How Women Have Been 'Profoundly' Left Out Of The U.S. Constitution | Connecticut Public Radio
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How Women Have Been 'Profoundly' Left Out Of The U.S. Constitution

Oct 16, 2020

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Heidi Schreck, wrote and starred in the play whose title is both serious and tongue-in-cheek, reflecting how the play itself is both serious and funny. It's called "What The Constitution Means To Me." It's about what the Constitution used to mean to her when she was 15, winning prize money in Constitution contests, and what it means to her now as a feminist, realizing the ways in which women, people of color and many immigrants were excluded from the rights the Constitution guaranteed. The play was filmed on Broadway by director Marielle Heller, and that film premiers today on Amazon Prime video.

When Schreck was 15, she competed in contests sponsored by the American Legion. Contestants had to make a speech demonstrating their understanding of the Constitution and discuss its importance in their lives. Schreck won enough money to put herself through college. In the show, she alternates between her 15-year-old self, who thought the Constitution was magical, and herself today, who sees the ways it's failed to protect people. Schreck is a playwright and an actress. She's also written episodes of the TV shows "Billions," "Nurse Jackie" and "I Love Dick." She spoke to Terry last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Heidi Schreck, welcome to FRESH AIR. I don't know if this is the right thing to say or not, but had we been good friends and you came to me and said, I'm going to do this, well, you know, show about the Constitution, I might have tried to talk you out of it.

HEIDI SCHRECK: (Laughter).

GROSS: But I actually love the show. So I want you to describe the show in your words.

SCHRECK: Sure. Yes, a few friends did try to talk me out of it, actually. So my show, "What The Constitution Means To Me," is a recreation of a contest I did as a teenage girl. I would travel the country giving speeches about the Constitution for prize money at American Legion halls. Basically, I decided to follow the prompt of the original contest, which was to find a personal connection between my own life and the Constitution.

And in attempting to do that, I ended up writing a story about four generations of women in my family, about how the Constitution shaped their lives, about the ways it failed to protect them and about the ways it shaped my own life and also failed to protect me.

GROSS: So, you know, your show is, you know, about, like, the strength of the Constitution. It's also very much about the imperfections of the Constitution, the silences and the absences in the Constitution and the people it fails to protect. But when you were 15 and participating in these Constitution debates or performances, was the understanding you were given by the American Legion, that sponsored this competition, that the Constitution was pretty much perfect and it was your job to, like, describe the ways in which it was perfect?

SCHRECK: I don't know if that was the directive given to me by the American Legion or not. I actually don't remember that. I believe that it was my understanding of the Constitution. I believed that about the Constitution at 15. I believed it was perfect. I believed it was a tool of justice. I did not realize, as a 15-year-old girl, that I - how profoundly I had been left out of it. I didn't realize that it didn't protect me. The truth is, as a teenager, I just had complete faith in this document.

GROSS: So one of the things that you talk about in the show is what the Constitution has to say about immigration, what it doesn't have to say about immigration and who becomes a citizen. Your great-great-grandmother, you say, was considered a good immigrant when she came in 1879. Your great-great-grandfather, actually, ordered her from a catalogue. She was a mail-order bride.

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: And he was in the state of Washington, where you were born and grew up. And you say Washington needed more women at the time. Why did they need more women?

SCHRECK: They needed more women in Washington because the male-to-female ratio at the time was 9 to 1. In fact, at some points around this time - this was, like, the late 19th century - it was even higher. I think at one point, it was even 30 to 1. So they were doing everything they could to bring in more women. There were a lot of catalogues. There were things called - there was one called the "Matrimonial Times," which is, I believe, where he ordered her from, although I can't - I've tried to fact-check it, and it's a little bit tricky. There were also - he was German, so there were also a lot of, like, German-language papers and sort of catalogues and magazines with advertisings in the back that catered particularly to German immigrants, so...

GROSS: So what would happen? Like, women like your great-great-grandmother would go to the publisher of the catalogue and say, put me in it; I want to be eligible to...

SCHRECK: Yes. Or...

GROSS: ...Come to America as a bride?

