The Groundbreaking and Fabulous – Feminists of the Town Hall’s (NYC) History
Many performers have graced the Town Hall stage at West 43rd Street in Times Square: Billie Holiday’s last concert; Nina Simone and her daughter Lisa Simone, Alice Tully, Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, and so many more. The hidden history of the venue is one of resistance, inclusion, and women’s empowerment.
The Town Hall Theatre was established by suffragists, in celebration of Women’s Equality Day. The theater opened in 1921, but activists began planning for it in 1894 when the Women’s Suffrage amendment to New York’s Constitution failed. Women faced a culture that held that women had “disabilities” that prevented them from understanding the issues of the day, and that deciding between candidates would actually cause women to faint at the polls.
There was scientific agreement at the time that women were considered less evolved than men. Edmund Clark, author of Sex in Education, was concerned if women overused their brains it could lead to complications such as: “numberless pale, weak, neuralgic, dyspeptic, hysterical, menorraghic, dysmenorrhoeic girls and women,” resulting in bloodless female faces, consumption, scrofula, anemia, and neuralgia.” Further, women’s education should be designed for their frail dispositions to prevent “neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria and other derangements of the nervous system.”
In 1891, a Dr. William Warren Potter explained to the (exclusively male) Medical Society of New York that mothers who were introduced to an inappropriate curriculum suffered from dwarfed reproductive organs that became “deformed, weakened, and diseased.” Popular Science Monthly published Dr. A. Lapthorn Smith’s findings that educated women were at a higher risk for sickness and suffering before marriage, and unable to physiologically function.
In response to these myths and misinformation, six prominent women created The League for Political Education. Dr. Mary Putnam (1842 – 1906), was the first woman admitted to the French Ecole de Medicine; Lucia G. Runkle (1844 – 1922) was on the editorial staff of the New York Tribune, Adele M. Fielde (1839 – 1916) was a translator and missionary to China; Catherine A.B. Abbe (1843 – 1920), served as president of the City History Club; Eleanor B. Sanders (1849 – 1905) was an activist and donor to Hampton University for Native American and African American scholarships, and Lee W. Haggin (1856–1934), was a wealthy socialite. Their purpose in creating the League was to create a “political education program” to educate women with open discussions about intellectual issues including economics, politics, and current events.
With critical support from Harvard University contacts, the League grew to 600 members. Professor Robert E. Ely (1861 – 1948), from Harvard’s Education Department, lectured at the League on a regular basis and left his teaching position to become the director of the League for Political Education. In 1907, Ely founded the Economic Club of New York with J. W. Beatson (1840 – 1913).
In the League’s early years, the lectures focused on the new federal income tax and women’s suffrage. Men rarely attended; the League became known as the “the foremost nonpartisan forum of non-men in the country.” Another arm of the League was the Civic Forum to raise awareness about civic responsibility and international goodwill.
The club met in different locations around the city until 1912, when Anna Blakslee Bliss (1851 -1935) made the first contribution for an actual building and in 1917 the site was chosen in the heart of the up-and-coming Times Square near a new subway hub. The League formed the Societies Realty Company to oversee the project and hired the architects McKim, Meade and White who had built Boston Symphony Hall, renowned for its perfect acoustics. The architects achieved the same acoustic excellence in the Town Hall with its perfect seating and the expression, “no bad seats in the house” was coined.
