Feminism in Hamilton.
Writing by Sarah Broadwell. Illustration by Isi Williams.
'Tell your sister that she better rise up.'
The groundbreaking musical Hamilton explores the life of founding father, Alexander Hamilton. The very phrase, ‘founding father’ demonstrates that the events of the musical take place in a patriarchal society and consequently sexism within the plot is inescapable. Set primarily between 1776-1804, the ideas of feminism were yet to gather momentum and while Lin-Manuel Miranda does use artistic license to play with the narrative and divert from historical truth at times, the plot is mostly rooted in true events. The musical, however, does give a platform to explore the possible feelings and opinions of its female characters in a way that contemporaneous accounts might not reflect. Miranda threads feminist messages throughout the musical to demonstrate that those who are so often in the background are just as vital in sculpting our future.
'Me? I loved him.'
For a musical called Hamilton, it is to be expected that all introduced characters revolve around Alexander Hamilton. However, despite displaying Hamilton’s strong male friendships and enemies, his relationships with women all centre around love or lust (or Peggy, who is seen to receive neither). It’s Eliza Schuyler’s last name, one strongly linked to wealth at this time, that catches Hamilton’s interest and his line, 'my life is going fine ‘cuz Eliza’s in it' could easily be, 'my life is going fine ‘cuz a Schuyler’s in it.' Marriage was another platform through which to ‘rise up’ and the match still needs the approval of Eliza’s father, a detail that frames the patriarchal society and is not hidden away from a modern audience. Eliza’s sister, Angelica, is acutely aware of such society, 'I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich.' She navigates her place and searches for someone she deems as an intellectual equal to her mind. Furthermore, despite being desperately in love with Hamilton, she frequently tosses her own personal feelings aside for the betterment of her sister and focuses on Eliza’s happiness more than Hamilton’s. Angelica, therefore, makes clear where her true love lies- in sisterhood. The final key female character is Maria Renyolds- a woman struggling in an abusive marriage, who seeks a local, respectable man for help. The fact that he was her only option illuminates the extreme vulnerability of women in this time period. Maria’s key song: ‘Say No to This’ attempts to place Hamilton in a blameless position: ‘weak’, ‘longing’, and ‘missing [his] wife’. He is then confronted with a helpless woman who apparently leads him to bed. This, coupled with the following extortion of money by James Reyolds, shows that, at least from Hamilton’s perspective, he was unfairly tricked by unavoidable temptation. It is possible that the Reynolds duo planned the affair to extort money, yet it’s also possible that a powerful man saw a vulnerable woman and didn’t think consequences would apply. The musical tries to justify Hamilton’s decision to commit adultery in this song, yet the following events of the musical play out almost as a direct punishment for his action. He causes Eliza heartbreak, he loses political respect and experiences the death of his son, who passed in a duel initiated to protect his father’s honour after being called a ‘scoundrel’ in direct response to his affair with Maria.
Another interesting dynamic in the musical is exploring just how helpless the female characters are in regards to the events around them. When the Schuyler sisters enter they sing, 'we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.' This is a stark contrast to Hamilton’s difficult upbringing and long journey to New York City. While this is more a comment on class than gender, it’s unlikely that the community leaders of Christiansted would have raised money to fund the education of a woman, as they did for Hamilton. Throughout the musical, Eliza is desperate to be ‘enough’ for Hamilton and frequently reminds him ‘how lucky we are to be alive right now.’ She sees her position as a direct consequence of luck, whereas Hamilton sees his position as a result of 'non-stop' work. In fact, what makes Eliza’s ballad ‘Burn’, where she burns her love letters from Hamilton after learning of his affair with Maria, so heartbreaking is that the burning of these letters that once brought her such joy is the most powerful statement she can make. She cannot leave him, or her children, and has been publicly humiliated. She ‘erases herself from the narrative’ that she was not hugely present in to begin with, because that is the only control she can exercise. Yet despite the humiliation, the loss of her son and overall trauma brought on her as a consequence of her marriage, she still chooses to spend the remainder of her life ensuring that he and other key male figures in the revolution are remembered. Despite her marriage to Hamilton lasting only 24 years, the remaining 50 years of her life continue to be defined by him. Eliza uses her limited agency as much as she can and ultimately it is her that gets the last word, who tells the story, who forgives and remembers.
'Mother was a genius.'
The antagonist of the musical, Aaron Burr. seems to be one that respects women more than the average man of his time. He recalls wanting to please both parents equally in ‘Wait For It’ and desperately wants to protect the legacy they laid out for him. However, the lyrics ‘my mother was a genius, my father commanded respect’ invites the imagery of patriarchal violence and simultaneously begs the question, does being a genius not command respect? Furthermore, when Burr sings to his daughter in ‘Dear Theodosia’ he sings matching lyrics to Hamilton who is singing to a newborn son. They both long to make the world a better place to protect their children, male and female. Also, after Burr flirts with Angelica in ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ he backs off completely after she shuts him down. His choice of partner is interesting also as it’s to a woman who is married to a British officer. A dangerous and avoidable choice, but a demonstration that both partners believe the reward is greater than the risk.
'To the revolution!'
Finally, it’s evident that the first love of the male characters is the revolution. Yet, the staging of the musical does not demonstrate the battlefield as a male-only space. The soldiers of the revolution are played by men and women, and though the costume is identical, the women do not change hairstyles or make-up in order to appear more masculine. Also, the character of the ‘bullet’, who represents death and is arguably the most crucial element to the story is played by a woman. She consistently moves the plot forward and casts a shadow in everyone’s life- past, present and future. Furthermore, key female characters like Eliza and Angelica are often positioned in the rafters during the battle scenes to demonstrate that the events affect them and their future just as much, but they are unable to assist, trapped only to watch events take place around them.
Sexism in the plot of Hamilton is true to the patriarchal society of the time and is highlighted instead of brushed aside. The women of this time are so often forgotten, or remembered only as of the daughter or wife of a powerful man. The musical Hamilton shows their constant helplessness in regards to their socioeconomic positions, and their efforts to control their lives through whatever means they can. These women have stories that should never be forgotten, and this musical does so much to educate not just about Alexander Hamilton, but the hardships of the women that surrounded him and pushes those so often in the background to centre stage.