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The Actresses' Franchise League Prepares For War: Feminist Theatre in Camouflage

  • Katherine E. Kelly

In the third week of December 1908, a group of 300–400 prominent actors, actresses, and dramatists gathered at the Criterion Theatre in London to celebrate the formation of the Actresses' Franchise League. The inaugurating resolution, passed with one dissent, read: “That this meeting of actresses calls upon the Government immediately to extend the franchise to women, that women claim the franchise as a necessary protection for the workers under modern industrial conditions, and maintain that by their labour they have earned the right to this defence” (Votes for Women 24 Dec. 1908, p. 211). The resolution's emphasis upon labour as the enabling criterion qualifying women for the franchise reflects the roots of the British suffrage movement in the working class industrial north, where, as David Rosen notes, the Independent Labour Party had supported early suffragists (57).

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1 The “Theatrical Gossip” column of The Era reported the visit of “the distinguished author” and his entertainment by MPs at the House of Commons (The Era 9 October 1909), 16. In the same year, Brieux's False Gods was discussed as an example of superbly disguised “political drama” during a meeting of the O. P. Club, an organization founded in 1900 to promote and support interest in the drama. But the most fortunate sponsorship of Brieux came from G. B. Shaw's 1909 preface to the English version of Three Plays by Brieux, one of which, Maternité, was also translated by his wife, Charlotte.

2 R. Farquharson Sharp published a translation of three of his comedies in 1912, including the restored script of A Gauntlet. In his introduction, Sharp claims that the premiere of Björnson's restored script in his native Scandanavia caused the break up of hundreds of marriage engagements, which Norwegian authorities used to justify banning the play from the stage (The Era 8 February 1913), 14.

3 The AFL reorganized its various branches during the war, working sometimes with groups of professionals who had not been members. My attention is focussed primarily on the war work of what was formerly known as the AFL's Play Department, managed by Inez Bensusan. Michael Sanderson largely ignores The Theatre Camps Entertainments in his otherwise valuable history of the AFL's vast wartime work, including (ironically, given the paper's stance on suffrage) administering The Era's War Relief Fund and organizing and managing the Women's Emergency Corps, begun by Decima Moore, Eva Moore, Gertrude Kingston, and Lena Ashwell, for which Miss Ashwell received the OBE and Miss Decima Moore the CBE. As Sanderson notes, Dame May Whitty became the first British actress to be awarded the DBE for her work as “Madame Chair” of various AFL-related relief groups (164–70). Even an Actresses' Garden Club was affiliated to the League at this time through the directorship of Janette Steer (The Stage news clipping, 26 October 1916, Fawcett Library).

* Katherine E. Kelly is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas A & M University, where she is at work on a book about the Actresses' Franchise League. She is also compiling a collection of international plays by women c. 1880–1920.

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Theatre Survey
  • ISSN: 0040-5574
  • EISSN: 1475-4533
  • URL: /core/journals/theatre-survey
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