Votes for Women and Other Plays
A collection of the best suffrage plays, introduced and set in an historical context by Dr Susan Croft together with an expert chronology of suffrage drama.
The astonishing women involved in the Actresses Franchise League set up their own theatre companies and engaged with the battle for the vote by writing and performing campaigning plays all over the country. They launched themselves onto the political stage with their satirical plays, sketches and monologues whilst at the same time challenging the staid conventions of the Edwardian Theatre of the day. The legacy of their inspiring work to change both theatre and society has survived in the political theatre, agitprop and verbatim theatre we know today.
Introduction | Plays: Votes for Women (1907) | A Change of Tenant (1908) | At the Gates (1909) | How the Vote was Won (1909) | The Apple (1911) | In the Workhouse (1911) | Jim’s Leg (1913) | Chronology | Bibliography | Universal Suffrage dates | Useful links
The Plays included are:
Votes for Women by Elizabeth Robins
“The play offers a passionate argument for female suffrage but is much more than propaganda. It is a richly invigorating piece about the interaction of sex and politics…” (recommended by Michael Billington in The Guardian)
A Change of Tenant by Helen Margaret Nightingale
At the Gates by Alice Chapin
How the Vote was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Chris St. John
The Apple by Inez Bensusan
In the Workhouse by Margaret Wynne Nevinson
Jim’s Leg by L.S. Phibbs
About the Editor
Susan Croft is a writer, historian, curator and researcher. She worked in the USA with the Omaha Magic Theatre in the early 1980s, returning to Britain to work as a dramaturg with small-scale theatre companies and founding New Playwrights Trust, of which she was Director from 1986-89. She taught Creative Arts (Performance) at Nottingham Trent University and then was Senior Research Fellow in Performance Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University to 1996. From 1997-2005 she was Curator of Contemporary Performance at the Theatre Museum where she worked on the National Video Archive of Performance. She also curated four major exhibitions including Let Paul Robeson Sing! and Architects of Fantasy and pioneered a range of initiatives to record the history of black and Asian theatre in Britain.
She has written extensively on women playwrights, including: She Also Wrote Plays: an International Guide to Women Playwrights from the 10th to the 21st Century (Faber and Faber, 2001). She is working on a Critical Bibliography of Plays Published by Women Playwrights in English to 1914 for Manchester University Press and a major anthology Staging the New Woman, with Sherry Engle. She also runs the project Unfinished Histories: Recording the History of Alternative Theatre, with Jessica Higgs, a major initiative to record oral histories and preserve archives of the alternative theatre movement from the 1960s to the 1980s. She lives in London with her partner and two children.
About the authors
Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952) born in Louisville, Kentucky, and educated at Putnam Female seminary in Ohio she became an actress with the Boston Museum Company, where she played almost three hundred parts in Boston and on tour. In 1885, she married an actor, George Parks, who killed himself two years later. In 1889, Robins moved to London where she established herself as a major actress and soon became active in the movement to bring Ibsen’s plays to Britain, working with her close friend the critic William Archer. In Ibsen and the Actress (1928), Robins writes of the life-changing experience of seeing A Doll’s House and her determination, with fellow American actress Marion Lea, to produce Hedda Gabler themselves when the managers expressed indifference and loathing towards it. She performed leading roles in many Ibsen plays and produced the work of other playwrights including fellow Norwegian Alfhild Agrell’s Karin, (Vaudeville, 1892) translated by Florence Bell. Bell was Robins’ close friend and coauthor on the controversial play Alan’s Wife (1893), dealing with infanticide, which they produced and published anonymously.
Fifteen novels followed, many with theatrical themes (some under thepseudonym C.E. Raimond) including The Coming Woman (1892), George Mandeville’s Husband (1894), and The Open Door (1898). Several were adapted for the stage or from her stage plays, like The Convert, based on Votes For Women, which was one of the first plays directly about the suffrage campaign in Britain (both 1907).
Robins was a prominent member of the WSPU and first President of the WWSL. She lived for many years with Octavia Wilberforce, the doctor andfeminist, with whom she adopted a child.
