Talk about Elisabeth Freeman as a footnote in history!! Thomas Edison was perfecting the first “talkies”–film and sound recordings synced. Casting about for a popular topic he turned to Votes for Women, which was then most controversial. Freeman’s mission was to generate so much awareness of the cause that it became dinner time conversation in every house. A perfect match!
I previously posted a video of the existing film of that event (embedded in the 20 minute video here) but the wax record of the sound did not survive. Elisabeth is the most animated in the bunch—one might say fidgety. Her style, even with the nerves, is natural, as a result of many a soapbox speech.
Needless to say, the event was covered in detail in the newspapers with headlines such as “Canned Suffrage Now,” “Suffragists Face Talkie Movie,” and “One Didn’t Talk Fast Enough.” Elisabeth got her own sub headline, “Miss Freeman Finds Machine Absorbs Stuff Quicker Than Human Beings.” (No explanation.)
The five speakers, and several others cheering them on, created a suffrage event in five minutes, which was challenging. They were “timed by a big man who was most unreasonable to the women for he told them in the same breath to look pleasant, please, and to cut their speeches short.”
The speakers included Mrs. James Lee Laidlaw, Elisabeth Freeman, Mrs. John Rogers, a fellow Washington hiker, Mrs. Mary Ware Dennett, and Mrs. Raymond Brown. * They rehearsed their speeches three times and then performed for the phonograph and cameras twice. The suffs were amused that the recording started with a clap of two cocoanut (sic) shells. “Action!” Reportedly, the speakers “talked at the phonograph as if it were an ‘anti.’ In less than half an hour the suffragists were listening in amazement to their own voices coming from the buzzing wax roll. It was not until a second record had been taken that they were persuaded their voices sounded natural.”
Elisabeth, as a great extemporaneous speaker, had a hard time repeating the same speech. She “made four completely different speeches and was exhorted by the timekeeper ‘to say that over again in 15 seconds.’ She declared indignantly that ‘it was impossible’ and anyway it was ‘perfectly awful to talk to nothing.’”
The reporters covered the human interest aspect of the suffs listening to their voices for the first time, and also other talkies going on nearby. “In the next ‘set’ a squad of real ‘movie’ folk were rehearsing an uproariously comic farce. “An actress with a fiery red wig from another stage set came over to the suffragists and asked to be introduced to someone who had really walked to Washington. Colonel Ida Craft made a suffrage speech on the spot and she of the fiery hair departed in high glee.”
On another set, a sweet female voice spoke the line: “My husband! I have everything in the world I want now. What more can a woman desire than a place in the heart of the man she loves?” Interestingly, the paper set up an opposition to the suffragists point of view. “But it wasn’t a plot. It was another group of people doing a record for the movies—a sweet series of pictures showing the life of a woman from her childhood to her old age, a womanly woman who said nothing about (getting) the vote.” Then, as now, women who are fighting for their rights are seen as unfeminine as opposed to the “womanly woman.”
Being in one of the first talkie’s was a momentous occasion and one newspaper opined, “In the year 2013 the world will know that suffragists of 1913 could make 5 good speeches in 5 minutes.” Alas, not, but this talkie does more than anything to capture the irrepressible character of Elisabeth Freeman.
*For the record, here are the names of the cheering section according to the clipping: the stalwart ‘Colonel’ Ida Craft, Mrs. Frances Bjorkman, Mrs. John Winters Brannon, Elinor Byrnes, Mrs. Anna Ross Weeks, Mrs. Marcia Townsend, Mrs. Margaret Field, and Mrs. Mary Ware Dennett, secretary of the National Association. Apparently, they had their own trials–a banner fell and sparrows trapped in the studio alighted on their set.