More than play acting: Votes for Women!

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More than play acting: Votes for Women!

by Pam Miracle on Tuesday, May 19, 2015 - 6:07pm

An angry woman stands on a platform and yells to the crowd surrounding her, “Why does any woman take less wages than a man for the same work? Only because we can’t get anything better...Do you really think we take low wages because we LIKE them?”

The scene could be one played out today, at a time when women still earn only $0.77 for every dollar their male counterparts make. Yet, it’s a scene from “Votes for Women!” a play written in 1909 by Elizabeth Robins, an American actress and playwright living in London...and a staunch suffragist. 

Leslie Hill

The suffrage movement benefitted greatly from the knowledge and experience that women in the theater, like Robins, brought to raising awareness, lending a dramatic touch to women’s voices and staging powerful public protests, says Leslie Hill, Stanford associate professor of theater and performance studies and a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow. In her latest book project, she reflects back 100 years to the height of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK and the role the theater and dramatic arts played in promoting the agenda of early British feminist movements.

“Actresses and dramatists like Elizabeth Robins and Cicely Hamilton not only wrote plays for the theater, but also performed at national public rallies and directed theatrical marches through city streets,” Hill explains. “Edwardian actresses were already unconventional, financially self-sufficient and accustomed to performing in public. They were the natural choice as field marshals to the suffrage movement.”

While the suffragist movement is primarily associated with advocating for votes for women, Hill reminds us that suffragists viewed the right to vote as the means to a greater end. Suffrage was one of the more conservative of their demands, which included the right to contraception, legalized abortion, prostitution, equality at work and equal education. They fought not only for legal rights, but also againstthe perception of women at that time. Men were the masters of the public sphere, dominating business, commerce and politics. Middle class women were confined to the domestic sphere, where they were charged with maintaining the spiritual and moral health of the family.

suffrage posterWomen who sought to break out of this mold were harshly criticized and labeled as shrews, hysterics, unmarriageable old maids and harpies. Women’s suffragists became their poster children, often depicted in posters and plays of the era as demons and the lowest forms of life. Hill points out that, to fight against this image, playwrights like Hamilton in “How the Vote Was Won,” used humor in their “agitprop” plays to promote women’s interests and defend women against the cruel barbs of cartoons and jokes. “Harnessing humor for suffragist propaganda may have been the agitprop dramatists’ single greatest contribution to ‘the cause,’” she says. “Where anti-suffrage humor had been personal in its attacks, centering around the discrediting of individuals, suffragist humor, for the most part, ‘rose above’ name-calling to tilt its lance at the much larger target of essentialist logic.”

Taking it to the streets

Theatrical events, however, were too limited to have broad national influence. The street, therefore, became the stage, where women carried banners, marched, protested and carried out brazen acts of civil disobedience. For women of the day, presenting themselves in person demanded enormous courage and involved definite risks. Describing the historic “Mud March” of February 1907, Hill notes that many women “feared hostile crowds, some disliked the idea of public exhibition, and others worried that they might lose their jobs if their pictures got into the papers.” Yet the march - well mannered, modest and dignified - showcased women vastly different from those depicted in anti-suffragist propaganda, and was a huge success with the press.

Realizing that spectacles sold papers, women continued their marches and began to hone their public persona as militants into four positive images to refute constricting Victorian ideals. They styled themselves as the “working woman,” the “modern women,” the “militant woman” and the “womanly woman,” presenting a respectable, diversified view of women’s roles in society. They marched together and, for the first time, suffrage was widely spoken of in public.

Civil disobedience as theater

While the marches inspired more women to join the cause, they were unsuccessful in securing the right to vote. When the government once again denied women enfranchisement by pushing aside the Conciliation Bill of 1912, militants staged violent protests, smashing windows across London, chaining themselves to fences, disrupting public appearances, and generally reinforcing the stereotype of suffragists as “female hooligans.”

The outbreak of WWI in 1914 diverted all attention to the war effort. And in 1918, the right to vote was finally granted to women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications, thought by many to be in recognition of women’s role in the war movement.

A deeper call to action

Hill emphasizes that the overall significance of the “Century of Suffrage” in the UK should be measured against its original cause, where the right to vote was the means to an end. “In Votes for Women!” she explains, “Robins represents female suffrage as part of an overall program of social reform, not the ultimate goal of the women’s movement nor even its most important tool. When historians treat the attainment of female suffrage as an end rather than a means, its most profound challenges are ignored.”

Suffrage plays could never capture all the drama or reality of the harsh inequalities and injustices the movement fought against. Yet, “despite the fact that the drama with the most impact took place in the streets rather than in theaters,” says Hill, “it is important to remember that the public movement was in no small part directed and stage managed by theater women.” Their efforts are part of the foundation of women’s rights movements today and echo in the voices of women who continue to lobby for equality in the workplace, in the home and in society at large.

Associate Professor, Performance Making

Leslie Hill teaches courses in performance making and critical theory and is co-director of Curious theatre company. Her interests include Live Art, social engagement, activism, phenomenology, autoethnography, film and video in performance, cognitive neuroscience, and science-art collaborations. Her performance work with Curious has been shown in 17 countries, commissioned and produced by organizations such as Artist...


Pam Miracle is currently an instructor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her communications leadership spans more than 20 years in international communications and public relations with direct work experience in the United States, Europe and Asia. She has expertise in creating internal and external communications programs that effectively bridge cultural and geographical boundaries and in developing and...