An Open Letter to First Lady Michelle Obama

By Yvette Heyliger

Categories: Alum Experiences, General, Women's Voices,

Dear Farmhouse Table:  I am a Hedgebrook alumnae (Oak 2008) and member of the Dramatists Guild.  I attended a meeting earlier this year with the president, Stephen Schwartz, distinguished council members, and members of the Women’s Initiative to discuss parity issues.  In that meeting I shared that there was a letter that I have been writing for some time now to Michelle Obama about the plight of women playwrights in America.  I decided to make it an “open letter” and share it with “all who have ears to hear.”  Many have found it inspiring, and so I thought I would share it with the Hedgebrook community here at the Farmhouse Table.  Enjoy!

– Yvette Heyliger (yvetteheyliger@aol.com)

An Open Letter to Michelle Obama discusses a precedent set by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, one that paved the way for women journalists, ensuring and protecting their jobs as members of the White House Press Corps.  I thought her methods might inspire the same action by First Lady Michelle Obama as a way to achieve parity for women artists in the American Theatre.

 

Dear First Lady Obama:

I am a playwright and a producing artist living in Harlem, New York, and a member of all of the professional entertainment unions, one guild and three grassroots parity organizations. They are the Women’s Initiative, made up of members of the Dramatists Guild, which identifies and addresses the challenges facing American women dramatists and develops action steps to advance and sustain fairness, equality and gender parity for all dramatists; the League of Professional Theatre Women’s Advocacy Committee which promotes visibility and increases opportunities for women in the professional theatre; and 50/50 in 2020 a grassroots movement encompassing all theater disciplines and created to raise awareness of the contribution of women in theatre; to achieve employment parity for women theatre artists by the year 2020 (the 100th Anniversary of women’s suffrage); and to conduct ongoing research tracking American Theatre employment practices and progress towards parity.

I am writing to you today about the plight of women artists in the American theatre. I propose a path towards resolving this matter, inspired by a precedent set by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. This precedent broke a glass ceiling and raised the nation’s consciousness about women’s abilities and skills (if given the chance!) as part of the White House Press Corps, a job which, at that time, was considered to be a “man’s job.” Recent statistics have brought to light the plight of American women theatre artists and this state of affairs has captured the attention of the press. However, any true advancement for women theatre artists remains slow in coming. The intention of my letter is to recommend that you extend an invitation to women theatre artists to attend an exclusive gathering at the White House to discuss the challenges of seeking employment and equal opportunity in the American Theatre.

If memory serves, during President Obama’s campaign, he had spoken about putting people back to work in jobs repairing America’s buildings and infrastructure. A female reporter asked me what I would say to President Obama if I had the opportunity to see him. With the camera rolling I remember saying words to the effect that if the president wanted me to help repair our highways, churches and schools that I would, but what I most hoped for would be that he would put me “back to work” writing plays for the American Theatre. This is another kind of building and repairing of infrastructure—one that involves raising the national consciousness and appreciation for the living theatre—but a building, repairing and strengthening of America’s infrastructure just the same! To my mind the Arts are the cornerstone, the foundation, the bricks and mortar of American culture and life.

In retrospect, given all I have learned since 2008 about the very real dearth of opportunities for women artists in the American Theatre, I would ask that President Obama pay special attention to women artists, ensuring through legislation that we have a fair chance and equal opportunity along with the men. Anyone who has written a play knows how difficult it is to get it produced, especially if you are a woman. Statistics have shown that fewer than 20% of plays by women are produced nationwide and for women playwrights of color (like yours truly) it is even less than half of that! Yes, First Lady, I not only have the issue of gender to worry about, but race as well. And as I get older, age can be added to that list! At the rate things are going, I may very well remain an “emerging artist” until the day I arrive, laptop in tow, at the Pearly Gates of Heaven!