In 1913, many of her speeches, lectures and articles on the Suffrage Movement were published in volume form as Way Stations. These and many of her novels are now available online. Later, Theatre and Friendship, her correspondence with Henry James was published. Further (unpublished) plays include: Mirkwater, The Silver Lotus (1895) Benvenuto Cellini (1899/1900), Judith, (c1906), The Bowarra (1909) and Where Are You Going To…?, originally written for Bensusan’s Women’s Theatre (also known as My Little Sister), Evangeline (1914) and The Secret that Was Kept or Fear ( Robins’ unpublished works are in the New York University Fales Library).
Helen Margaret Nightingale (?-1921) Little is known of Nightingale apart from her two romantic novels Savile Gilchrist M.D. (1906) and The Choir at Newcommon Road (1909) together with the collected poems The Men in Blue and Other Poems, which were published in her memory in Reigate in 1922. Many of the poems were first published in the ‘Gazette of the 3rd L.G.H’, most deal with the war, including one titled ‘Demobilised’, which suggests that Nightingale worked as a nursing auxiliary:
Shall stand outside the Matron’s door,
And wonder if my cap is straight”
Two other poems refer to the nursing and recovery of her (female) lover.
A Change of Tenant was published with the author accredited as a ‘Miss H. M. Nightingale’, but it has often gone unrecognised. It was published by the Woman Citizen Publishing Company and is undated though the Bodleian Library gives it as 1908. Originally entered as a work by ‘anonymous’ at The British Library and recorded with the author as H. M. Nightingale in The Players Library (British Drama League,1950).
The play was toured by the AFL in 1910 and produced by other suffrage organisations. Elizabeth Crawford records that the feminist and novelist Isabella Ford performed in a production of A Change of Tenant at the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society. The AFL Report of 1909-1910 lists productions of A Change of Tenant for the Sevenoaks Branch of the National Union for Women’s Suffrage, (along with Cicely Hamilton’s Pot and Kettle and How the Vote was Won) and another production at Battersea Arts Centre. On 21st April 1911, it was performed in aid of the NUWS, with Graham Moffat’s The Maid and the Magistrate.
Alice Chapin (1858-1924) born at Keene, New Hampshire, Chapin became an actress and spent her career partly in the USA, and partly in Britain. She married H.M. Ferris in 1885, by whom she had a daughter, Elsie, a suffrage activist and a son, actor/playwright Harold Chapin with whom she wrote A Knight Errant (Grand, Falkirk, 1906). She also co-wrote plays with others including Shame (1892) and the extravaganza Dresden China (both with E.H.C. Oliphant, both Vaudeville, 1892), The Happy Medium (with P. Gaye, Ladbroke Hall, 1909) and most interestingly Outlawed (Court, 1911) a dramatisation with Mabel Collins of Collins’ and Charlotte Despard’s suffrage novel of the same name. Her other plays included The Wrong Legs (Ilkeston, 1896); Sorrowful Satan or Lucifer’s Match (Kentish Town, 1897); A Woman’s Sacrifice (St George’s Hall, 1899) and A Modern Medea (Rehearsal Theatre, 1910) directed by Edith Craig. Chapin was a suffrage activist and dedicated member of the WFL and an early and committed member of the AFL.
Accounts in the suffrage press or AFL reports mention her chairing meetings such as that in Victoria Park, Manchester when the “platform was singled out by a band of rowdies, and the speakers not given a hearing”, addressing a meeting in Edinburgh and chairing three meetings for the AFL in Hyde Park during 1913. A one-page version of her play appears in The Vote (16 Dec, 1909) before its pamphlet publication by the Woman Citizen Publishing Society.
In 1909, at the age of 51, she was arrested for pouring acid into ballot boxes, together with her fellow-protester, Alison Neilans. Only Chapin was found guilty, as the acid slightly splashed and “injured” one of the tellers. Chapin was sentenced to imprisonment for four months. She later returned to the USA for some years and died in Keene.
 See The Ballot Box Protest, and the trial of Mrs Chapin and Miss Neilans, at the Central Criminal Court (Miss Neilans’ Defence) London: Women’s Freedom League, 1911.
