Wild Woman to New Woman: Sex and Suffrage on the Victorian Stage

Gabrielle Malcolm, Visiting Research Fellow in English

Canterbury Christ Church University

‘A Pageant of Great Women’ and some remarkable men (with apologies to Cicely Hamilton) were in attendance for the opening of :


a collaborative exhibition (14th-31st May, 2013) by:

The International Centre for Victorian Women Writers, Canterbury Christ Church University

The Centre for Gender, Sexuality & Writing, University of Kent

Alyson Hunt, post-graduate researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University, created a thought-provoking exhibit at the Templeman Library, University of Kent. It marked an important new approach in research collaboration and knowledge exchange between the higher education institutions in Kent. The material on show made coherent some of the common threads of interest that exist in the abundant resources held in the special theatre and writing archive collections of both universities; Kent’s Templeman Special Collections, and Canterbury Christ Church’s Augustine Library Braddon Family Archive.

The Templeman Library holds the Melville Family Collection, featuring items related to their stage career such as this advertising from the 1904 'bad woman' drama.

What has become apparent in the examination of these important groupings of material is the ubiquity of women as playwrights, critics, trend-setters, performers, managers, and general powerhouses of the theatrical and publishing world of the nineteenth century. As Professor Kate Newey, Chair in Theatre History at the University of Exeter, announced in her lecture to open the exhibition, such richness and variety of archive resources is continually opening up new avenues for scholars and drawing our attention to the redundancy of some traditional roles and values that might have constructed opinion over the last century and more.

The exhibition charted the progress of women performers as activists for change in society and the arts. Hunt’s research identified the organization and origins of the suffrage movement and how a life on stage sometimes enabled women to lead lives that highlighted the value of social freedom. The focus of the exhibition offerd perspectives on such lives of prominent, ‘great’ women: Mary Braddon, Fanny Kemble, Elizabeth Robins, Lillie Langtry, and Ellen Terry. The star power of Kemble and Terry was contrasted with the modest stage career of Braddon, later eclipsed by her career as a novelist. The notoriety of Langtry was contrasted with the radicalism of Robins.

The fluidity and reach of the work created by Robins and Braddon, for example, in their careers as writers and performers indicates the power of women’s work. Their experiences also show that for the woman who could generate such commercial interest via their talents and ideas the demands upon them could be just as challenging as for any man. Braddon shows us how family and professional life revolved around her ability to constantly meet the requirements of a vast public appetite for her fiction.

Elizabeth Robins 1862-1952

Robins’s Anglo-American career path is significant for the fact that it shows reinvention and adaptation on the part of a gifted actress, whose versatility and intelligence created a desire for fresh creative challenges, and whose beliefs led to an increasingly politicized content in her work.

Kate Newey reflected upon these topics and others in her lecture. She offered an examination of ‘guerilla’ tactics in women’s creativity; those tactics of the ‘local, on the ground, and underground’ movements that use artistic invention and performance to create interest and spread the word on issues. There is also, she noted, a tradition of agit-prop and activist theatre that is usually traced to such movements as the Dadaists and Brechtian cabaret, and yet British and American women’s Suffrage Theatre pre-dates that. It belongs to the idea of the revolutionary and radical performance tradition that can find its successors in the ‘happenings’ of the 1960s right up to Pussy Riot’s protests and public interventions in the twenty-first century.

Unlike much Marxist avant-garde cabaret or poetry happenings, Women’s Suffrage interventions and performance could be violent and militant. Up to and including Emily Davison’s protest at the 1913 Epsom Derby, when on 4th June, she stepped in front of George V’s horse. She died of her injuries on 8th June. This, Newey explains, is an example of how ‘fundamentally revolutionary’ Suffragettes were, and how their brand of demonstration and protest often constituted a form of theatricality that exploited approved, socially acceptable female ‘performance’.

The scene of devastation on Derby Day 1913 - Emily Davison's protest

So that, for example, activists such as Davison embarked upon a day of protest with first a meeting that included an inspection and inventory of their appearance, so that they could be deemed respectable and non-threatening in a social setting such as Derby Day at Epsom. Then, when they chose their moment to strike with acts of vandalism, leafleting, or in Davison’s extreme case a public suicide, it was all the more shocking. Newey asks us to compare this with the sexualized identification adopted by Pussy Riot, the bare-breasted displays associated with glamour and pornography, and their radical and dangerous acts of violent protest against the Russian regime. Both situations, then and now, can be understood as ‘canny deployments’ as Newey terms them, of theatrical, performative, and sexualised identifications of womanhood that are then subverted.

Drama that was utilized within the political realm of Women’s Suffrage took performance out of the theatre building and into radical, unorthodox spaces. Just as women’s social and sexual presence was subverted by protest, so too were the domestic and public spaces subverted via performance. These types of instructional, political performances took the form of dramatic parlour sketches, for example Evelyn Glover’s ‘A Chat With Mrs Chicky’ (1913) and ‘Mrs. Appleyard’s Awakening’ (1913).

These were witty, consciousness-raising pieces that invoked the cunning servant motif of popular theatre, the mistress taught by the maid. Each instance in these dramas wherein the mistress tries to assert the opinion that the suffrage movement is a corrosive influence on the identity of women in society her argument is overturned by the action or commonsense words of the maid. For example, Mrs. Chicky’s stage business involves her physically moving her mistress around the space on her chair as she goes about her chores. Anything that the anti-suffrage Mrs. Holbrook tries to state is undermined by the physicality, strength, and competence of Mrs. Chicky.

The suffering of working-class women, their experience, their capitalizing on whatever little education that came their way, were all reasons outlined in such dramas as to why such women deserved the vote. Freedom wasn’t just for middle-class householders these plays asserted, the revolutionary message therein was that ALL women, logically, could do a lot more good with the vote than without it. Ironically, mental independence, autonomy, and strength were epitomized by these lowest and most subservient of characters.

The Cat And Mouse Act 1913

This type of theatre was more of an underground, ‘guerilla’ variety of work, even than the protests that took place in public. Inevitably, highly exposed public activities aroused more attention and, eventually, legislation with the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ of 1913 under Asquith’s government. The parlour sketches, Newey suggests, were simultaneously subversive and instructional largely because of this secrecy and their reiteration of the social and political values of the movement in  alternative settings.

The Suffrage movement consistently created huge unease around the notion of the female ideal. Some elements of society were already uncomfortable with femininity on stage, but as Newey points out, Emmeline Pankhurst and other leaders of the movement  retrieved the attributes of beauty and femininity  and championed them as part of the cause. As Elizabeth Robins advocated in her play ‘Votes For Women!’ (1907), it was for the ‘womanly’ woman to decide her own fate.

Women’s bodies, as on stage in Victorian drama, increasingly became the zone of politicization during the freedom movement. Enfranchisement had a price, enacted via starvation, beatings, force-feeding, and imprisonment for many members of the movement – young and old, rich and poor. Their bodies, however, could also be shocking, controversial, aggressive, and assertive zones, a means for self-parody, irony, and determination. This is a mode of expression often exploited by artists and activists (male and female) to this day, and can be seen to be a pioneering method thanks to suffragette performers and Victorian actresses.

The Actresses Franchise League: women of the stage looking for the vote

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