SCHRECK: Yeah, or their parents would do that. I think there were - in my research, I noticed that a lot of times it was parents who were poor and couldn't figure out, you know, what to do with their daughters who couldn't make money. So they would go and put an ad in for their daughter.

GROSS: Nice.

SCHRECK: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how much did your great-great-grandfather pay? Do you have any idea?

SCHRECK: OK. So this is a slight bit of poetic license because I don't actually - we don't have any records. I've done a ton of research, and so I'm just basing the $75 on the research that I did on what people were likely to pay at that time. There were - so sometimes men would pay the family. So I came up with the figure, $75, by researching. I'm not actually sure that that's what he paid for her.

GROSS: Would that be $75 in today's money or 19th century money?

SCHRECK: No.

GROSS: Because $75 then would have been a lot of money.

SCHRECK: I think it was a lot, yes. I think - I mean, this is based on research that I did. But I think that it - yeah, you would save a lot of money for this type of transaction.

GROSS: So you write that your great-great-grandparents, the women, your great-great-grandmothers, were considered, quote, "good immigrants." Who were considered the bad immigrants at the time?

SCHRECK: So my great-great-grandparents and great-grandparents, especially the women, were considered good immigrants because they just needed women to populate this area. They were also white, which at that - you know, was considered, quote-unquote, (laughter) "good immigrant." At the time, the, quote-unquote, "bad immigrant" was considered to be an immigrant from China.

So there was - there's a huge history of violent discrimination against Chinese immigrants in this country starting with - in 1882, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which made it illegal for immigrants to come from China. They had decided at that time that Chinese immigrants were dangerous, that they were stealing jobs from, quote-unquote, "Americans." And so they passed this law that was not overturned until 1943, when China became our ally in World War II. And not only did they pass this horrible law, but there was a - there was so much violence, actually, toward Chinese immigrants. Especially in Washington state, where I'm from, there are stories of incredible violence against those immigrants.

GROSS: Since President Trump has such strong anti-immigrant rhetoric and attitudes towards certain groups of people - like Mexicans, Muslims - I'm wondering what - you know, you've been studying this (laughter) as an adult and as a teenager - what does the Constitution have to say about who becomes a citizen? And what is it silent about?

SCHRECK: The Constitution doesn't have much to say about who becomes a citizen. So the 14th Amendment says that any person born on U.S. soil and subject to the jurisdiction thereof is a citizen of the United States and the state in which they reside. So it does - it is very clear on birthright citizenship. Excuse me. Although it also has this clause - and subject to the jurisdiction thereof - which is what the government used to exclude Indigenous peoples from becoming citizens when the 14th Amendment was passed. So that's a little bit confusing.

But most legal scholars have come down on the side of birthright citizenship, that that is a constitutional right, which as we know was questioned by the Trump administration last year. Most people agree that there is no question about that; birthright citizenship is our right. Beyond that, it doesn't give any guidance about immigration, about how many people should be allowed to immigrate, about where those people might be from. There is no language about that.

The one thing I did learn while making this is that the 14th Amendment does guarantee that immigrants be given all the due process rights that citizens have. So it uses the word person rather than citizen when it talks about due process, which is the right to a fair trial, which is the right not to be imprisoned without a fair trial, the right not to have anything seized from you. So there are quite a few protections for immigrants in the 14th Amendment that I question - I question right now whether those are being upheld.

GROSS: I think a lot of people have no idea that people who aren't citizens would still have those rights.

SCHRECK: I don't think so, either. And, you know, there is also in the - I believe it was the '80s, though I might be getting this wrong - the Supreme Court also upheld the right of children of undocumented immigrants to attend public school. That's also a case that was decided. So immigrants have actually quite a few rights under our Constitution, even if they are undocumented. And I think it's an important time to remember that and fight for that.

DAVIES: We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Heidi Schreck recorded last year after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Heidi Schreck. A filmed version of her play "What The Constitution Means To Me" premiers on Amazon Prime today. The play is about what the Constitution meant to her when she was 15 and won a lot of scholarship money at competitions talking about the Constitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I want to move to another chapter of your play and of your life, and this has to do with when you got pregnant at the age of 21.

