Julia Wolfe’s ‘Her Story’ highlights the struggle for women’s equality

Composer Julia Wolfe

Peter Serling

History has long been a rich source of inspiration for composer Julia Wolfe, who holds a particular interest in the history of labor in the United States. Her 2009 work Steel Hammer centers on folk hero John Henry, while Fire in my mouth, premiered in 2019 by the New York Philharmonic, evokes the devastating 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In 2015, she received the Pulitzer Prize for her oratorio Anthracite Fields, which draws on oral histories, interviews and speeches to recall the lives of workers in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region. 

Wolfe turns to the history of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement in Her Story, a 40-minute theatrical experience for orchestra and women’s vocal ensemble, co-commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and four other orchestras. Its 2020 premiere was delayed by the pandemic, and so the Nashville Symphony will give the world premiere in September 2022, followed by CSO performances Jan. 6-7, 2023, conducted by Marin Alsop and featuring the Lorelei Ensemble.

The genesis for Her Story was a conversation between Wolfe and Lorelei Ensemble Artistic Director Beth Willer, leading up to the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in 1920. Willer approached Wolfe about writing a new work to mark the occasion, and together they decided it would feature the Lorelei Ensemble and a full orchestra.

To prepare for each of her compositions, Wolfe begins with a research phase that she calls “hunting and gathering.” As she explained in a recent conversation with Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association donors, this work may include reading, watching documentaries and/or conducting interviews. For Her Story, she read extensively about the U.S. women’s suffrage movement and studied political cartoons and posters of the era.

“It’s such a deep dive for me,” Wolfe said of her research process. “It’s really immersive to the point where I probably drive everybody crazy because I’m talking about it — especially if it’s a history piece.”

Her Story consists of two movements, the first of which draws on a famous letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams. “I didn’t want to limit it to suffrage,” said Wolfe of her decision to reach further back into U.S. history for this source material. “There’s a long, long history leading up to the vote. There’s a long, long history after the vote that has to do with equality and women’s voices and women’s agency.”

In the letter, dated March 31, 1776, Adams urges her husband and his fellow members of the Continental Congress to remember the interests of women in the fight for independence from Great Britain. She writes:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Rather than setting it to music linearly, Wolfe dissects Adams’ text, lingering on certain phrases and breaking up others. “There are so many meanings to all of these words once you separate them out,” she explained.

In the opening of the second movement, Wolfe draws on historical sources to compile a list of adjectives that were used to disparage suffragists. “It really wasn’t so complimentary to be a suffragist,” said Wolfe. “They were hassled. … That’s putting it mildly.” The orchestra responds musically to the text, building toward “very contrapuntal and overlapping layers” that underscore the word “un-American,” one of the many pejoratives hurled at suffragists.

The movement ends with excerpts from a speech by Sojourner Truth, who escaped slavery and became a prominent 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Her most famous speech, delivered extemporaneously, survives in two different written versions and is best known for the line, “Ain’t I a woman?” Since the historical record is unclear on the actual words Truth spoke, Wolfe takes the artistic liberty of incorporating elements from both versions of the speech.

Beyond the text and music, Wolfe’s new composition promises a theatrical experience for audience members. Director Anne Kauffman, who primarily works in the theater industry, collaborates with a team of scenic, lighting, sound and costume designers on Her Story. “It’s simpler than opera, but it extends the concert experience,” Wolfe explained. “So it’s not going to feel like a typical concert.”

Although its delayed premiere no longer coincides with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Her Story remains timely. While discussing Abigail Adams’ letter from 1776, Wolfe observed how powerful it is “to hear her voice from so long ago and then grapple with what we’re seeing today.” Worth the two-year wait, Her Story honors the struggle for women’s equality before, during and after the suffrage movement.