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Burgeoning New Women of Suffrage Drama: Envisioning an Autonomous Self

By Anna Andes

The term “New Woman” first came into popular usage in British culture in the 1890’s in response to increasing social agitation and rhetoric on the subject of gender and women’s rights in British society. 1 The coining of the term “New Woman” acknowledged the presence in society of women who did not fit Victorian ideals of womanhood and the culture’s need to identify them, to label them and, at times, to isolate them. Almost immediately the term became a site of controversy as various branches of society debated the degree to which the “New Woman” was strictly a social construct or if “New Women” actually existed. 2   Further complicating any ability to agree about the New Woman was the fact that she represented different qualities to different groups. For those who believed in upholding the Victorian notion of “separate spheres,” she posed a threat. For those who believed women ought to be accorded a greater role in the world beyond the home, she represented the possibility of change. And, for those women forced by circumstance to work outside the domestic realm and financially support themselves, she represented a reflection of their reality. Thus, as New Woman historian Sally Ledger succinctly states, “the New Woman as a category was by no means stable” (10), even though Richardson and Willis counter that though there were “various competing definitions ... certain common features emerge: her perceived newness, her autonomous self-definition and her determination to set her own agenda in developing an alternative vision of the future” (12).

As a starting point for this essay’s analysis, Richardson and Willis’ definition is particularly helpful both in its articulation of three separate components of New Womanhood and of the sum of their parts. Evidence of the ambiguity of meaning associated with the New Woman very quickly appeared upon the British stage in the 1890’s as a number of male playwrights, such as George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Grundy, Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero, inserted themselves into this debate by creating provocative female characters who dared to challenge societal expectations of appropriate womanhood. However, their thematic explorations of the dynamics variously associated with the New Woman were narrowly drawn. As Julie Holledge astutely notes about the  “New Woman plays” of the 1890s, they reflected “a reaction against the women’s rights movement by showing women struggling for sexual freedom, not legal equality” (36). 3    In other words, their thematic engagements with the complexities of “New Womanhood” and society’s attempts to locate, define and understand it were limited in scope. Consequently, as Vivien Gardner asserts, “it remained for the women writers” (9) of the stage in the early decades of the twentieth century to explore more fully the presence, the phenomenon of the New Woman, and the continual qualitative challenge she presented to society’s deeply rooted patriarchal ideology. 

A number of the women playwrights in Gardner’s study wrote in support of British women’s suffrage which largely began in 1867 when John Stuart Mill raised the issue in the House of Commons. Decades of struggle for the cause of women’s enfranchisement ensued, culminating in a fever pitch of frustration and urgency in the twentieth century’s early years before World War I. Between 1907 and 1914 a host of dramatic pieces were written that sought to enhance and to give voice to the ongoing political demands and ideological concerns of the suffrage movement both in print and on the stage, with Elizabeth Robins’s Votes for Women, first performed on April 9, 1907 at the Court Theatre, credited with beginning this crusade in drama. The dramatic pieces were serious in tone or comedic; they took the form of full length and one act plays, duologues, monologues and pageants. Suffrage dramas were also written solely for publication in various journals and newspapers devoted to the cause and never staged, as Carlson has discussed.  While some were written by professional playwrights such as Elizabeth Robins and Cicely Hamilton, many were composed by writers who had never written a play before, still others by people completely new to writing of any kind, and, of course, by sympathetic male writers like Shaw. The suffrage politics of these playwrights differed as well. By this time a number of women’s suffrage societies had emerged, all representing particular special interests and different ideological perspectives about how best to achieve the common goal of women’s suffrage on equal terms with men. The two most prominent organizations were the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) founded in 1897, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded in 1903.  Many, though not all, suffrage playwrights belonged to either or both of these leagues as well as to the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (WWSL) and/or the Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL), both founded in 1908. 4 Thus, the plays and the playwrights who contributed to the body of work referred to as “suffrage drama” offer a rich variety of voices and perspectives. Susan Croft’s useful and succinct definition of suffrage drama encompasses all of the aforementioned complexities: “works written by active suffragists and women’s rights campaigners, on or closely related to the topic of suffrage, and/or produced by suffrage groups or at suffrage rallies” (216). 5