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: You weren't - you weren't married. It was somebody in the same theater group that you were in. And this leads you to reflect on how the Constitution has been used to fully legalize birth control and to legalize abortion. Now, you grew up in an abortion-free zone in Washington. What...

SCHRECK: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: The state of Washington. What did that mean?

SCHRECK: So eastern Washington when I was growing up was an abortion-free zone. It just meant there was no clinic within, like, a three-hour radius that performed abortions. There was a Planned Parenthood in my town and they, you know, prescribed birth control and did pregnancy testing and all of that. But you could not - you could not go anywhere for an abortion.

GROSS: When you got pregnant when you were 21 and weren't married, you say you couldn't go to Planned Parenthood because your mother's good friend worked there and that you didn't want your mother to know.

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: Even though your mother was a feminist, you were sure she'd find it very upsetting. And you couldn't go to the pharmacy because you might be recognized there - same problem; it would get back to your mother.

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: But you did go to a clinic that advertised, like, free pregnancy testing. But then when you walked in, you realized it's one of those, like, anti-abortion groups?

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: So how did you figure that out, like, right away? The people there - the women there were going to try to talk you out of an abortion as opposed to helping you get one.

SCHRECK: Well, I knew as soon as I walked in the door because there was a huge poster that said, adoption is a beautiful choice. And then there were pictures of fetuses up all over the walls. So I knew as soon as I walked in. I decided to stay in part because I just - I really needed the test, and it was the only place that guaranteed me anonymity. And also I'm - I was raised to be an incredibly polite person. And the woman at the counter, the receptionist, was very lovely, very friendly. And it's just my natural inclination to be polite and sweet and friendly back (laughter). So I felt it would be rude to leave, which is crazy to think about now. But at that age, I didn't want to be rude to her.

GROSS: So you stayed and then found a place where you could - you stayed for the spiel and then found a place where you could get an abortion.

SCHRECK: Well, I stayed for the spiel and, actually, for the test. And I remember - this is seared into my memory, actually - that, you know, she was - first of all, she was the only person I told, except for my boyfriend at the time. She was the only person I told maybe for 20 years. Even though I'm very liberal and I'm a feminist and I'm surrounded by women friends who are the same, I - the taboo of talking about it, the sort of cultural shame around talking about it affected me deeply. And it - actually, it wasn't until I started performing this show that I found out that many of my girlfriends had also had abortions. We didn't talk about it with each other.

So this woman, Marcy (ph), was the only person I told. And she was incredibly kind to me, which is what I needed. I needed someone to hug me at this moment and tell me everything was going to be OK. And when I walked to the bathroom to take the test, she - I remember she actually followed me and tucked in the tag at the back of my dress and said, I just can't help myself - always a mother. And yeah, I remember it - that was what I needed at that moment. I needed a mother.

And one thing I understand now is that until women can talk about their abortions, until it becomes a thing that is not taboo to talk about, it will be very difficult to move the needle politically because, say, if you're a young woman with a conservative dad and your dad doesn't understand that you had an abortion, if people don't understand that the women they love in their lives have had abortions, it's going to be very difficult for them to see it, see the importance it holds for women in this culture to have equality, to have bodily autonomy, to have decision-making power over their own bodies. It's very difficult to move that needle if women won't talk about it.

GROSS: I should mention here that you say you were using birth control when you got pregnant.

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: So this chapter of your life leads you to reflect in your show on how the Constitution was used to fully legalize contraception and then fully legalize abortion. And it's amazing to think about that. It was only in the '70s that birth control was fully legalized in all of the states for single women. An earlier decision, the Griswold v. Connecticut decision in 1965, legalized birth control in all states for married women. But it took years later until single women were included.

SCHRECK: Yes, yes.

GROSS: How was the Constitution used to legalize birth control? Because there were places where it was not legal and wasn't necessarily a law that was followed, but it was certainly on the books.

