Suffrage in the Spotlight

Guest post by Naomi Paxton

Here at Vote 100 we often get emails from performers and playwrights who want to write about the suffrage movement, and to share the stories and voices of suffragists and suffragettes and their campaign for the vote.

Actresses' Franchise League badge. Courtesy of LSE Library
Actresses’ Franchise League badge. Courtesy of LSE Library

This is particularly exciting for me, as my doctoral research was all about the support given to the movement by the professional theatre industry, and in particular the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL), founded in 1908. The AFL were neutral regarding suffrage tactics and supported all other societies regardless of their stance on militancy, which meant that members appeared on platforms and in performance for events held by the WSPU, the WFL, the NUWSS and many smaller societies. The AFL and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, also founded in 1908, commissioned, wrote and produced plays for the movement, as well as giving lectures, holding regular meetings, participating in events and demonstrations and much more. The work they produced was performed on large and small stages all over the UK, as well as in the USA.

When I first discovered the AFL and suffrage plays I was amazed, excited and intrigued. What moved and motivated my further research was, initially, that I recognized something. Reading about the actresses and writers involved in the AFL and the WWSL it was clear that the women and men involved were bold, brave, passionate and committed performers who were unafraid to be open about their political views. They made and produced their own work, inspired, challenged and invigorated by performative propaganda of the suffrage movement, and frustrated by the limited roles and opportunities available to professional theatre women, on stage and off.

Lena Ashwell and Gertrude Elliott. Courtesy of LSE Library
Actress, theatre manager and producer Lena Ashwell with the President of the Actresses’ Franchise League, Gertrude Elliott, during the 1911 Coronation Procession. Courtesy of LSE Library

Their energy, resourcefulness and determination are evident even today in the passion and range of the plays they wrote and were part of, which are incredibly inventive and vary hugely in style, length, genre and cast size. They include songs, poems, verse comedies, dramas, monologues, duologues, dances, pastiches, pageant plays, Punch and Judy… the list and variety goes on and on. They even made a film, True Womanhood, in 1911. Not only do these outputs give us a fascinating glimpse into the tropes, language and stereotypes of the period but they also represent the range of opinions, struggles and hopes for and about Votes for Women throughout the years leading up to the First World War. Reading the plays is interesting, but they come alive in performance. They are outright propaganda pieces, written with passion, inspired by frustration, and are written to be heard, to communicate, to provoke thought and inspire action. By 1913 the AFL had a broad membership of actresses, performers, dancers, musicians, and music hall artistes that numbered nearly 1000. They also set up an affiliated men’s group for the many suffragist actors, playwrights and producers who supported the cause.

It’s exciting that so many performers and writers still want to bring suffrage stories to the stage, whether that is in a formal theatre space or through making and devising site-specific work. There are so many great stories and people to celebrate and explore – and so many contemporary resonances for current audiences too.

We will be featuring a number of upcoming performances and projects on this blog over the next few months. Look out for the first in a couple of days’ time!

Naomi Paxton

Naomi Paxton is Research Assistant on ‘What Difference Does The War Make? Votes for Women and the First World War’, an AHRC-funded collaborative project between Parliament’s Vote 100 Exhibition Project and the Universities of Lincoln and Plymouth. 

Read Naomi’s list of suffrage plays ‘Suffrage on Stage 2008-2018’