The Actresses’ Franchise League and their Deeds with Words

TO FREEDOM’S CAUSE is about to begin its southern leg of the tour, starting at HMP Downview and then moving to the Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden from 26th to 29th June.

I recently went to see one of the excellent Stage Rights! Living Literature walks in London’s West End. It was a fascinating insight into Theatreland’s suffrage history.

As part of the centennial events around Emily Wilding Davison’s Epsom Derby protest, I asked some of the most interesting women’s suffrage commentators and experts to write a series of short articles for this website.

Naomi Paxton, one of the driving forces behind the Stage Rights! walks, begins this fascinating Emily Davison/women’s suffrage series with an insight into the Actresses’ Franchise League.

 

In January 1963 Adeline Bourne, one of the founding members of the Actresses’ Franchise League celebrated her 90th birthday. Living alone in a cottage in Suffolk with her dog Rags for company, the interviews she gave to national newspapers record that her passion for the struggle for women’s rights remained as strong as ever:

 

“There is still a great deal to be done before women get real equality of opportunity in the professions… We should take our place in world affairs. We should lead the world. And we could. In the suffragette days we realized this.”

Adeline Bourne 1912_Naomi Paxton

Adeline Bourne photographed by Dover Street Studios, 1912

 

Adeline Bourne helped to found the Actresses’ Franchise League in 1908 with a group of actresses, singers, playwrights and musicians who wanted to do something with and in their professions to help educate women and men about the campaign for Votes for Women. They performed and spoke all over the country at suffrage meetings, held their own ‘At Homes’ on Friday afternoons at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly Circus and supported all suffrage societies, both militant and non-militant. As well as performing and lending their fame to the campaign they took part in parades and pageants and even helped to disguise suffrage speakers released under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act. Their energy, resourcefulness and determination are evident even today in their personal writings and in the passion and range of the plays they wrote and were part of.

 

 AFL logo_Naomi Paxton

AFL logo – their colours were pink and green

Encouraged, promoted and supported by the Actresses Franchise League and the Women Writer’s Suffrage League over 200 female playwrights emerged in the years 1908-1914, writing monologues, duologues, one act and full length plays to be presented across the country in theatres and at suffrage rallies and meetings. They are outright propaganda pieces, written with passion, inspired by frustration. They are written to communicate ideas, to provoke thought and inspire action. Not only are they a fascinating glimpse into the popular theatrical styles of the period but they demonstrate the range of opinions, struggles and hopes for the success of the Suffrage movement throughout those politically turbulent years.

 

Full of passion and fervour, the plays that the Actresses’ Franchise League performed also zing with a wit and humour that still charms and challenges audiences and performers in equal measure. I can say this with confidence as I’ve been part of performing many of them over the past five years! If you are interested in reading or performing a few yourself then do check out the anthology The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays which was published in January this year.

 

The Methuen Book of Suffrage Plays_Naomi Paxton

The Methuen Book of Suffrage Plays – Ed Naomi Paxton.
Cover photo taken from a performance of Knickerbocker Glories at the Union Theatre, 2010.

 

Researching the Actresses’ Franchise League members and their work for the suffrage cause fills me with pride, hope and admiration for their courage and dedication. Performing in their plays is a pleasure and a challenge – particularly as so many of the issues surrounding the struggle for women’s equality in society are still prevalent today. The voices of the Actresses’ Franchise League, like many of the voices of the Suffragettes have been ignored and diminished in the past, but their words and work have been hidden in plain sight, waiting to be discovered. Feminist actresses and theatre professionals have a herstory, in fact hundreds of herstories to be proud of, to be supported by and to build on. As Adeline Bourne herself said, 55 years after the first Actresses’ Franchise League meeting, “Our point of view should be heard… should go on and sweep the world.”

 

Adeline Bourne 1960_Naomi Paxton

Adeline Bourne, c.1960

 

If you’d like to find out more about the Actresses’ Franchise League and their work then do come to Suffragettes on Stage on the 25th June at the National Theatre, London.

For more details – click here!

Guest Blog post by Naomi Paxton

 

 

To Freedom's Cause flyer

 

Following a well received tour of the North East, TO FREEDOM’S CAUSE heads south to HMP Downview and the Tristan Bates Theatre (26th to 29th June 2013).

For more information about the play, click here.

 

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