Cicely Hamilton (1872-1952) was the daughter of an army officer, Denzill Hamill, and born in London. Her mother, Maude, died (or disappeared, Hamilton is evasive in her autobiography, Life Errant, 1935) when she was young and Cicely helped bring up and later support her younger brothers and sisters in foster-homes and boarding with relatives while their father served abroad. After a brief stint as a pupil-teacher, she became an actress, touring throughout the provinces, and began writing short popular fiction alongside acting and in 1906, her first play The Sixth Commandment was produced at Wyndham’s in London. It was followed by The Sergeant of Hussars, Play Actors, 1907. In 1908 her Diana of Dobson’s was produced by Lena Ashwell at the Kingsway Theatre. In the style of the “new drama” of Shaw, Granville-Barker, Galsworthy and others, it introduced themes later developed in her book, Marriage as Trade (1909), an important feminist analysis of the marriage market, combining realism and comedy in addressing problems of the economic subjugation and the denigration of single women, subjects. It was highly successful, enjoying a long run, extensive tours and a series of revivals. Hamilton put her public recognition to the service of the suffrage campaign, joining the WSPU and becoming a speaker at rallies and co-founding WWSL with Bessie Hatton and writing three classics of the suffrage campaign: the play How The Vote Was Won, with Chris St John, the words to her friend, Ethel Smyth’s anthem, “March of the Women” and A Pageant of Women (AFL, Scala, Nov 1909.
Her later plays included numerous one-acts such as Mrs Vance (1907) and Just To Get Married (1910), and the unpublished The Pot and the Kettle (with St John, AFL, 1909), The Home Coming (1910) and The Cutting of the Knot (Glasgow Royal, 1911Constant Husband (1912), Lady Noggs (1913) and the same year Phyl, which enjoyed the distinction of being banned by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. At the start of the War, Hamilton joined the Scottish Women’s Hospitals Organisation as a hospital administrator and went on to establish concert parties and organise theatre performances for the troops. Her nativity play The Child in Flanders is set in the trenches. She continued writing after the War as a successful journalist, helping found the feminist magazine Time and Tide, with Rebecca West, Winifred Holtby and others, and novelist: William: an Englishman (1919) A Matter of Money, Full Stop which includes suffrage scenes). She also produced non-fiction works, including a history of the Old Vic with Lillian Baylis, an autobiography Her last plays, such as The Old Adam, focus on the devastation of war, and the indifference of women who tried to ignore its horrors.
 For publication details see Croft, 2001 or Whitelaw
Christopher St John (1871-1960) Christabel Marshall assumed this name upon her conversion to Catholicism and because she felt herself better suited to a man’s name. She was the youngest of nine children, daughter of banker Hugh Graham Marshall and novelist, Emma Marshall who supported the family by historical fiction-writing after the bank failed. Chris grew up in the West Country, went to Oxford University and then worked as Secretary to Lady Randolph Churchill. In 1899 she met Ellen Terry and fell in love with Terry’s daughter, Edith (Edy) Craig.
The two set up house together in Smith Square, becoming active members of the suffrage movement. They also provided a retreat and safe-house for other women at their home, the Priest’s House, at Smallhythe, Kent where they were later joined by the visual artist Claire ‘Tony’ Atwood. Their circle grew to include other lesbians such as Vita Sackville-West, whose Sissinghurst home was close by, Gabrielle Enthoven, (whose theatre collection formed the basis of the Theatre Museum’s Collection now in the V&A) and Radclyffe Hall.
With Edith Craig, she established the Pioneer Players, an innovative theatre company which produced many of Chris’s plays, as well as plays by other feminist writers and experimental works from the European repertoire.
St John’s numerous plays and translations, largely unpublished include The Decision (1906); The Wilson Trial (1909); Eriksson’s Wife (Royalty, 1904), Macrena (1912,) The First Actress (1911), The Coronation (1912, with Charles Thursby), and The Plays of Roswitha (1923), the tenth century nun and first woman playwright. St John also edited Ellen Terry’s Memoirs, wrote music and dramatic criticism, in particular for Time and Tide and The Lady, and a biography of the composer and feminist, Ethel Smyth.
