When Alena Shellenbean developed a historical reenactment group focusing on women’s suffrage, it was in part as a counterweight to the glut of popular military reenactments.
And between an increased interest in contemporary women’s rights and the impending 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, her timing in forming the troupe couldn’t have been better.
Reenactors from the Puddle Dock chapter of the New England Woman Suffrage Association will be one of the 15 groups featured in Saturday’s Strawbery Banke Museum presentation “American Lives: A Timeline of American History.”
Shellenbean, the manager of special events and volunteers at the museum, had the idea for highlighting the suffrage movement four years ago when the museum was preparing it’s inaugural “American Lives” event.
“When I was looking at the lineup of people who were involved, I thought it was fairly heavily weighted toward military impressions or groups showing off political or military history and fewer groups talking about women’s history or daily life,” she said.
Shellenbean put a call out to friends on Facebook and was pleased with the response, and the group has continued to find interested audiences.
“The centennial is next year,” she said. “Earlier this year was the 100-year anniversary of the passage of the bill in the Senate. It’s incredibly timely, and the interest in women’s life in history has really grown. So often what I end up doing is tagging along at battle reenactments or being sidelined because there are no major figures who are female. Being able to portray the average woman fighting for equality and a voice 100 years ago has been really gratifying.”
Shellenbean says she has been performing as a reenactor “most of my adult life.” She was absorbed in history from a young age, so the transition into taking a more active role seemed natural.
“In elementary school, I was the kid who would dress up for every book report,” she said. “I read ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and other history-based young adult literature. My parents took me to what felt like every house museum in New England at age 8, so for me it was really organic.”
After college, Shellenbean worked as a theater stage manager for Renaissance Fairs and has also costumed role players at the museum before taking on her current role.
“Most reenactors get into it because they hear about a group or event and they say, ‘That’s my people,’” Shellenbean said. “I can’t say exactly when that happened to me. I’ve been working in various costumes since I got out of college.”
While some reenactors and groups stay strictly in character, the Puddle Dock group takes a hybrid approach.
“Some groups will not break character; other groups don’t do it that way,” she said. “Other groups represent and talk about lives. This is what we do. We acknowledge we’re 21st century people but we’re honoring the past and those that have fought for equality.”
“American Lives: A Timeline of American History” features more than a dozen groups portraying historical figures and events from 1602 to 1945.
Fans of military history will still have plenty to chew on, with groups focusing on parts of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, the French and Indian War and World War II.