She became involved with the women’s suffrage movement, organising street processions, selling newspapers on the street, and directing plays with the Actresses’ Franchise League and the Pioneer Players Theatre society which she founded.
Performances of suffrage-based plays were a rallying point for suffragists and suffragettes, communicated their arguments to a wider audience and brought in vital funds. Professor Katharine Cockin from our Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, joined Essex in October 2017. She has spent nearly thirty years researching women’s suffrage theatre and her many publications include two biographies of Edith Craig.
The power of theatre
Plays served several purposes for the women’s suffrage movement, including the opportunity to speak to the public. “They wanted to persuade the audience to join up,” explains Professor Cockin, “so a lot of the stories are ‘conversion narratives’, where a suffrage activist converts an initially anti-suffrage character. “Edith Craig was interviewed by one of the women’s suffrage newspapers and said ‘one play is worth a hundred speeches’. She was convinced of the power of theatre.” There’s evidence she was right.
One play, A Pageant of Great Women written by Cicely Hamilton, was performed across the country between 1909 and 1912, including Ipswich, close to our Colchester Campus, on 20 October 1910. Newspaper reviews described large crowds of cheering women and one performance in Sunderland alone attracted an audience of 2,000.
Those audiences brought another benefit: funding. Sales of tickets, souvenir programmes, photographs of the leading actors and copies of the published play all helped fund women’s suffrage organisations’ activities, from printing promotional material to paying costs arising from militant suffragettes’ law-breaking and prison sentences.
The plays also empowered activists. In A Pageant of Great Women the character of Woman argues for the vote by describing the achievements of a parade of up to 90 ‘great women from history’. These historical figures were played by suffrage activists, not professional actors.
“Taking part in the play was transformational,” says Professor Cockin. “One advert asking people to get involved at Beckenham says ‘Come to the public hall, Beckenham, and realise your beliefs that women have been great!’.”