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Ida Rauh: A Pioneer at the Crossection of American Theater and Civil Rights

March is Women’s History Month, and while we celebrate women’s history all year, we do so especially during this particular month when we highlight the countless women of our neighborhoods who have fought tirelessly and courageously for equality, justice, and opportunity in our nation. It is the perfect time to remember that we are continuing to build on the legacy of both recognized trailblazers, cultural and political influencers, and unsung heroines who have guided the course of American history and culture and continue to shape its future.

Ida Rauh

In the annals of American theater, amidst the spotlight that often falls on playwrights, directors, and actors, there exist unsung heroes and heroines whose contributions were equally instrumental in shaping the landscape of theater as we know it. One such luminary was Ida Rauh (March 7, 1877- February 28, 1970), a trailblazer whose name may not resonate as loudly as some of her contemporaries, but whose impact on both American theater and the struggle for civil rights is profound and enduring.

Ida Rauh was the daughter of a wealthy family who, like some others in her generation, rebelled against her upper-class upbringing. She graduated from New York University in 1902, and though she was more qualified than most of her graduating class, her law degree guaranteed little in a world where men still dominated life inside the courtroom. She turned her sights instead toward the burgeoning women’s rights movement. Ida soon settled in Greenwich Village. For the next two decades, she would lead a whirlwind life in which she would make major contributions to the furthering of causes including women’s voting rights, birth control advocacy (she was arrested for distributing obscenity with Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger), and the spread of socialist doctrine.

A friend and fellow lawyer from NYU, Crystal Eastman, would help shape the course of Rauh’s future when she introduced her to her younger brother Max Eastman. Ida and Max eventually married, and together became major players in the birth of both modern theater and the early 20th century underground press, via the Provincetown Players and the publication The Masses, both located in Greenwich Village. She also found time to make major contributions to the organization of women’s trade unions and related strike activities.

When Max and Ida wed in 1911, she maintained her fierce independence by keeping her maiden name, much to the chagrin of her family and their society of friends. She was a founding member of the women’s club Heterodoxy on MacDougal Street next to the Provincetown Playhouse, which was an early and influential circle within the feminist movement.

Ida Rauh’s journey into the world of theater was marked by a deep-seated passion for social justice and a fierce determination to challenge the status quo. Rauh’s first foray into theater came through her involvement in the burgeoning Little Theater Movement, a grassroots effort aimed at fostering experimental and avant-garde theatrical productions. Rejecting the commercialism and conventionalism of mainstream theater, Rauh found a sense of kinship with like-minded individuals who shared her vision of a more socially conscious and artistically daring form of theater.

One of the defining moments in Rauh’s career came with her involvement in the Provincetown Players, a groundbreaking theater company founded in 1915 with the intention of producing innovative and socially relevant plays. As a founding member of the Provincetown Players, Rauh played a pivotal role in shaping the company’s artistic vision and establishing its reputation as a crucible for experimental theater in America.

Left to right: Clark Branyon, Susan Glaspell, Ida Rauh, Justice Sheffield, Norma Millay (sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay), and others in Susan Glaspell’s Woman’s Honor at 139 MacDougal, the first home of the Provincetown Players

Under the guidance of Rauh and her cohorts in the endeavor, the Provincetown Players became a hotbed of creativity and innovation, attracting some of the most talented playwrights, actors, and directors of the time. From the provocative works of Eugene O’Neill to the avant-garde experiments of Susan Glaspell, the Provincetown Players provided a platform for artists to explore new forms of expression and challenge prevailing norms.

Beyond her contributions as a co-founder and leading figure in the Provincetown Players, Rauh’s impact on American theater extended far beyond the confines of a single theater company. As an advocate for women’s rights and social justice, she used her platform to champion causes that were dear to her heart, using theater as a means to shine a light on pressing social issues of the day.

Rauh’s commitment to social activism was reflected in her choice of roles and projects, which often tackled themes of inequality, injustice, and the human condition. From her groundbreaking performance as the lead in the Provincetown Players’ production of “Suppressed Desires” to her tireless efforts to promote the work of female playwrights, Rauh’s influence on American theater was as much ideological as it was artistic.

Despite facing numerous challenges and obstacles as a woman in a male-dominated industry, Rauh remained undaunted in her pursuit of artistic excellence and social change. Her unwavering dedication to her craft and her principles serve as an inspiration to countless aspiring artists and activists, paving the way for future generations to follow in her footsteps.

Rauh lived at 39 1/2 Washington Square South and 15 East 11th Street.

Ida Rauh’s legacy looms large in the annals of American theater, a testament to the power of art to provoke thought, inspire action, and effect meaningful change. Her pioneering spirit, her fearless commitment to her ideals, and her enduring influence on the trajectory of American theater serve as a reminder of the transformative potential of creativity and conviction in the pursuit of a more just and equitable society.

Six women including Mary Dreier, Ida Rauh (third from left), Helen Marot, Rena Borky, Yetta Raff, and Mary Effers link arms as they march to City Hall on December 3, 1909, during the New York shirtwaist strike to demand an end to abuse by police.

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