In Search of the Schuyler Sisters

It’s hard not to fall for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal of the Schuyler sisters in his new musical Hamilton. Born to General Philip Schuyler, these Revolutionary ladies lit up eighteenth century New York City with the force of 1,000 Kardashians. In the biography of Alexander Hamilton that started Miranda’s wheels turning, Ron Chernow describes the Schuyler sisters as “smart, beautiful, gregarious, and rich…the stuff of fantasy for Hamilton.” Even famed ladies’ man Ben Franklin left the Schuyler mansion in Albany singing the sisters’ praises in his correspondence, enamored of their “‘lively behavior.'” Given Franklin’s proclivities, it’s hard to discern whether this observation is truly a compliment (back-handed or otherwise).

Lively the sisters prove to be, both as characters in Miranda’s musical and as vocal powerhouses in the score. There’s the eldest daughter, Angelica (played by Renée Elise Goldsberry), a spit-fire rapper enamored of the intellectual fervor of revolutionary New York City (she’s “looking for a mind at work”). Next in line is Eliza (Phillipa Soo), who will eventually become the “trusting” and “kind” wife of Hamilton (played by Miranda himself). Rounding out the trio, Jasmine Cephas Jones plays naïve Peggy, pegged by Miranda in his character notes as “Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child.” Poor Peggy. Poor Michelle.

Almost every critic who’s described Miranda’s trio has compared their vocals to the late 90s Beyoncé think tank Destiny’s Child—that influence plays out, certainly, through the whole musical. But their introductory number, “The Schuyler Sisters,” makes me think even more of The Pointer Sisters or The Emotions; something distinctly 70s animates the structure and harmonies of that number, even if Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” takes a stroll through the chorus. Perhaps this is because, once the sisters appear, Hamilton‘s score shifts from hip hop to a call-and-response hybrid of funk and R&B. Only when Angelica spars with a leering Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr., who is just jaw-droppingly good in the whole gosh-darn thing) do they use rap to match wits. Miranda establishes rap as the musical’s vernacular for witty repartee early on—arguments between Cabinet members in the fledgling American government are even staged as rap battles—so this choice makes a whole lot of sense.

Listening to Goldsberry rap lines from The Declaration of Independence, calling on Thomas Jefferson “to include women in the sequel,” feels like nothing short of a breathtaking jab to the solar plexus of revolutionary America’s promise of freedom. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, wouldn’t be ratified until 1920–more than 140 years after Angelica Schuyler and her sisters took Manhattan by storm, and 50 years after the 15th Amendment protected the rights of black men as American citizens. That Miranda wrote these lines for Goldsberry, who portrays Angelica as a powerful, politically savvy woman of color, should be lost on absolutely no one (“Work!”).

Because of the complicated, bloody, and disturbing histories at play in Hamilton–at once the Revolution performed on stage and the struggles of later movements in our streets and courts–I can’t listen to Goldsberry’s performance in “The Schuyler Sisters” without feeling both thrilled and ashamed. Perhaps better than almost anyone writing today, essayist and novelist Roxane Gay describes how the feminist movement has historically excluded women of color. This exclusion makes her feel ambivalent about adopting a feminist identity: “White feminists often suggest that by believing there are issues unique to women of color, an unnatural division occurs, impeding solidarity, sisterhood,” Gay writes in “Bad Feminist,” the title essay of her 2014 collection. “Other times, white feminists are simply dismissive of these issues…Such willful ignorance and disinterest in incorporating the issues and concerns of black women into the mainstream feminist project makes me disinclined to own the feminist label until it embraces people like me.” I think of Angelica’s insistence that women be included in the American bid for freedom, and I remember how Ida B. Wells was barred from marching with the suffragettes in 1913. How, when Beyoncé released her self-titled album in 2013, one hundred years later, there were endless and often bizarre panels about her particular brand of feminism (a brand I think is just that–inextricably linked to the multi-billion dollar business of being and performing Yoncé). I think: there has to be a way to be better.

It’s not a coincidence Miranda’s score draws directly on the music people of color have used to protest political inequality, on hip hop and R&B, on soul. In a beautiful and radical gesture, he writes people of color into the birth of their own country, taking them out of history’s oppressive margins and placing them in the roles of founding fathers, leaders, generals. Rebels. He wants to remind us that these men were always already present and capable, if hindered by overwhelming oppression. Miranda’s women–at least the most privileged among them; there are uncomfortable exceptions–are thinkers and mothers, Daddy’s girls and sexual pawns. They influence the decisions and policies of their men, working within the social constraints of the eighteenth century. Hamilton is not meant to make up for, or re-write, the past–how could it?–but it’s a stark reminder of how far away we are from embracing the ideals of Miranda’s technicolor vision of revolutionary America. Our country remains mired in its racist, sexist past, and our collective inability to address this history continues to play itself out in troubling ways. Consider the deadly police force exercised with disturbing regularity against black men and children, against women and trans women, without consequence; consider the gendered wage gap, which disproportionately affects women of color. We still have a lot of work to do.

Over the past weeks, Hamilton in my headphones and blasting from the tinny speakers on my laptop, I’ve obsessed over the Schuyler sisters, Angelica in particular. It’s an intellectual curiosity tempered by the kind of ferocious love I’ve only felt for characters from my favorite novels or TV shows. Angelica Schuyler is not so far way from Scandal‘s Olivia Pope: commanding, smart, a few steps ahead, with bad taste in brainy men. Poor Eliza might actually be Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife. I can’t help wishing George Eliot would have written a novel about them, that Hilary Mantel or Meg Wolitzer still might. Can’t we at least have a Leslie Knope/Schuyler sisters cross-over episode? A series of regular posts on Maris Kreizman’s wonderful blog, Slaughterhouse 90210?

Ever the dutiful student, I wonder if learning more about these historical figures will sate this nameless thing I’m yearning for. I try, but it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a good way to find out. There aren’t many details about Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy in Chernow’s biography: a handful of pages, a list of primary sources in far-away university libraries. Angelica Schuyler regularly corresponded with both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, causing her contemporaries to speculate about the nature of her relationship with both men–that much we know. But no one has taken on the task of a full biography. Even accounts of women in the American Revolution, like Cokie Roberts’ Founding Mothers, only contain a few pages, usually about Eliza, who went on to establish the first orphanage in New York City. Without access to letters or other historical documents, the trail in popular history grows cold, unsatisfying. Miranda’s musical is new and steamy. Would chasing the ghosts of scheming Angelica or saintly Eliza through the archives mean as much if I couldn’t hear Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillippa Soo belting their hearts out while I read?

I feel both discouraged by the apparent lack of historical record of these women (typical!) and relieved. If I can’t find them, they can’t turn out to be a version impossible for me to reconcile with Miranda’s compelling characters. I think I might prefer it, this incomplete picture, even if it’s a little delusional. This way, the Schuyler sisters are neither entirely lost, nor entirely representative of the racial and economic privilege keeping contemporary American politics in its stranglehold. Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the sisters are always somewhere in between, neither and both. They belong to me, and to their host of new fans, an amalgam of history and hope and kick-ass vocals. I can live with that.