If one lives and works in New York City, as I do, the seriousness of the situation may not be felt as much as in other parts of the country. On any given day or night there are auditions, readings, showcases, workshop productions, festivals, previews, opening nights, extended runs and back-by-popular-demand’s to go to. Playwrights, yours truly among them, are taking to self-producing just to see their work living and breathing on the stage. There seems to be so much activity and opportunity for theatre artists of all stripes here, and it’s true, there has been some improvement for women, yet the disparity for women theatre artists persists nationwide. This unyielding lack of opportunity for women indicates the folly of writing plays with leading female characters and/or using a female pen name. Unless of course, you come from a prestigious academic institution, have literary representation or if you write within traditional play structure

So, what to do? Eleanor Roosevelt set the precedent on March 6, 1933, just two days after becoming First Lady by holding the first of many press conferences which banned male reporters. Initially Mrs. Roosevelt excluded the men as a way to ensure that women reporters would keep their jobs during the Great Depression. Previously confined to reporting on entertaining and fashion, under the First Lady’s protection and encouragement, these women now reported to the American people about life in the White House and the politics of her husband’s administration, as well as the larger social issues and crises near and dear to First Lady Roosevelt’s heart. Many news publications wanted access to these exclusive press conferences, but could only maintain their credentials if they continued to employ their female representatives in the First Lady’s press conferences. In this way, women became an essential part of the White House Press Corps. The opportunity provided to them by First Lady Roosevelt raised them to the ranks of professional journalists with a seat at the table of the working White House. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s stand on this, I believe, brought awareness to the nation about the abilities of women, if shielded from loss of opportunity and given a chance!

I was so inspired and uplifted when President Obama brought you, his First Lady, to New York to fulfill his promise of a date-night to see a Broadway show after the election—and not just any Broadway show, a black play on Broadway, the Tony award-winning revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone! I was also inspired to learn that you took first daughters, Sasha and Malia, to the see the Tony award-winning musical Memphis. I am an adjunct member of the Broadway League and I wonder if you would be surprised to learn these facts recently released by their research department. “Women represent about 66% of the Broadway audience. Moreover, women are more likely to make the purchasing decision than their male counterparts.” Women pull the purse strings! One would think that we could harness that power to get more of our work from the page onto the American Stage!

As I previously stated, the suggestion I have proposed is that you, as First Lady, invite women theatre artists to an exclusive gathering at the White House, the first of many, to discuss the plight of women theatre artists seeking employment and equal opportunity in the American Theatre; theatre artists who have not been given an opportunity in the American Theatre to the extent of any man, dead or alive!
First Lady Obama, would you consider a similar measure for women artists in the American Theatre, women who fight every day to resist invisibility? Eleanor Roosevelt had the longest term of service as First Lady, “twelve years, one month, one week and one day!” She had time to institute change. I pray that you and your husband will serve another four years in the White House, so you might have that same opportunity. I await your response…

Yours in the Arts,

Yvette Heyliger
Citizen Artist
cc: All Who Have Ears To Hear

3 Comments

  • Ann Marie Elliott
    10:51 PM - 15 September, 2011

    As an emerging playwright, I cannot explain how much this letter resonates within me on an empowering level. I’m grateful for your words, Yvette, and proud of my fellow female artists. What we have is more than hope for the future, but the fierce ambition to fight for our passions. To share our love.

    • Yvette Heyliger
      10:01 PM - 15 May, 2012

      Dear Ann Marie: Thank you so much for your 9/21/11 response to ” An Open Letter to First Lady Michelle Obama.” I did not realize a response was waiting until I just received notification. I look forward to meeting you one day and to hearing your work. I hope to attend whatever activities are planned for Hedgebrook’s upcoming milestone anniversary. Stay strong!

      I just got an email alert about this. I take it you did not get my response. I’m sorry. I guess I don’t quite understand how this works. Hope you are doing well!

  • Yvette Heyliger
    5:12 PM - 26 February, 2012

    Dear Ann Marie: Thank you so much for your 9/21/11 response to ” An Open Letter to First Lady Michelle Obama.” I did not realize a response was waiting until I just received notification. I look forward to meeting you one day and to hearing your work. I hope to attend whatever activities are planned for Hedgebrook’s upcoming milestone anniversary. Stay strong!

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