As Croft notes, though largely concerned with the campaign for the vote, many of these dramas also sought to broaden and to deepen consideration of women’s concerns beyond the issue of enfranchisement. Matters such as employment, sexual harassment, spousal abuse, coverture, and the sexual double standard and their impact upon the lives of women provide rich thematic content.  As a result, in the loosely defined array of dramatic pieces known as suffrage dramas, the New Woman character continued to evolve and to stretch the ideological confines of her predecessors who appeared in the so-called New Woman plays of the 1890s.  Marking her continued evolution, both in drama and society at large, was the figure’s increased association with activism, especially with respect to the women’s suffrage movement, and her at times subsequent conflation with the suffragist or the suffragette, two other identities used to label and to isolate a non-conforming female presence.  “Suffragette,” was first coined by the press in January of 1906 (Rosen 65) when the “Daily Mail derisively substituted the diminutive “ette” for ‘ist’” (Mayhall 40) for militant members of the women’s suffrage movement.  Both “suffragist” and “suffragette” point to different modes of activism, with the former pursuing their goals constitutionally and the latter through increasing militancy and anarchy. 6    Importantly, not all suffrage playwrights were in agreement or sympathy with the increasingly militant tactics of the WSPU, whose members formed the largest and most notable activist group.  Cicely Hamilton, for example, increasingly distanced herself from the WSPU during this period. 7 The nuanced distinction between the two terms is important to note with respect to any analysis of suffrage drama. 8 Many, though not all, suffrage dramas were written and produced by the partnership of the WWSL and the AFL. Both societies were committed to the mission of supplying drama in support of all suffrage societies, both militant and constitutional. Therefore, many suffrage dramas do not overtly espouse the particular ideology of any one suffrage league. There are notable exceptions to this, such as Lady Geraldine’s Speech by Beatrice Harraden (1909) 9 and The Woman with the Pack by Gertrude Vaughan (1911); however, apart from the few exceptions, suffrage drama strove to strike a conciliatory tone that embraced the common goal of all: women’s rights and enfranchisement. Consequently, the arrival of the women’s suffrage activist character on the stage brought an increased fluidity of meaning with respect to New Womanhood.

In her study of the Pioneer Players, a women-centered theatre group formed during this time, Katharine Cockin argues that thus far “feminist critics have engaged with the complexities of the New Woman but have yet to explore the points of transition and overlap” with the suffragette (74). Taking its cue from Cockin’s critique, this essay will analyze suffrage drama’s intertwining of the New Woman character with that of the women’s suffrage activist (whether suffragist or suffragette) and thematic choices to conflate or to separate the identities, or to imply a causal transition from one to the other. While a number of suffrage dramas lend themselves to such an analysis, this essay will focus upon four plays in particular:  Before Sunrise (1909) by Bessie Hatton, The Apple (1909) by Inez Bensusan, The Woman with the Pack (1911) by Gertrude Vaughan, and Mr. Peppercorn’s Awakening (1913) by Helen MacLachlan. The four offer a particularly nuanced perspective from which to consider, as Cockin suggests, moments of “transition and overlap” between New Woman and suffrage activist identities. Each tells the story of a heroine on the cusp of New Womanhood. They are newly awakened and politicised young women who are unmarried and living at home with their parents. 10 While each desires autonomy in her life, her desire is not sanctioned by her parents. The degree of success each achieve in acting on her enlightenment and claiming the right to self-determination varies from play to play, as does each woman’s awareness  and subsequent embrace of  activism within the suffrage movement. Therefore, these four plays offer two points of transition to consider—potential New Woman to New Woman, and New Woman to suffrage activist.  Read collectively, the four plays provide a unique perspective from which to consider not only the nuanced relationship between the two categories, but also the possibility of a causal link between becoming a New Woman and then, an activist for the women’s suffrage cause.

