The Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL) was founded in November 1908 by theatre professionals who wanted support the Votes for Women cause through their work. Any woman who was or had been in the profession was eligible to join, and the broad membership included many of the most famous actresses of the early twentieth century including Ellen Terry, Lily Langtry, Madge Kendal, as well as those who would go on to become well known after WW1, including May Whitty, Athene Seyler and Sybil Thorndike. The membership also included writers Gertrude Jennings and Cicely Hamilton, musicians Ethel Smyth and Liza Lehmann, theatre managers and producers Lena Ashwell, Edith Craig and Gertrude Kingston, singers Yvette Guilbert and Marie Brema, dancers Margaret Morris and Italia Conti, and music hall artistes Marie Lloyd and Kitty Marion. American actress Gertrude Elliot, the wife of suffragist actor-manager Johnston Forbes-Robertson, was the President of the League. By 1914 there were nearly a thousand members of the AFL, provincial secretaries in cities across the UK, an affiliated Men’s Group and over 100 Patrons, including Christabel Pankhurst. The League's sister society, the Women Writers' Suffrage League, was also founded in 1908.
The Actresses’ Franchise League worked with all the other suffrage societies - militant and non-militant - and was present for all of the most prominent events in the suffrage campaign between 1908 and 1914, organising performances at suffrage exhibitions and fairs, training and providing speakers for meetings and demonstrations, marching in processions, and putting on entertainments in theatres, restaurants, meeting rooms and even skating rinks. The AFL commissioned and published new writing, campaigned directly as an activist group alongside other suffrage societies and used the unique visibility and profile of its membership to gain press attention for the cause. Believing strongly in the power of theatre, propaganda and storytelling, the League’s output was ambitious, bold and hugely varied.
In 1913, the AFL founded The Woman’s Theatre, designed to open up opportunities for women to be part of the business of theatre and to participate at every level, on and off stage. After a very successful first season, plans for a second had to be postponed due to the outbreak of the First World War. League members threw themselves into war work – founding the Women’s Emergency Corps and the British Women’s Hospital Fund, and restoring the original Star and Garter home in Richmond for disabled servicemen. The Woman’s Theatre became the Woman’s Theatre Camps Entertainments, taking variety shows that included short one-act comedies by suffragist playwrights to army camps in the UK and abroad. After the war, the League continued to work for equal suffrage, and the organisation remained actively involved with and supportive of a variety of campaigns until it was wound up in 1958.
The League’s legacy is an inspiring one for scholars of feminist theatre, political theatre, theatre history and women’s history, as well as for current theatre professionals. Many of the issues around equality of opportunity within the industry are still pertinent today – and the AFL’s confident, clever, passionate and creative work and story still resonates with performers, audiences and activists.
The end of an extraordinary year.
It feels very strange to be at home on New Year's Eve, and not to be working as Ada Campe tonight. I miss it.
I reach the end of 2020 with what is now a familiar sense of worry and loss - as well as a deep gratitude for the way that technology has made communication with friends, colleagues, and loved ones possible over the festive period.
Grateful to have moved house this year and had DIY as a practical distraction. Grateful to have had a relatively mild and short bout of what probably was COVID back in March. Grateful to those who reached out with freelance opportunities when so much of my work had been cancelled and income slashed. Grateful that my wife - a full-time teacher - has remained well despite the risks she has faced daily at work. Grateful for the support of colleagues and Ada Campe's wonderful agents Gag Reflex. Grateful that family and friends have been adhering to the various changing rules and restrictions. Grateful for the NHS and the hard work and dedication of all key workers.
2020 has forced me to push the boundaries of my work into new spaces. This has been a challenge, but also a good way to experiment, learn new skills and reach new audiences.
