Continuing our International Women’s Week theme, an anthology of rare early 20th century plays written by female dramatists about the struggle for female suffrage.
Susan Croft’s anthology includes seven ‘suffrage plays’, including the comparatively well-known Votes for Women (Elizabeth Robins) and How the Vote Was Won (Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John), and other rarer examples which were previously long out of print. Many of these were produced by the Actresses’ Franchise League, founded in London in 1908 to write and perform plays in support of the suffrage movement. Dr Susan Croft’s introduction and chronology of suffrage drama sets the plays in their historical and literary context.
The plays cover both the debate about why women should be given the vote and the impact of not having it: economic inequality, unfair treatment in the workplace and the law courts, and sexual harassment. In the Workhouse, for example, is based on the true story of a man who used the law to keep his wife in the workhouse (and actually led to a change in the law in 1912).
The real value of these plays lies in the fact they were written during the suffrage movement itself, by women engaged in it – reading them is like having a dialogue with the suffragettes, or eavesdropping on the debates that took place in houses across the country while the suffrage battle was in full swing. At the Gates by Alice Chaplin is particularly good at this. It comprises of a series of encounters between a young woman picketing the House of Commons and passers-by, thus exposing the general public’s varied view of the suffragette movement – including a male sympathizer, small boys and grown men who jeer, and female ‘antis’ opposed to female suffrage – and how the movement responded to it.
I like to imagine how emboldened women felt seeing the suffrage debate and their stories told on stage, and dream that having these plays in print again, and performed, may encourage similar badassery in a new generation!