Before Sunrise (1909): New Womanhood Denied

Bessie Hatton’s one-act play Before Sunrise, first performed by the AFL at the Albert Hall on December 11, 1909 for the Women’s Freedom League (Croft 221), is set in the late 1860s, after John Stuart Mills’s championing of women’s suffrage in the House of Commons and years before the acknowledged era of the New Woman, the 1890s, implying, then, that the roots of New Womanhood had an earlier genesis. Tellingly, the play thus examines the past through the lens of 1909, asking by implication if in fact much has changed for young women in the past forty years. Before Sunrise tells the story of Caroline, a twenty-four-year-old potential New Woman who lives at home with her parents. She does not work, cannot go anywhere without a chaperone, and spends most of her time cloistered at home with her mother. The dramatic conflict at the core of the play is that Caroline’s parents wish her to marry Tom, who she does not like. They threaten her with lonely, pathetic images of spinsterhood if she fails to do their bidding to accept Tom’s offer of marriage. 11 Sheltered at home most of her life, Caroline struggles to speak on her own behalf and to claim the right of self-determination. Her one link to the outside world is her friend Mary, her thirty-five-year-old friend who lives, by choice, a “bachelor” life, working and supporting herself in Paris.  She is a prototype of New Womanhood.  Caroline aspires to be like Mary who, in turn, encourages Caroline to leave home and to find work and to live with her in France.  Caroline is fascinated by Mary’s talk of a future in which women have won their freedom; she is drawn to the image of a new self in Paris, yet she cowers at the thought of asking her parents’ permission.  Hatton intensifies this point by having Caroline ask Mary to ask her mother on her behalf, which Mary does, unsuccessfully. Ironically, the woman who encourages Caroline to speak for herself ultimately speaks for her, just as Caroline’s mother does throughout the play.  Unsuccessful in her attempt to advocate for her friend, the New Woman character of Mary leaves the play. As she exits, Caroline’s parentally designated husband enters, and Caroline’s final coercion by her parents into a marriage she dreads begins.

For the brief remainder of Before Sunrise, Caroline is a portrait of a burgeoning New Woman spirit crushed. Hatton’s staging of Caroline’s total loss of any autonomy or sense of self is not subtle. When Caroline falls mute before Tom’s marriage proposal, her mother bursts into the room and, stealing her daughter’s voice, all but accepts on her behalf. In the play’s closing moments, when Caroline asks one more time “must I?” her mother responds “you must” as she lays hands upon her daughter and puts her into the arms of the man (65).  Hatton depicts Caroline as a young woman incapable of speech or action, entirely manipulated by her mother. The contrast between Caroline and Mary is striking. More arresting is how Caroline’s mother continues the cycle of patriarchy within the home as she carves her daughter in her own image, a disturbing and alarming anti-New Woman type. Hatton engages New Womanhood, then, through two separately delineated characters:  its incarnation (Mary) and its novitiate (Caroline). Thematically Hatton seems certainly to imply that if not for crippling emotional and psychological bonds between parents and daughter, more potential New Women would achieve full realisation. Through her friendship with Mary, Caroline learns that other women live lives unmarried, lives marked by independence and a powerful sense of self-worth. Curiously, Hatton does not directly associate Mary with the women’s suffrage movement though the very subject opens the play in a dialogue between Caroline’s parents alone on the stage and before Caroline enters.  Her father is reading the newspaper and declaring his disapproval of Mill and the “stupid female suffrage business,” as his wife thus characterizes it (61).  Later in the play, in a monologue meant to encourage Caroline, Mary proclaims, “We are handicapped at present, but the sun will rise someday.” She predicts a hopeful future “because we have a great champion in Parliament, John Stuart Mill ...” (63); the line is the closest Hatton comes to aligning Mary with the suffrage movement.  Furthermore, Mary envisions women “who in the future are going to win the freedom of our sex” (63), and again, Hatton curiously avoids the word “suffrage” or “suffragist” in this scene between the two women. Hatton dodges fully closing a seemingly obvious thematic loop, merely hinting rather than identifying Mary as one of the “stupid” suffrage females who admires Mill and the activist women of the future.  Mary, after all, lives in Paris, apart from England’s suffrage movement. Hatton chooses to circumvent completely conflating the New Woman and suffrage activist identities, thus defusing the larger social context within which women were agitating for the vote. In turn, she maintains focus on Caroline’s aspiration for New Woman identity, and the more immediate struggle to find her voice with her parents, a struggle she does not win. Becoming a women’s suffrage activist is beyond her scope of vision as she is mired entirely within domestic politics, and the familial, obligatory ties that bind prove too strong for her. Legal politics, in Hatton’s play, hover on the sidelines as an unachievable entity. Caroline does not win the battle of domestic politics; claiming New Womanhood is denied her as, in turn, any transitioning to suffragist identity.

