Actresses Franchise League
"We the undersigned, members of the Actresses Franchise League, beg to address you as follows. While adding to the gaiety of the nation the actresses have themselves been suffering from great wrongs arising out of sex disability. The broad expansive view of life that the actresses’ calling engenders has revealed to them the state of society in Great Britain which they, as patriotic women, can no longer support. Debarred by sex ability from the exercise of the franchise to right these wrongs, repudiated by the government of the day, unprotected by party machinery, the actresses, representing a very large and important faction of working women, do appeal to the House of Commons, and ask to be allowed to stand before the bar of the House and lay before the Commons at first hand their reasons for claiming equality with men in the state. This meeting of actresses calls upon the Government immediately to extend the franchise to women: that all women claim the franchise as a necessary protection for workers under modern industrial conditions, and maintain that by their labour they have earned the right to this defence."
The AFL aimed to fulfil its aims through: I) Propaganda Meetings 11) Sale of Literature III) Propaganda Plays IV) Lectures. They also aimed ‘To assist all other Leagues wherever possible’. In setting out their aims they stated that only actresses were to be eligible for the Executive Committee though membership was open to all those currently or formerly connected with any branch of the theatrical profession, on payment of one shilling and that the AFL were ‘strictly neutral in regard to Suffrage Tactics’.
1 Actresses’ Franchise League Secretary’s Annual Report 1910
2 Actresses’ Franchise League Secretary’s Annual Report 1911-12
3 An Outside Impression Flora Annie Steel
The work of the AFL also fed into the foundation of a number of other groups dedicated to using theatre to support the suffrage cause and wider feminist issues. In some cases, like the Pioneer Players, their work moved into introducing innovative new plays and experimenting with new forms.
The Pioneer Players were founded by Edith Craig and her partner Christopher St John (Christabel Marshall). Craig was a director and designer, the daughter of Dame Ellen Terry and sister of theatrical theorist Edward Gordon Craig. She directed many plays for the Actresses Franchise League including productions of How the Vote Was Won and numerous versions of Cicely Hamilton’s A Pageant of Great Women.
Their first productions were ‘propaganda plays, chiefly those dealing with the woman’s movement, as that is at present the most important’. These included Chris St John’s The First Actress, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Three Women, Kate Harvey’s Baby, Laurence Housman’s Pains and Penalties and Margaret Wynne Nevinson’s In the Workhouse. They went on to present numerous European plays in translation (usually by Christopher St John herself) including the first English version and production of Paphnutius by Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, the first women playwright, as well as plays by Herman Heijermans, Paul Claudel, Nikolai Evreinov and Anton Chekhov . A theatre club, often performing on Sunday afternoons, their work was not subject to the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship though when they tried to put on controversial works like a non-subscription performance of Chris St John’s and Charles Thursby’s the Coronation, this was banned. The company also introduced the work of numerous women playwrights, presenting the first British production of Susan Glaspell’s Trifles and plays by Antonia Williams, Gwen John, Delphine Grey (Lady Margaret Sackville) and Gabrielle Enthoven.
The Propaganda Players
“Branch secretaries will be interested to hear that the Propaganda Players, who have been in active rehearsal for the last few weeks, are now ready to book engagements for the rest of the winter season. They will perform Suffrage plays and plays dealing with the Woman Question for any Branch without fee provided such Branch will pay all out-of-pocket expenses, and, if necessary, provide the players with hospitality, all profits resulting from the entertainment to be retained by the Branch. There are vacancies in the company for two gentlemen and the hon. Secretary will be glad to hear from experienced amateurs."
The Propaganda Players hope to supply a felt want and to be of great assistance to the Branches. There is no doubt that strong Suffrage play is excellent propaganda and the players have the sole acting rights of some very good plays.
For all particulars apply to Mrs E.P. Fielden, “Lynton”, Dormers Wells, Southall, Middlesex.
from The Vote 20th January 1912