In 1945 Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein began working on The Mother of Us All, their second and final opera. If the pair’s chosen subject matter—the life and work of Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906)—was radical in and of itself, so too was the librettist’s approach to it. As Stein scholar Jane Palatini Bowers has carefully documented, Stein quoted heavily from political speeches as she crafted her libretto, using numerous “male-generated texts” but ultimately telling an “antipatriarchal” story. Bowers and others have argued that Stein’s revisions of these texts tell not only Anthony’s but also Stein’s story. I argue that in its final form, The Mother of Us All tells yet another story, for it was Thomson who revised Stein’s libretto after her untimely death in 1946, approximately one year before the opera’s premiere at Columbia University. Drawing extensively on both versions of the libretto text, as well as the musical score, I assert that Thomson sought to buy into Stein’s feminist project, and I read his revisions to The Mother of Us All as his attempt to refashion himself as her political and artistic partner.
At the same time that The Mother of Us All represented a very personal project for Stein and Thomson, it was a more broadly political project as well, a critique of the status of women in the United States following World War II. As Stein and Thomson looked back on the significance of the women’s suffrage movement, they chose not to bring their story to an unequivocally rousing conclusion celebrating the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Instead, they suggested an unfinished struggle, one that so-called “second-wave” feminists would task themselves with furthering during the latter half of the twentieth century and one that would nourish productions of The Mother of Us All well into the twenty-first century.