The Apple (1909): New Womanhood Lost

Even more strategically reticent on the subject of the women’s suffrage movement is Inez Bensusan’s one-act play The Apple, first performed on March 14, 1909 at the Court Theatre (Croft 218). It is the only one of the four under discussion which does not mention the subject of the women’s suffrage movement at all, even though Bensusan was a prominent activist and advocate for enfranchisement and in charge of commissioning plays and scheduling their performance for the AFL.  The Apple was one of those dramatic performances.  The Apple, set in the present, tells the story of Helen who, like Hatton’s Caroline, is middle-class, unmarried and trapped in a rigidly patriarchal family. However, she is a partially realised New Woman, at least at the beginning of the play.  The Apple’s dramatic conflict involves Helen’s struggle to maintain the little autonomy that she has achieved. Helen has been working as a typist though she still lives at home. Her parents had disapproved of her working but a family friend persuaded them to allow it. When the play opens, Helen has left her job suddenly after throwing a ruler at a man who tried to kiss her at work–Mr. Dean, the same family friend and also her employer. Thus, at the very beginning of the play her New Womanhood is in jeopardy. She assumes she has lost her job. She comes home to find her sister Ann slavishly performing domestic duties for various family members. Ann embodies the young woman who has so internalized patriarchal values that she has become their minion. Noting Helen’s ill-temper, the ever solicitous Ann offers to make her a cup of tea. Helen is impatient with Ann, declaring “I won’t have you slaving for me” (170). Immediately Helen defines herself as a woman apart, a woman cognisant of and bothered by her sister’s passive, servile demeanor. Thematically, Ann is Helen’s ideological foil. She represents everything that Helen tries to avoid–a life of domestic drudgery. Ann is incapable of understanding Helen’s desire for more in life or her anger at the injustices and inequalities at home and in the work place. Helen declares she has decided to go to Canada with some friends in search of freedom from her “narrow hemmed in existence” (174) and a new start in life. Needing money for her passage, she plans to ask their father to give her funds from an inheritance that was left to her and her siblings. Up until now all of the family resources have been lavished upon their brother Cyril, a selfish, self-centered young man who complacently wallows in his father’s continual financial support and prefatory treatment at the expense of his sisters. Forthright Helen expresses indignation over the unfairness of this practice: “What right has he to everything ... Clubs, cigarettes, hansoms and so on? Oh yes. Because he’s the son, the apple of his father’s eyes, everything has to be sacrificed for him–everything! His own sisters’ comfort–more–their very chances in life! ... I’ve awakened to the injustice of it all. I’m going to rebel. I’m going to fight for my rights, equal rights for us all” (171–2; emphasis mine). In this moment Bensusan echoes women’s suffrage activist rhetoric, though she stops short of linking Helen’s call for “equal rights” in the patriarchal family structure to the broader right to vote with men.