SCHRECK: Yes, the law was on the books, and they needed to find a way to assert the constitutional right to birth control. In 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut, they essentially decided that case under the umbrella of privacy. So privacy is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, but they use the 9th Amendment and the 14th Amendment to sort of cobble together all of these rights and say, OK, this is a private decision between a husband and a wife, to use birth control, and the government cannot infringe on that decision, cannot - the government can't, you know, walk into people's bedrooms and decide what they do.

So that's how they decided birth control. Then in '72, they finally made it legal for single women. And then when they were deciding Roe v. Wade, they decided the right to choice also under the right to privacy, saying it was a private decision between a doctor and his patient (laughter). So, essentially, they sort of decided Roe v. Wade in part by basing it on a doctor's right - a doctor's right to privacy and a doctor's right to do what they believe is right. So this, unfortunately, has been a problem for reproductive freedom because it bases our right to control our own bodies, to have bodily autonomy, on this right to privacy that's actually quite vague and confusing.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that if the right to reproductive freedom could have been based in equal protection under the law, with the idea that you can't possibly be equal in this country, as a woman, if you don't have bodily autonomy, if you don't have the right to decide what to do with your own body - the right to decide whether to have children or not, if childbearing is obligatory - then you can't possibly be equal in this country.

GROSS: I didn't know this until seeing your play, but the majority decision in Griswold, which upheld the right of married couples to use contraception, was written by Justice William O. Douglass, who - I found this out from your play - at the time, was having an affair with a college student. So what does it say to you that, you know, the decision was written by all white men and that the majority opinion writer was having an affair with...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I don't know whether they were using contraception or not. But women were in the position, until recently, where decisions about their lives and bodies and power were being decided exclusively, on the Supreme Court level, by men.

SCHRECK: Yes. It says to me, first of all, that there is a level of hypocrisy in our laws and on the Supreme Court. I don't know if William O. Douglas and his girlfriend were using contraception or not, but my guess is they were. And, actually, if you listen to the whole Griswold recording, there's a sense that all the men, the male justices, know that birth control is something that people use (laughter).

GROSS: And it was legal in most states at the time.

SCHRECK: It was absolutely legal in most states. But the fact that they found it so difficult to figure out how to, like - how to affirm that it was constitutionally protected in spite of this, in spite of the fact that, like, they all knew that people use birth control, the fact that they couldn't even, in Griswold v. Connecticut, constitutionally affirm the constitutional protection for single women to use it is absurd, given that it's something that everyone was using. It's so clear, especially when you listen to the justices, and if you listen to Griswold v. Connecticut, they're clearly so uncomfortable talking about this. They clear their throats all the time. It's, like, very torturous for them.

DAVIES: Heidi Schreck speaking with Terry Gross last year. A filmed version of her Broadway play "What The Constitution Means To Me" begins streaming on Amazon Prime today. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. Also, we remember baseball's Joe Morgan, who was one of the few second basemen to make it into the Hall of Fame. He died Sunday at the age of 77. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Heidi Schreck. A filmed version of her play "What The Constitution Means To Me" begins streaming today on Amazon Prime. It's about what the Constitution used to mean to her when she was 15, winning prize money in Constitution contests sponsored by the American Legion, and what it means to her now as a feminist, realizing the ways in which women, people of color and many immigrants were excluded from the rights the Constitution guaranteed. In the play, she also describes personal and family traumas and makes connections to the Constitution's protects or lack thereof.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I want to get back to your family, your great-great grandmother came here basically as a mail-order bride. She came from Germany to the state of Washington. Your great-grandmother and your grandmother were both married to men who abused them. Your grandmother, Bette, who you knew very well, her first husband died in an accident. He was hit by a falling tree. She remarried a man who physically abused her, who beat her up, who broke bones. And the stepfather - her second husband also sexually abused your mother and your aunt. And you say it was your mother who finally called the police and tried to stop this. How old were you when your mother told you this?

SCHRECK: I was 15 years old when my mother told me this. I also just want to say, my aunt was very brave in terms of going to - 'cause she went to a teacher. And she also testified and was very brave about standing up to this man. So it was both my mother and my aunt.

GROSS: How old was your mother when she called the police?

