‘An unlikely heroine’: Marching Presidents to bring Ellen Clark Sargent’s suffragette story to life
KNOW & GO
WHAT: “An Evening With Ellen,” presented by The Famous Marching Presidents of Nevada City
WHERE: The Famous Marching Presidents of Nevada City will post a link when it is available, the goal being to have a community YouTube account where it can be available more readily. Please visit famousmarchingpresidents.org
TICKETS: Free, donations graciously accepted
For 34 years, The Famous Marching Presidents of Nevada City have been paying homage to our founding fathers and their First Ladies, but have also maintained the goal of educating people of all ages on the importance of the constitution and the role that their town has had in history.
In August, The Presidents will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment — which granted women the right to vote — with a video project featuring local actor Mary Baird portraying Ellen Clark Sargent, a Nevada City resident who led suffragette movements and ultimately helped pass the amendment.
“An Evening with Ellen,” an original production written by Baird and Pamela Biery, will debut next month with Baird as the title character and Rick Ewald serving as a modern-day interviewer, chatting with a 74-year-old Ellen Sargent. The performance will be recorded at the Nevada City Odd Fellows.
Sargent played a key role in advancing the suffragette movement, a woman who described herself as bashful but who stood up to a government to which she paid taxes yet wouldn’t allow her to vote.
She founded the Nevada County Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1869 and was the president of the California Woman Suffrage Association and treasurer of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Her work resulted in California women winning the right to vote in 1911.
Her campaign for national women’s suffrage led to the introduction in 1878 of the 19th Amendment to the United States constitution by her husband, Senator Aaron Sargent. After many hard-fought battles by the women’s suffrage movement, the 19th Amendment was finally enacted into law on August 20, 1920.
An August 26 dedication is on the agenda for a dogwood tree that was recently planted in Calanan Park in honor of Sargent’s efforts to obtain the right for women to enter the polling place, as well as to her dedication to uniting women’s rights organizations from all over the country.
“She was a shy conservative from Massachusetts and (her to-be husband) Aaron Sargent knew her there,” explained Biery. “She was strongly Methodist and he brought her to Nevada City and she preferred to work behind the scenes but also appears to have been very astute at understanding political influence and pretty quickly used her position.
“She was dedicated to her family and children, and her partnership with Aaron seems to have been equal,” Biery continued. “Her influence informed him, certainly with regard to the nineteenth amendment. She was pretty incredible.”
While The Marching Presidents originally intended to organize a performance set to the stage, the global pandemic forced them to rethink how they might go about the project. A video seemed to be the solution.
There are a number of goals The Presidents are hoping to accomplish with the project, not the least of which is to make the video accessible to students so that they might better understand the hard-fought right for women to vote.
Additionally, said Baird — who portrays Sargent in “An Evening with Ellen” – the timing of the play is poignant, with an impending election.
“I want people to know how important it is to vote and let the younger generation know that this was a hard earned fight to get the right,” said Baird. “It wasn’t handed to women. Younger people might not agree with a candidate but they need to vote.”
Preparing for the role required many hours of research on Baird’s behalf, though she found a study buddy in writer Biery.
“We went to San Francisco and Sacramento, the Historical Society in Nevada City,” said Baird. “Everything that was historically created we brought to life. We are really trying to educate people.”
Baird continued, “During the course of us writing this we shifted the language, we contemporized some of the language. (Ellen Sargent’s) being interviewed in present time and (she) has come back. It’s a weird premise but it works.”
The Marching Presidents are hoping that audiences near and far will not only watch the production but open their wallets in order to help them recover the $5,000 budget for the project.
No one involved is being paid, and the costs related will help make it free to viewers. Additionally, the funds could help ensure that the project find its way into schools where younger generations can learn about the fight for equal rights.
In addition to its Go Fund Me page, The Presidents will also be selling a limited edition print for the play designed by local artist and printer Judith Berliner.
David Parker, founder of The Famous Marching Presidents of Nevada City, originally conceived the idea for “An Evening with Ellen” nearly a decade ago. After eight years, he was able to sign on the talents of Biery and Baird, and just recently was witness to a read-through of the performance.
“I saw a reading of it and it is highly impressive,” Parker said. “We want people to know how difficult it was to accomplish (the passing of the nineteenth amendment). It was not easy. The women were swimming upstream in the rapids and it took quite a while to be able to obtain that.
“Ellen and her friends basically changed your life and the life of every woman,” Parker said. “Our group has been a champion for equality for 34 years. It’s important to celebrate that.”
Sargent would pass away before the right to vote was extended to women, but her leadership and perseverance were paramount in obtaining those rights. The public’s respect for her was evident when she was the first woman to be honored with a public memorial in San Francisco’s Union Square after her death.
The Famous Marching Presidents of Nevada City will post a link on its website – famousmarchingpresidents.org – as soon as the performance of “An Evening with Ellen” is available. They encourage you to stay tuned.
Jennifer Nobles is a freelance writer based in Grass Valley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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