The dismantling of Helen’s New Womanhood continues when her brother Cyril enters just after her articulated claim to self-determination.  He quickly deflates Helen’s dreams of a self-determined future when he informs his sisters that their father has granted all of the inheritance to him so that he can buy a partnership and get married. Helen is incensed and distraught; her dreams of Canada, her only hope of achieving freedom from home and the right to self-determination, lost. Cyril feels no guilt over such favoritism and declares Helen’s idea of going to Canada as “the most selfish thing I ever heard.” To Helen’s cry of “what about my happiness? My future? My chances?” he crushingly rejoins, “Girls don’t want chances. They only want husbands. If you’d stay at home like a decent young woman, some decent man might want to marry you.” Helen, not to be undone, declares, “I don’t want your decent husband. I want a little pleasure, a glimpse of life, a taste of the joy—of living, a few pence in my pocket, my rights as an individual—” To which Cyril scoffs, “Rights as an individual! Bosh! Twaddle! (184). Once again, Helen declares her “rights;” once again, she sounds like a blossoming suffrage activist as she moves into an increasingly urgent awakened state of New Womanhood.  Nevertheless, despite her efforts, Helen’s New Womanhood meets its final defeat in the person of Mr. Dean, employer and family friend. Though Helen refuses to talk to him, her father sends word that she must. Of the four plays this is the only one in which the parents do not appear, but rather exercise their power from offstage.  The absence ironically heightens their power. Trapped then by her father’s mandate, Helen falls victim to a plot to secure her silence about why she left her job. We learn that Mr. Dean, preying upon Helen’s dreams to see and experience more of life, has been taking Helen out and around town. However, while she naively interpreted his attentions as friendly and fatherly, he had other intentions as evidenced by his attempt to kiss her. He tells her the has given her father money for her brother’s future plans and that he is responsible for getting back her job. He shatters her New Woman aspirations to start over and to seek “freedom” in Canada by warning her that if she tells her father about the kiss (her reason for fleeing), Mr. Dean will fire him and the family will be in poverty. Helen is defeated. 12 There will be no freedom in Canada.   She is forced to remain silent and to participate in the final undermining of her autonomy and desire for a self-determined future.  Mr. Dean had played upon Helen’s desires for pleasure and joy, and he succeeds in eliminating both from her life. The fact that the blackmail involves securing her brother’s pleasure and joy is the undoing of her New Woman aspirations. At the play’s conclusion, and with “tears streaming down her cheeks” (190), Helen is a portrait of a New Womanhood lost.

Bensusan, like Hatton, implies the connection between the New Woman and the women’s suffrage activist, but she does not allow the former to become the latter. As with Before Sunrise, in The Apple this deliberate choice requires that the larger social context, the broader gendered story, remains the focus of the play. For Helen, like Caroline, her primary hurdles are on the home front; however, as a woman who works outside the home, Helen manages to step to the threshold of New Womanhood even if crossing the threshold to full New Womanhood is denied her. The fact that Mr. Dean is a family friend reinforces this point. Even at work Helen’s private world haunted her since her little piece of autonomy was ultimately controlled by Mr. Dean, her father’s friend who is also her father’s employer.  Helen’s New Womanhood was always tenuous at best. References she makes to her “rights” throughout the play indicate a degree of her awareness of a larger social story s outside the walls of her domestic world. The text implies that if she were allowed to determine the path of her own life she would certainly be in sympathy with and become an activist for the women’s suffrage movement. As for Helen’s sister Ann, she serves as a reminder of how many young women have yet to even awaken from what Bensusan shows as their patriarchally induced stupor. The awfulness for Helen is that she has.

The Woman with the Pack (1911): New Woman Actualised, Suffragette Born

Gertrude Vaughan’s The Woman with the Pack, first performed on December 8, 2011 at the Portman Rooms, Baker Street (Croft 227), also addresses the plight of a burgeoning New Woman, Philippa, who still lives at with her family; however, Vaughan demonstrates the power of the patriarchal family structure by setting her domestic scenes not in the actual family home but abroad in an inn in Switzerland where the family is staying on vacation. The narrative of the play unfolds through four scenes and includes an opening and a closing tableau. Unique to the four plays here under discussion, this one’s blossoming New Woman character not only fully transitions to New Womanhood, but then fully into a women’s suffrage activist who joins the militant suffragettes.

Like Caroline and Helen, Philippa has a mother and a father who are determined proponents of the continuation of patriarchy both at home and in the workplace. However, decidedly unlike the other two heroines, Philippa is able to maneuver around her parents’ wishes for her future by coaxing them into allowing her to pursue her ambitions in life.  Vaughan makes two important distinctions about Philippa’s familial situation that set her play apart from the events in Before Sunrise and The Apple.  The first is that Philippa is upper class, not middle class, which has a direct impact upon her parents’ willingness to fund her schooling, or to indulge her “fads” (38) as her father puts it. In other words, they can afford to do so. The second is that Philippa’s brother Dick is her biggest advocate, fully supporting her ambitions and arguing on her behalf with their parents. 13 Hatton and Bensusan do not give their heroines this fraternal support. Thus, Philippa is by no means an isolated burgeoning New Woman within her family structure.

