My Rearview Mirror

by Zoe Nicholson

Written in late 2020.

Recently I was asked if this is the worst time I could think of.  I laughed.  What a ridiculous idea. Oh its bad but worst?  No. It is almost impossible to assign such a value when your rearview mirror is seventy-two years old.  The highs and lows come into focus.  With distance, their size and impact diminish and their relationship magically surfaces. One thing leads to another, seeds another and always without knowing at the time. 

A woman stands on a stage, her back to the audience, pointing up at a projection screen displaying an image of several protestors with their hands in the air.
Performance of Tea with Alice and Me, Beverly O’Neil Theater, 2018

A simple yes to a phone call in 1982 led me to write four books, write and perform a solo show, appear in a tv show and in two full-length movies.  More importantly, that yes led me to 40 years devoted to activism and equality centering on my North Star, Miss Alice Paul.  

In April 1982, author and activist, Sonia Johnson called and invited me to join her in a public fast for the Equal Rights Amendment. As you can surmise, I said yes. Sitting on folding chairs in the State Capital building in Springfield, Illinois, we fasted on water for 37 days. We were demonstrating our commitment to equality – beyond words.  People spit at us, threw food at us, stepped on our feet.  People knelt before us, asked for autographs, laid flowers at our feet.  In my diary I reflected; love us or hate us, the crowds have no idea who we truly are.  It was dangerous and ludicrous all at once but the gist was undeniable; we wanted Constitutional Equality. 

7 women sit in chairs with a banner behind them that reads "Women Hunger for Justice - Day 21" June 1982.
Fast, Day 21.   Zoe, second from the left.  June 1982

To insulate myself from the cyclone of tempers —Phyllis Schlafly to Catholics for ERA— as I sat, I wrote in my diary.  It originally began as a way to shun an inquiry or appear unavailable.  It was my shield.  Twenty years later, with the release of the historically erroneous HBO movie, Iron Jawed Angels, it was clear I had to do something to preserve the truth of the 1982 ERA fast.  I had to make sure this fast would not be romanticized, fictionalized, trivialized as Anjelica Houston and Hillary Swank had done to Alice Paul and the suffragists of 1913 – 1920.  I dug out my diary from a box in the garage and set to publishing it.  

What began as a protective tool became a book, The Hungry Heart ~ A Woman’s Fast for Justice.  That ignited a fire of coincidences at the corner of art and activism.  It became all consuming.  I committed to reading only about activism and equality and, to my surprise, I discovered that Miss Alice Paul, lifelong radical activist and author of the ERA, had also surrendered at age 28, to read only about equality.  She vowed to give up all other subjects until there was full Constitutional Equality.  (By the way, she lived to 92 and kept her promise).

Managing My Passion

Bursting at the seams with inspiration and information I wanted to use my history as a radical activist and teach it through performance.  It was not enough to speak at a conference or march for social justice.  It was not enough to stand on the steps of the Supreme Court or risk arrest speaking against the Ugandan legislation to murder all gay men.  No single action was enough.

Zoe stands with her back to the camera, looking up at a large photo of Alice Paul.
Zoe with Alice Paul.  National Archives, January 2020

I wanted to collate everything into one solo performance.  The example I drew on was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  I wanted to stand on a stage, in front of huge screens illustrating nonviolent direct action.  I invited the audience to go with me to Seneca Falls, through the battle for the 19th Amendment, the introduction of the ERA in 1923, the 1971 hearings, the failed ratification efforts of 1982, the rejuvenation in 2017 and the balcony in the Virginia State house where the 38th state ratified the ERA 2020.  I took them to marches for a dozen causes, showed them sit-ins and civil disobedience. 

Zoe & Nevada NOW President, Jeri Burton stand in front of the Virginia State House dressed in white, with suffragette sashes.
Virginia ratifies the ERA, January 2020. Zoe & Nevada NOW President, Jeri Burton in the Virginia State House.

I want everyone to know that the first person to organize a march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House was a woman.  Women stood around the White House protesting the racist, sexist, white supremacist, Woodrow Wilson during a pandemic!  The Headquarters for the National Woman’s party was on Lafayette Square, across from historic St John’s Church, now known as Black Lives Matter Plaza.  Did you know that wealthy 5th Avenue women supported factory women to unionize and rushed to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire? Or that the roots of American feminism began with the Quakers and Iroquois?  The longest public fast in the US was for the ERA. Women were practicing Nonviolent Direct Action here in the US ten years before Mohandas Gandhi in India.  

All of this led me to write and perform, Tea with Alice and Me. which opens inviting the audience into Miss Alice Paul’s Tearoom, The Grated Door.  And when it is over, ninety minutes later, the audience has tools; the tools of resistance, persistence and, most of all, the history of so many radical activist women who have been erased, redacted, invisible.  

A photo of Zoe Nicholson standing in front of a projection screen during an outdoor performance of Tea with Alice and Me. Zoe is pointing to a photo on screen, and a deep orange sunset can be seen behind her.
Tea with Alice and Me, Cesar Chavez Park 2019

The Intersection of Activism & Art

You never know what your art is going to do.  You never know where your embedded seed will go.  Someone who sees or hears or feels your art will tell another who tells another.  Molly Crabapple puts down her pen and can only believe that it will create change.  Like the works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Margaret Atwood, those who are ready for their message will find it.  

Our shared question is what truly creates change.  The answer is art.  Art is the vehicle that delivers inspiration to society.  You are entrusted with this great task, to annoy, to disrupt, to ignite, to bother and, finally, temper the heat.  All the politicians, legislators, judges, may think they are leading when in fact, they are no where near the front line of change.  Direct from the heavens to your pen, your brush, your piano, your imagination, change is born.  To which I say, thank you.   

Zoe Nicholson
Activist, Author, Artist



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