, demanding unilateral disarmament. She was founding vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union (the organization now gives the Jeannette Rankin Civil Liberties Award). As a congresswoman, she fought for equal pay and an eight-hour day for women, child labor laws, the rights of Native- and African-Americans and the rights of immigrants. Until her dying day, Rankin remained a pacifist, an activist and an advocate for women, workers and children.

“She became the theater voice I had been looking for my whole life, the one that would express everything I believed in,” Simpson says.

The show was commissioned by California Stage, a small Sacramento, Calif., theater company, where it was first performed in Feb. 2004, beginning a three-week run. It received immediate praise and incredible word of mouth nationwide among civil rights and peace groups. Demand grew, and Simpson and Crain were booked rapidly. In a year’s time, the show has been performed in Colorado, South Dakota, Connecticut, California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana and is currently running at the Culture Project in New York City. Reviews remain glowing, and the show is now even being performed by other actors around the country. Meanwhile, Simpson and Crain are booked solid until March 2006.

The show begins with Rankin at age 92, granting one of her last television talk-show appearances. The play then moves backwards through her life to her childhood in Montana. Cameron Crain plays Everyman, an amalgam of characters including Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, children, sharecroppers and even journalists.

So why does this show have nationwide appeal? What makes Jeannette Rankin’s story so special?

“I just think Rankin’s voice packs such a wallop that it’s relevant today. To hear her today, you’d think she was talking about Iraq. The wisdom she expressed in 1915 about suffrage is the same wisdom we need today,” says Simpson. “It’s so gratifying that, for once, instead of doing a character I have to stand up for, now I’m doing a character that stands up for me.”