At the start of the play, Philippa has already completed her studies at Oxford (an indulgence her parents now lament) and now wishes to take her degree but cannot do so simply because she is a woman. Dick proudly declares that she did as well as he on the exams. He even goes so far as to state that until Philippa is allowed to take her degree he is not going to take his. Throughout the play Dick voices his support for his sister as she articulates the injustices and inequalities attendant upon her because she is female. Like Helen in The Apple she is vocal and perceptive about her domestic hurdles. She tells her parents that she no longer wants to marry her fiancé, declaring how unfair it is that when she is married she will have to promise to obey her husband “and he might not always be right!” (32). To her mother’s rejoinder that it has always been her “pride and joy” to obey her husband, Philippa declares “I’m made of different stuff” (33). She goes on to argue in favour of progress in the face of tradition, concluding by confronting her mother about the unfair legal reality that children do not belong to their own mothers. Philippa further asserts that she wants to be a “useful” person, a lawyer for women. Throughout all of this politicised angst, Philippa is respectful yet determined. Her mother continually and comically shrieks for “papa” when stymied by her daughter’s opinions while her father blusters in response as best he can. With her satirical depiction of overbearing, conservative parents Vaughan cleverly makes the point that they are no match for their awakened and enlightened daughter.

This is Vaughan’s opening portrait of Philippa as a blossoming New Woman. All that stands between her and the action of “setting her own agenda in developing an alternative vision of the future” (Richardson and Willis 12) is her parents. She is, in every practical way, the opposite of her passive, submissive, hysterical mother. At this stage of her life, she is aware of the discriminations pertaining to herself simply because of her sex.  She has, in part, successfully challenged her parents’ patriarchal ideals and attended university.  She has sought more knowledge about laws pertaining to women and has begun to realise the challenge that marriage presents to her awakened self.  Most importantly, she has begun to look beyond the injustices and inequalities she experiences to see those facing other women less fortunate than she – women for whom she wishes to advocate as a lawyer.  Vaughan includes a subplot about a young maidservant at the Swiss inn named Fanchette.  Philippa witnesses her being sexually harassed by a male patron and befriends her. She learns about the particular gendered class struggles in Fanchette’s life and seeks to help her. This episode marks Philippa’s emergence as a women’s suffrage activist and her daring to claim, without parental permission, “an alternative vision of the future.”

The play’s action shifts to a slum dwelling in England. Through various plot twists, Fanchette has come to England seeking work only to find poorly paid employment in a factory run by the man who accosted her at the inn. 14 When he demands sexual favors she quits and, out of desperation, considers prostitution. Philippa finds her living with a starving family, a family entirely supported by the mother and very young children who all make matchboxes. The father of the family is an unemployed drunkard who beats his wife and takes the money his family earns. Philippa is grieved by all she witnesses in this decrepit home:  a woman beaten, children starved, another woman on the brink of prostitution out of necessity. The sound of a newsboy calling “Suffragette Raid – Extra Special – Latest News” is heard off-stage. Buying a paper, Philippa reads of a “March of the Women to Westminster! Parliament Square besieged! A thousand women ready!” which makes Philippa declare, “there will be a thousand and one, if I can get there in time” (71). The scene ends triumphantly–Philippa has become a suffragette.  Gertrude Vaughan’s intent is clear as she portrays a direct causal link between Philippa’s New Womanhood and her embrace of the women’s suffrage cause.  In other words, it was only a matter of time.

The Woman with the Pack’s final scene returns the family to Switzerland and the inn.  We learn that Philippa has become a lawyer and suffragette and has served time in prison for her advocacy and beliefs. Vaughan thus further marks Philippa as a militant suffragette due to her period of incarceration.  Her distraught parents have sought refuge away from England as Philippa’s actions have tainted the family reputation. Her father has “disowned her” (74), laying the blame for everything for having allowed Philippa, a mere daughter, such an extensive education. Their distress increases when Philippa and her brother Dick arrive and Dick declares that he, too, went to prison for the cause of women’s suffrage.  Vaughan makes clear that the parents are worried about Dick’s future prospects, not Philippa’s. They are solicitous of his haggard appearance, not their daughter’s. Frantically, their father tries to reason that his son’s actions were chivalrous in support of Philippa only to learn the true extent of Dick’s politicisation: when he was treated as a criminal rather than as a political prisoner, he went on a hunger strike, a direct echo of the outrage arrested suffragettes at the time expressed (Holledge 55–6). Miserably, their father declares them both “mad” (84). As Dick continues to argue for political change, his father dissolves into viewing the whole matter as generational, a “battle of the young against the old.” Philippa disagrees “eagerly,” as the stage direction commands, and asserts, “No, Father, no! We need you, and Mother too. Help us to win the battle. It is almost won!” (85). In this moment militant Philippa is remarkably conciliatory. Significantly, although Vaughan clearly aligns her heroine with militant suffragettes, she also links her with constitutional activism since Philippa wants to practice law to advocate for women and to work within the legal system to enact change.

