Oberlin Alum Inspires Tony Award-Winning Broadway Musical

Suffs takes inspiration from Jailed for Freedom, a 1920 book by noted suffragist Doris Stevens Class of 1911.

July 2, 2024

Eloise Rich '26

Five suffragists from Suffs pose on stage
Doris Stevens, played by Nadia Dandashi, sits on the left among her fellow suffragists.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Suffs, a Broadway musical about the early 20th-century suffragist movement, is a two-time Tony winner as of June 16—one for Best Book and another for Best Score. The musical has deep ties to Oberlin: Playwright and starring actress Shaina Taub based her music, book, and lyrics on Jailed for Freedom, a memoir by Doris Stevens Class of 1911, who was a prominent figure in the battle for women’s right to vote. 

Stevens appears as one of 23 characters in Suffs—in Act I, she is accepted as the secretary of the 1913 National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Convention—as does Mary Church Terrell, Class of 1888, a renowned proponent of suffrage and equality and our library’s namesake.

Stevens’ political action during the 1910s—she was unjustly arrested several times during her activism— inspired her to write Jailed for Freedom. The book was published after the August 26, 1920, passage of the 19th Amendment, which prohibited the United States from denying the right to vote based on sex. 

Taub received Jailed For Freedom from producer Rachel Sussman, who encouraged the soon-to-be playwright to tell the story of women that had yet to be told. When Taub received Stevens’ book, she stayed up all night reading it, saying that it “read like a thriller.” Not long after, she wrote Suffs because she recognized herself in the women Stevens recounted in her book, from Terrell to Inez Milholland to Ida B. Wells: “stubborn, cool, oriented girls who find their sense of joy in getting [things] done.” 

A degree in sociology from Oberlin would inadvertently lead Stevens to advocate for suffrage, even though she wasn’t involved in the Oberlin College Equal Suffrage League while a student. Stevens had expected to teach English in France. But soon after graduating, she acted as an organizer and field secretary for a conservative suffrage organization in Ohio, with work aimed toward state-by-state enfranchisement, rather than the radical push to amend the Constitution.

However, Stevens was always drawn towards radical action. Indeed, a 1913 article in The Oberlin Review states: “Doris Stevens ’11 is spending a few days in Oberlin. Miss Stevens is Field Secretary of the Equal Suffrage League in Dayton, Ohio. She is here to recover from neuritis caused by carrying an Equal Suffrage banner in the recent Inaugural parade at Washington.”

Around this time, Stevens met Alice Paul (played by Suffs creator Taub), whose militant background greatly influenced Stevens. The following year, Stevens became executive secretary, political chairman, national organizer and speaker for the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS), which would later evolve into the National Woman’s Party, where Stevens served as vice president. 

Beginning in 1917, Stevens joined 2000 or so women in the Silent Sentinels vigil, organized by the NWP. The women picketed outside of the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, shaming him for his hypocrisy and complete lack of support for the woman’s right to vote. These protests—which occurred until 1919—serve as the first act by American citizens to demonstrate directly outside the White House. According to a 1939 edition of a local paper in Omaha, Nebraska, Stevens—described as a “militant Omaha-born feminist”—was jailed for 60 days as a result of this protest.

Stevens’ feminist advocacy extended beyond the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She advocated for wages for traditionally female tasks like housework and referred to marriage like a business, or a “joint-stock company.” In 1923, she was promoting what would become the basis of the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment. In 1928, Stevens would serve as the first person to chair the Inter-American Commission of Women, one of the most prominent international women’s rights organizations of the era.

Additionally, education was a cornerstone of Stevens’ activism: the latter part of her illustrious career was characterized by campaigning for the legitimacy of feminist studies in academia. In fact, Oberlin’s Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies department currently offers a student research award called the Leah Freed Memorial Prize—named after the 1977 graduate who conducted paramount research on Stevens.

Any articles on Stevens from the 20th century, even those on her divorce from Dudley Malone, a notable liberal attorney and activist of the era, open with acknowledgment of her as a “women’s rights champion” or a “noted feminist leader.” While she may have fallen out of our contemporary history books, her stature in the 20th century was certainly acknowledged. When Stevens died at 74 years old in 1963, an article for the Niagara Falls Gazette referred to her as a “crusading feminist” in its headline. The clipping closes as follows: “A feminist to the core, she clung to her maiden name although she was married twice.” 

Malala Yousafzai and Hillary Clinton are producers on Suffs, which opened on Broadway in April 2024 after premiering at The Public Theater two years earlier. Currently, the musical is showing at the Music Box Theatre and is set to run into January 2025. More information on tickets can be found at suffsmusical.com.

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