With Sen. Elizabeth Warren bowing out of the presidential race that once had five major women candidates, Heidi Schreck’s autobiographical play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” is more relevant than ever.
This was readily apparent throughout the 100-minute performance at the Broadway Playhouse about a teenage girl expressing her views in an American Legion Hall, and it became even more clear at the end of the show during a debate asking whether the U.S. Constitution should be abolished.
At that time when one of the debaters, a teenage girl, was asked where she expected to be in 30 years, she said:
“I’ll be 45 years old. Living in Washington, D.C., and be President of the United States!”
The audience responded with a huge ovation, the biggest of the night.
However, this play was about much more than a woman becoming president. It was about prejudice in the workplace, unequal pay, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, property and life, and all the many similar rights that have been denied or suppressed by legislation and courts’ misguided interpretation of the Constitution.
This production originally starred the playwright in the lead role on Broadway. On its visit to Chicago, it features a witty and personable Maria Dizzia, first as a 15-year-old and then a mature woman who speaks passionately of how she and her family were adversely treated through the years without any protection afforded them by a Constitution that was conceived and written by and for white men.
Mike Iveson portrays a funny legionnaire who serves as announcer and timekeeper before morphing into himself — a gay man who relates how the LGBT community has also been mistreated by society.
Dizzia gives a riveting performance, at times an informative civics lesson and at others an emotionally draining account of how women have been treated in all societies for generations. She then relates how the 14th and 15th Amendments have been interpreted to enlarge and protect our rights as citizens including the right to vote (although women were not given that right until the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago).
But the young woman’s most interesting reference was to the little celebrated Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
This amendment was introduced by framers who feared future generations might argue that because a certain right was not listed in the Bill of Rights, it did not exist. Yet it has been rarely considered relevant by many legal academics.
I personally am inclined to agree with the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg who wrote in his concurring opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized the use of birth control in 1965 relying on privacy grounds.
“I do agree that the concept of liberty protects those personal rights that are fundamental, and is not confined to the specific terms of the Bill of Rights. My conclusion that the concept of liberty is not so restricted, and that it embraces the right of marital privacy, though that right is not mentioned explicitly in the Constitution, is supported both by numerous decisions … and the history of the Ninth Amendment.”
Justices Potter Stewart and Hugo Black in their dissents strongly disagreed, with Black stating “That Amendment was passed not to broaden the powers of this Court or any other department of ‘the General Government,’ but … to assure that the Constitution … was intended to limit the Federal Government to the powers granted expressly or by necessary implication.”
I would question the meaning of the words by necessary implication and point out that Thomas Jefferson, who called for this particular amendment, wrote years earlier in the Declaration of Independence that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These are words from which I would think any enlightened court would be able to craft any new rights necessary to our society. For those who would require more specific language, I would refer them to the response of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, when as a young lawyer arguing for a woman’s right to choose was advised by the judge that “nowhere in the Constitution does the word ‘woman’ appear,” said “Neither does the word ‘freedom’, your honor.”
As to the issue of whether the Constitution should be abolished, I think not. Considering how after all these years the Equal Rights Amendment has still not been ratified, a rewrite would be impossible.
On the other hand, our Constitution has enough provisions, including the Ninth Amendment, to allow any caring, intelligent judge to make such changes as are “implicated.”
Check out the provisions and make your own decision as you peruse a personal copy of the Constitution, passed out to each audience member, courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The play runs through April 12. At time of publication, Broadway in Chicago indicates all its scheduled shows are proceeding as planned.
- Final judgment: Four gavels