SCHRECK: My mother was 14 years old. Yes.

GROSS: So when your mother told the police and her stepfather found out, what was his reaction?

SCHRECK: His reaction was to essentially threaten all the kids with a gun, to kidnap them and drive off, shouting that he was going to kill all of them.

GROSS: So he actually put them in a car, took his gun...

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: ...And drove off.

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: And then your grandmother called the police, and they came.

SCHRECK: Yes.

GROSS: And he was prosecuted. He did 10 years?

SCHRECK: He was prosecuted. He - actually - OK, so this has been very interesting for me because I was told a version of the story, and then there's the version of the story I remembered. When I did an interview for The New Yorker magazine, they were able to fact-check everything, and I actually found out that he was sentenced to three consecutive 30-year sentences for what was termed, at that time, carnal knowledge, but that he only served two years.

GROSS: So how does this physical and sexual abuse in your family connect to your understanding of the Constitution?

SCHRECK: So I grew up believing in the idea of one bad man. There was a bad man in our family who hurt my grandma, hurt my aunts and uncles, deeply hurt my mom. She - you know, her whole life - my mom is an incredible person, and she's a beloved teacher in Wenatchee, where I'm from, and a drama coach. And she's had an incredibly successful life. But this trauma - she's struggled with it her entire life, and I witnessed that as a young girl.

So I grew up believing that there was one bad man who hurt my family, who hurt the women in my family. And it wasn't until later - really, until I started researching this - that I began to understand this problem as part of a larger cultural problem, a legal problem, a systemic problem. And in working on this, I ended up researching the 14th Amendment quite deeply.

And I learned that there are no constitutional protections for women against sexual violence and that, in fact, the Violence Against Women Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court in 2005, when a woman named Jessica Gonzales brought her case in front of the Supreme Court. She was suing the Castle Rock Police Department of the state of Colorado for failing to show up to protect her from her violent husband. She had a restraining order against her violent husband. She called the police many, many times. No one came to help her. They refused to come help her. They said, well, he's your husband. And her husband ended up killing her children - her three daughters.

And when she took her case to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court essentially said, you can't sue the police department; they have no constitutional obligation to provide you with active protection. Some legal scholars have said this shuts down the 14th Amendment for women. It shuts down the possibility for women to look to the federal government for protection from gender-based violence. So when I realized that this trauma in my family wasn't just one bad man, one evil man, but a legal and systemic problem in this country, it was eye-opening for me.

GROSS: You were already working on your play "What The Constitution Means To Me" during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. What was your experience of watching Christine Blasey Ford testify to - you know, to the Senate Judiciary Committee?

SCHRECK: I remember sitting on the couch watching that, being - I think like many of us were, I felt like an emotional wreck. I found her testimony incredibly powerful. I believed her. I also found it triggering, and I think a lot of people did. It reminded me of things that happened to me when I was younger, and I cried a lot while watching it. And then I had to go do a show. And when I got to the theater, I was exhausted. And I thought, well, that was a - that was actually a big mistake because now I'm exhausted, and I have to do this show.

But I found when I walked onstage - well, first of all, I had so much rage that sort of gave me the adrenaline I needed to do the show. And then it was also quite powerful to be in a room filled with people who were processing the same thing I was processing. There was a tremendous amount of energy in the room that night, a tremendous amount of audible reaction, both to the humor and - tremendous amount of audible grief, particularly from women. And I thought, thank God I get to do this show instead of sitting home on my couch, scrolling through Twitter in despair.

And that has been one of the great gifts of the show, actually, is to be in a room with people having a communal experience, thinking about our country together, having this conversation together instead of being siloed, instead of being alone at home on social media. It's one of the great gifts of the show for me.

GROSS: Well, Heidi Schreck, good luck with the show.

SCHRECK: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And thank you so much for talking with us.

SCHRECK: Thank you for having me, Terry.

DAVIES: Heidi Schreck speaking with Terry Gross last year. A filmed version of her Broadway play "What The Constitution Means To Me" begins streaming on Amazon Prime today. Coming up, we remember one of the greatest second basemen in baseball, Joe Morgan. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.