Some particular highlights include hosting Museums Showoff online, speaking at an Indonesian puppet festival about my research into Suffrage Punch and Judy shows, and being part of the British Academy Virtual Summer Showcase. It was great to be involved in the Being Human Festival again to share the amazing creative work of the Greenham Women Everywhere project, and to make new connections through online events, seminars, festivals and workshops. It's been very interesting to be part of the IPEN network and learn more about parliamentary engagement strategies around the world. My monograph came out in paperback, making it much more affordable, and it's been wonderful to be invited to speak about my research on the radio and on podcasts. I joined The Magic Circle and have also done online comedy shows and festivals as Ada Campe - feel very lucky to have had some live in person gigs too over the summer and performed two solo Ada shows despite the social distancing restrictions. Shoutout to all the producers, comics, variety and cabaret performers who have worked so hard to be creative and share work since the March shutdown and in very economically precarious circumstances.
One major highlight of 2020 has been organising suffrage play readings online. This has been a real treat and successful in ways I couldn't have imagined when setting up the first reading in August. Four months later and we've done fifteen play reading sessions, read twenty-two plays, and had forty-one performers involved so far - and the group is not only growing but keen to do more! More blog posts to follow about these readings...
Of course there has been much to be frustrated, angry and unhappy about - but I don't want to focus on that tonight. That has seemed uppermost almost every day for months - and as we all adjust to this new way of being I have to focus on the positive to move forward.
However. Whilst creating online content has meant we can reach people who wouldn't have been able to attend physical events for a variety of reasons - it's also excluded others who don't have access to the technology required. This is an ongoing concern and challenge going forward for those of us with a public engagement focus and for those who work in participatory, community based and applied contexts. 2021 will bring new ideas and technologies as well as opportunities to think about engagement and access. I hope we keep the attitude of openness that has been a welcome part of this year - and keep searching for ways to extend reach without exploiting the labour of those involved in the creative process.
Here's hoping the coming year brings a successful vaccination programme that means community spaces and the arts and performance industries can come back to life. They are much needed.
Wishing you all a safe, healthy and happy New Year and 2021!
My second edited collection with Methuen Drama is being published on the 2nd July! It contains twelve pieces in all - a wide variety of material written by female and male suffragist writers between 1908-1914.
Spanning different styles and genres, the pieces explore many issues that interested feminist and suffragist campaigners such as the value of women's work, domestic and economic inequality, visibility in public space, direct action and its consequences, sexual double standards, and the influence of the media on public opinion. This collection builds on my first volume of plays, published in 2013. If you get both you will have an impressive collection of playable, accessible and fascinating plays that speak to us directly about how the suffrage movement represented itself on the stage and through the medium of performance.
Here's a little bit about each of the plays to whet your appetites!
It's been a couple of months now since my job at Parliament finished - and I've been meaning to write about some of the creative outputs of my time as part of the Vote 100 team. I was part of an AHRC funded project called 'What Difference Did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women' run by the University of Lincoln and UK Parliament Vote 100 alongside the University of Plymouth. The project outputs included three panel events in Lincoln, Plymouth and London discussing not only the project topic but the work and legacy of past and present female Members of Parliament, alongside workshops for young people, and an exhibition in Parliament and online. You can see that exhibition here: www.parliament.uk
I'm not going to talk about those outputs in this blog post though. Instead this is a brief introduction to some of the other outputs involving project research that happened over the course of my year there - outputs I'm really excited about and that reached out to different audiences in different spaces. There's music, games, theatre, and sweets!
My Time Traveller piece broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Essential Classics on Thursday 8th February 2018, was entitled 'Suffragettes on the Run' - and you can listen to it here (it's 1hr and 12 minutes into the programme)
Music Hall star and Actresses' Franchise League member Marie Lloyd, no stranger to campaigning for the rights of performers within the theatrical profession, lent her support to suffrage societies by singing at the WFL’s Old World Fair at Caxton Hall in 1909 as part of a series of concerts to raise funds, and appearing in How The Vote Was Won in the same year, presumably as the character of Maudie Spark, the music hall comedienne. As an influential, wealthy and famous performer, she was able to support the sisterhood of suffragists in unique ways. One such gesture involved her allowing her theatrical hamper to be used to smuggle a militant speaker into a meeting at the London Pavilion in 1913. Marked ‘Marie Lloyd, Pavilion. Luggage in advance,’ the hamper contained the WSPU speaker Annie Kenney, who was out of prison on licence after a period of hunger-striking and subject to immediate re-arrest under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act if she appeared in public.
