November 13, 2018

Equal pay. Sexual harassment. Education. These aren’t just the issues that have highlighted nearly every U.S. presidential election in recent memory. They are also issues that framed the little-known plays of the British suffrage movement between 1903 and 1914.

Anna Andes, chair and associate professor of theatre Anna Andes, chair and associate professor of theatreAnna Andes, chair and associate professor of theatre at Susquehanna University and a theatre historian, has spent the past several years studying these suffrage plays, which are housed at the British Library in London. Many of them have never been published.

“They weren’t published because they were written by women,” Andes said. “There is a lot of irony in that.”

This fact, and that many of the plays were performed at rallies as opposed to commercial theatre, leaves a significant void within the history of theatre and the women’s movement, Andes said.

Andes’ essay, Burgeoning New Women of Suffrage Drama: Envisioning an Autonomous Self, is published in the current issue of the Journal of New Woman Studies. In it, Andes explores four dramas that consider the juxtaposition of the “New Woman” — one who did not conform to Victorian ideals — to traditional society and the emerging suffragette, who were the militant members of the women’s suffrage movement.

What Andes found were plays that not only dealt with the issue of voting rights, but also matters such as employment, sexual harassment, spousal abuse and marital rights.

“Theatre was an interesting forum for women’s voices at a time when few forums existed,” she said. “I was struck by the fact that these are issues we are still talking about, more than 100 years later.”

Also notable was the fact that, though there were two different arms of the suffrage movement — the constitutional, which sought change through legislation, and the militant, which pursued change through more anarchist methods — most theatre presented a united front.

This is in contrast to the predominant narrative of cat-fighting women.

“A lot of prominent suffragists were opposed to violence, but they chose to not openly condemn their sisters,” Andes said. “There’s a lesson in that. They pulled their punches for the sake of the common cause.”