The Town Hall opened on January 12, 1921 and women activists and leaders took to the stage and the theater housed a star studded list of luminaries. Here is a brief timeline, including the dates of their appearances:
Carrie Chapman Catt (1859 -1947) who was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association., which folded into the League of Women Voters. (January 12, 1921)
Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966), founder of Planned Parenthood, held the First American Birth Control Conference (November 10-13, 1921) but was shackled and gagged off the stage by the NYPD for discussing birth control, the mention of which was labeled obscenity under the Comstock laws. The NYPD was notified by the Diocese of New York to stop the event and arrest Margaret Sanger. (November 13, 1921)
Lady Astor (1879 – 1964) spoke; she was the American born heiress who was the first woman to serve in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. (April 26, 1922)
Ruth St. Denis (1879 – 1968) with Martha Graham (1894 – 1991), performed on the Town Hall stage. In 1931, St. Denis founded the Society of Spiritual Arts and “promoted the dance as a sacred art” influencing generations of modern dance. In 1926, Martha Graham founded the Martha Graham Dance Company and created 181 ballets redefining dance. (February 27, 1923)
Jane Addams (1860 – 1935) was honored by the League for Political Education. Addams was a leader in the Settlement House Movement and co-founder of Hull House, working to bridge the gap between immigrants, the sick, the aged, the poor and the wealthy. Addams was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. (December 27, 1929)
Emma Goldman (1869–1940) an anarchist who fought against “widespread inequality, repression and exploitation.” Goldman supported both women’s suffrage and birth control. She was considered dangerous because of her ardent support of freedom of speech. (February 3, 1934)
Antonia Brico (1902 – 1989) founded the Women’s Symphony and with the assistance of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the all-female orchestra made its debut at Town Hall. Later, Brico led the New York Philharmonic. (February 19, 1935)
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 -1962) presented her talk “Young America Looks Forward,” and defended the New Deal. (February 27, 1935)
Marian Anderson (1897 – 1994) made her operetta premiere at the Town Hall when no other venues would allow African Americans to perform. December 30, 1935)
On November 16, 1944, the Town Hall celebrated 50 years since its founding in 1894. The theme of the evening was “In the Footsteps of Freedom,” a review of the progress women had made over the past fifty years. The presenters included: “Mrs.” Agnes E. Meyer (1887 – 1970) journalist and civil rights activist; Dr. Alice S. Woolley (1882 – 1946), president of the American Women’s Medical Association (1944/45) and the Women’s Medical Society of New York State (1940/41); and “Mrs.” Ruth Bryan Rhode (1885 – 1954) a writer, a congresswoman, the first woman to serve on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the first female US ambassador to a foreign country (Denmark). Frances Perkins (1881 – 1965) the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary and a driving force behind the New Deal, addressed inadequate health care and education and the power of philanthropy because “poverty is a threat to prosperity.” (November 16, 1944)
Susan B. Anthony II (1916 – 1991) spoke in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). After the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, the ERA was proposed by Alice Paul and Nora Stanton Barney (1883 – 1971), granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton Barney was one of the first female engineers in the US, and a graduate of Cornell. Ms. Stanton Barney referred to the ERA as the “fair practices bill for women,” and argued with Ms. Anthony that her great-aunt would have supported the ERAy
Clare Booth Luce (1903 – 1987) was on a panel discussing “Town Meeting: What Can We Do to Improve Race and Religious Relationships in America?” Mrs. Luce was a congresswoman, ambassador, editor of Vanity Fair, and wrote The Women, an all-female production performed on Broadway. She married Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Sports Illustrated, Life and Fortune. (October 7, 1947)
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977) spoke at the Town Hall at an event sponsored by The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Project Parents Committee. She was a sharecropper and vice-chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Party. Ms. Hamer told of the “brutal beatings she endured by the police trying to register black voters.” The next day, on August 22, 1964, in one of the landmark moments of the civil rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer gave the same testimony before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention. Fannie Lou Hamer left the audience of the Town Hall with her words: “I only have one question. Is this America, where we can go along and be beat up without any Federal intervention in the State of Mississippi?” (August 21, 1964)
Coretta Scott King (1927 – 2006) starred in the Freedom Concert sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to kick off her tour to raise funds to continue their work for their civil rights, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. (November 14, 1964) This is where and when Mrs. King met her long-life friend Dorothy Height (1912 – 2010). Height was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement and advised presidents and world leaders. In 1989, Height received the Citizens Medal Award from President Ronald Reagan, and in 2004 she received the Congressional Gold Medal and was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame International. Height received an estimated 24 honorary degrees. (November 15, 1964)
Judy Shepard (b.1952) mother of the late Matthew Shepard and founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation brought the Laramie Project to the Town Hall along with Moisés Kaufman of the Tectonic Theater Project. There was a star-studded reading of the play, hosted by Tipper Gore (b. 1948) with musical performance by Cyndi Lauper (b. 1953). Please take the time to watch Matthew Shepard’s story https://www.matthewshepard.org/about-us/our-story/. Professor Scillieri notes in a personal recollection: “I was there that night and will never forget the pain but strength of everyone to accomplish what the Buddhists have asked us to do – when we change our heart and reach out and change someone elses’ and they reach out…that is how peace comes about… Moisés Kaufman traveled with the Tectonic Theater Project to Laramie, Wyoming to interview townspeople about the murder of Matthew Shepard and compiled them into the Laramie Project to create awareness about the need for change about hateful attitudes toward LGBTQ+ communities.” (December 1, 2006)
Finally, in the ultimate rebuke to the medical men of the 1890’s, Hillary Clinton (b. 1947) and Bernie Sanders debated on the Town Hall stage for the presidential nomination in 2016, and for the first time in its history women make up the majority of representatives on the New York City Council. The Town Hall Theatre witnessed all of it, and women willed it into existence to create a space in which to be seen.
by Peace in Action
Professor Donnalynn Scillieri
Dr. Gerri Budd
Professor Scillieri had been a grant writer at the Town Hall and moved onto higher education in Women’s and Gender Studies/Sociology where she met Dr. Budd. There they founded Peace in Action.