Kenney wrote about the incident in her autobiography, Memories of a Militant, recalling the workmen who unknowingly delivered her to the theatre in the hamper making ‘growls…about the weight, about actresses having no consideration for the poor men who had to carry their baggage, and so on. I was turned, toppled, banged, dropped, before one of them got me (in my hamper, of course) on to his back.’
The ruse worked, and despite the police officers stationed around the entrances to the theatre, Kenney made it inside unnoticed.
The London Pavilion was a regular site for WSPU meetings in 1913, and the building that housed the theatre is still a prominent part of Piccadilly Circus. I remember it housing waxworks music show 'Rock Circus' when I was a child and it most recently was the site of Ripley's Believe it or Not. Built in 1885, it functioned as a music hall and variety venue until 1912, when it became the home of a string of musicals. as well as mixed bills. You can see a London Pavilion programme from 1913 here - and on the bill is a performance by Graham Moffat's company of Scottish Players. Moffat was a suffragist and the author of suffrage play 'The Maid and the Magistrate', published by the AFL. His wife, actress Maggie Moffat, was the second Scottish suffragist to be imprisoned for campaigning, when she was arrested in 1907. The Glasgow WSPU delegate for the Women's Parliament in Caxton Hall, Maggie Moffat was one of fifty-three women arrested when mounted police broke up a group of women marching peacefully to the House of Commons with a resolution for the Prime Minister. She was subsequently imprisoned in the second division in Holloway.
But back to the story in question!
I wrote a blog post about suffrage plays for the Vote 100 project - you can read it here. Whilst doing it, I began to compile a list of all the professional performances of suffrage plays, old and new, since 2008... and I'd like you to check yours or one you attended or one that you are putting on next year is on the list, and if not, comment on this post so I can add it to the list!
I am including:
At the moment I am not including projects or performances that have only taken place in formal education institutions, so schools, colleges and universities... unless those performances were/are open to the public or are made available to the public online through video, audio or other online dissemination.
Please don't be cross if yours is not there - comment and I will add it to the list. This first list is purely made up of projects and performances I remember being in, putting on, attending or knowing about so is limited by those factors.
Please comment and let's make it a much better and more inclusive and more extensive list!
In groups of ten to fifteen at a time, audiences will set off on a specially prepared route through Covent Garden starting from the historic Theatre Royal Drury Lane. At intervals throughout the route, actors and actresses begin their performances as the groups draw near, engaging audience members in comic and moving moments from the struggle for Votes for Women with pieces both inspired by and directly from the plays and experiences of the Actresses’ Franchise League…
Audiences will discover theatrical Suffragette secrets they never knew Theatre Land had been keeping!
2. Male support for Votes for Women
In the film 'Suffragette' the character of Hugh Ellyn, played by Finbar Lynch, is described by the policemen watching his property as being part of the 'Men's League.' Married to a known militant, he has apparently previously been imprisoned for his role in the suffrage campaign, and we see him in the film helping the WSPU to organise and carry out violent militant actions. Although we never get to hear any of his story, it's good to have acknowledgement of the male support for suffrage in the film - as it's an important part of the history of the campaign.
It's not made clear in the film or production notes, but I reckon, given his militant leanings, Lynch's character is most likely to have been part of the Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement (MPU). The MPU was directly affiliated with the WSPU, the society featured in the film 'Suffragette,' and shared their colours of purple, white and green. As well as their headquarters near Charing Cross Station in London, they had a number of regional branches across the UK, including in Eastbourne, Birmingham and Letchworth and at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. One branch, in East Grinstead, was apparently "actually the outcome of an anti-suffrage meeting there... One gentleman was so struck with the feebleness of the arguments that he proceeded to found a branch of the Men's League."
This is the transcript of my talk for BBC Radio 3's
Free Thinking Festival, recorded on the 2nd November 2014 at the Sage, Gateshead.
It was broadcast on 24th November 2014.
The broadcast version was cut, so the transcript below is the" full piece. You can hear the broadcast version by clicking on the picture above - or clicking here
I was just casually reading through Votes for Women from 23rd January 1914 when this leapt out at me and made me giggle:
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research