Inez Bensusan (1871-1967) the eldest of ten children, she was born in Sydney, Australia into a wealthy Jewish family, eight of whom survived. She appears to have wanted to act from her youth, staging recitals and entertainments for the community. Sometime after 1893 she emigrated to Britain, travelling via South Africa.
Best known for her work as journalist, writer and campaigner for women’s suffrage, she was active in Australia and New Zealand Women Voters and the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, serving on its Executive Committee. Most centrally she made a vital contribution to the work of the AFL, developing and running the Play Department and working in conjunction with the WWSL to encourage and commission women to write plays in support of women’s suffrage. Bensusan also performed with and was on the Council of the Play Actors.
Later, she ventured into film, writing and starring in True Womanhood (1911), playing a starving woman sweatshop worker, saved from the workhouse by a suffragette fairy godmother (it also featured Decima Moore and Auriol Lee). In 1913, Bensusan went on to set up the Women’s Theatre, launched at the Coronet Theatre that December, which aimed to establish a permanent season of work dealing with women’s issues. She played the grandmother in Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot (Court, 1914) and in 1916 produced and performed in Jennie (Mrs Herbert D.) Cohen’s The Lonely Festival as part of an All Jewish Matinee.
During the Great War she worked with the first Women’s Theatre Company to perform for the Army of Occupation in Cologne and then with the British Rhine Army Dramatic Company for three and a half years. She later converted to Christian Science and became active in the Women’s Institute and on issues of child welfare. She maintained her involvement in small-scale and experimental companies serving on the committee of The 1930s Players and, as late as 1951, appearing in a House of Arts Drama Circle triple-bill, at Chiswick Town Hall.
Margaret Wynne Nevinson (1858-1932) grew up in a Welsh-speaking vicarage. She took a degree at St Andrew’s University and then travelled and taught before marrying the journalist and Manchester Guardian war correspondent Henry Woodd Nevinson in 1884. They worked together in an East End settlement before moving to Hampstead where she worked as a journalist.
She served for 25 years as a school manager and later Poor Law Guardian and Justice of the Peace. She was active in the WSPU, the Tax Resistance League and especially the Women’s Freedom League who published her pamphlets Ancient Suffragettes (1911) and Five Year’s Struggle for Freedom: a history of the suffrage movement (1908-1912).
Her husband was also active in the Suffrage Movement, becoming a founder of the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement for which he wrote at least one dramatic sketch. Margaret Wynne Nevinson spoke several times at AFL events including on Women Under the Poor Law.
Her collection of short pieces, originally published in newspapers and journals, Workhouse Characters, based on interviews with sailors, drunks, dossers and attempted suicides, some of which in are in the form of dramatic monologues, was published in 1918. In 1922 she wrote Fragments of Life, a further volume of short autobiographical pieces and stories on social issues, and published her memoirs, Life’s Fitful Fever in 1926.
After Margaret’s death her husband remarried to her close friend and prominent suffragist, Evelyn Sharp.
L.S. Phibbs (Dates unknown) No information has been traced about L.S. Phibbs though she may well be the same person as Mrs Harlow Phibbs, who wrote another AFL piece, The Mothers’ Meeting. This play too is a monologue about a workingclass woman, spoken by Mrs Puckle who, in search of the mothers’ meeting of the title, stumbles instead on an anti-suffrage meeting. There, she becomes so outraged by the absurdities of Lady Clementina Pettigrew’s speech that she stands up and tells her that she’s talking nonsense and fills her in on the realities of life – the hardship and suffering women undergo equally with men and she finds herself condemning the iniquities of taxation without representation.
The working-class woman who trounces the upper-class anti-suffrage woman was a favourite device of AFL plays (see also Glover) though it is probable that Phibbs, like most other AFL playwrights, was herself middle-class.
A further one-act play by Mrs Phibbs, The Rack, was presented at the Rehearsal Theatre in 1912 with Madeleine Lucette Ryley in the cast.
Ryley was a Vice-President of the AFL, prominent actress and playwright with a career in both Britain and the US. See Engle 2007 for reprinted interview with Ryley from The Vote.
by Naomi Paxton