LOS ANGELES — When Karen Bass became the first women elected to be mayor of LA, she made her first speech as mayor-elect at The Ebell of Los Angeles.
Amelia Earhart gave one of her last talks in the same building. Margaret Mead spoke there. So did Michelle Obama. And when Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton released “The Book of Gutsy Women,” it was only fitting that they should give a talk about it at an institution that was created by gutsy women.
“It was founded by a group of women who we would call bold women,” the institution’s executive director Stacy Brightman said, “who were really pioneers and working to improve the lot of all women.”
It’s a rich history, or in this case, HER-story. The Ebell was founded in 1894 by women for women as a hub for arts, culture and education. The sprawling campus is in itself a jewel. There’s the garden courtyard designed by a female landscaper. Hallways are lined with art and a large open lounge sits below an ornately decorated ceiling and there are several stages for performances and lectures.
“We have a theater and we’re not afraid to use it,” Brightman said.
That’s not a threat. That’s a promise and one they’ve kept for decades. Life was very different for women when The Ebell was first established 129 years ago.
“Women couldn’t vote, couldn’t have jobs, mostly couldn’t go to school,” Brightman explained. “And this was a place where they would come together and have agency.”
It’s a mission that continues to the present day because, quite frankly, she says, there’s still work to be done.
“When you consider, you know, we are something like 7% of the monuments in this country, when you consider we’re a tiny percentage of what happens in the history books, that’s what The Ebell is working to change,” she said.
And their historic stage is one of the places where they’re doing it. This month, the Wilshire Ebell Theatre is playing host to roughly 2,000 third-, fourth- and fifth graders from 33 local schools. The organization is presenting a brand-new short opera called “The Everywhere of Her” written by two women in Los Angeles, Velina Hasu Houston and composer Carla Lucero. It tells of an imagined meeting between three pioneering female Angelenos: Charlotta Bass, the first Black woman to own a newspaper in the U.S., aviatrix Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, the first Chinese American woman to receive a pilot’s license, and Dolores del Río, a Mexican American movie star played by Maria Elena Altany.
“I get overwhelmed by it sometimes,” Altany said, “thinking about how my perspective on theater would have changed if I had seen a show like this when I was in fifth grade, with all women on stage. It would have blown my mind.”
Altany loves performing for the students and chatting with them afterwards. She says it’s clear from the conversations that they understand the piece. 10-year-old Beighley was among the students at a recent school performance. After the show, she and her fourth-grade classmates participated in an art project tied to the theme, designing statues for women they feel should be honored. She thinks this musical, and the women depicted in it, will inspire any young girl in the audience.
“So when they grow up, they can realize that they can do they can do whatever they want,” Beighley said. “And be independent, brave and have courage.”
Brightman says that is exactly why stories like these, so often hidden by history, need to finally be placed in the spotlight.
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she stated, “and by seeing these extraordinary women and realizing that there are lots and lots of stories just like that, it will change the way they look at the future.”
A future that wouldn’t be possible without the bold, remarkable women of the past.