Two tableaux frame the action of the play. The first tableau displays “the woman with the pack” who claims to be the “mother of sorrows” (21). This allegorical figure appears in the opening scenes at the inn as a lone female traveller carrying a baby, a “Madonna with child” figure, symbolically lingering on the periphery of the action, “suggesting the universal nature of woman’s burden” (Eltis 34). At the end of the last scene, the stage directions describe Philippa as “radiant with triumph” (85) after she has invited her parents to join the battle for change. The final tableau follows this scene, but rather than the woman with the pack, Vaughan features Philippa in the garb of Joan of Arc, a common symbol of the women’s suffrage movement (Mayhall 84–9). Philippa, consequently, metamorphoses yet again, now into an idealized representation of all that unfettered women can achieve.

Vaughan’s play wears its heart on its sleeve. It is not subtle, deliberately. Through symbol and metaphor, it earnestly appeals for activism and hope. Tonally it is thus very different from the two earlier plays, Before Sunrise and The Apple, which are more sober and thoughtful. The narrative arc of Vaughan’s play conveys a causal link between the New Woman and the suffragette, implying that a woman must be the first before she can become the second.  By portraying the various evolutionary stages of Philippa’s increasing politicization, Vaughan invites understanding her heroine not only as the sum of identities symbolized by Joan of Arc, but as separate and discrete selves as well. In other words, New Woman and suffragette identities are collectively and individually valued and engaged. 

Mr. Peppercorn’s Awakening (1913): New Womanhood Bestowed

The last of the four plays, Helen MacLachlan’s Mr. Peppercorn’s Awakening, first performed c. May 1913 at a Women’s Freedom League (WFL) meeting in Edinburgh (Croft 231), is a short three-scene work that offers informative points of comparison with the three other plays. Once again, the dramatic conflict centers on a daughter struggling against her parents for more autonomy in her life. This time the burgeoning New Woman heroine, Beatrice, a middle-class daughter, tries to convince her father to allow her “to learn how to earn” her own living (570). Like the other heroines, Beatrice also has a favoured brother, Adolphus. However, unlike Helen’s Cyril and Philippa’s Dick, Adolphus does not affect the dramatic action. Rather, he serves as a reminder that parents were conditioned by patriarchy to favour sons over daughters.  Adolphus hovers on the fringe of the action with his hands in his pockets, symbolic of his worthlessness in the face of his sister’s desire to be useful. Like The Woman with the Pack, MacLachlan’s 1913 play offers a comical representation of the parents; the father pontificates while the wife ineffectually and passively mollifies him. Similar to Before Sunrise, the action begins with the father reading angrily the newspaper. He is outraged at the behavior of “unsexed [...] hysterical females that do not deserve to be called women” (569), who have just kidnapped the Prime Minister and are holding him hostage until women receive the vote. Clearly MacLachlan satirises both militant suffragettes and sensationalised representations of their actions in the press. 15 When Beatrice enters the action, the conversation turns towards the subject of her potential employment. Her parents are furious, insisting that all decent women ought to marry, not work. Beatrice, after the fashion of Helen and Philippa, is quite articulate in expressing her opinions. She argues that some women cannot marry because there are not enough men. She points out that even married women are at financial risk if they become widowed. Her most compelling point is that if her father dies and does not leave enough money to support her and she is unmarried, she might become a charwomen due to lack of training to do anything else. The core of Beatrice’s argument is that women must be prepared if they ever need to work. This is a somewhat different portrait of a potential New Woman than those my essay has examined. Unlike Caroline, Helen and Philippa, Beatrice lacks an idealistic streak, or, at least, on the surface her arguments do not suggest one. She does not yearn for freedom for freedom’s sake.  Her argument to her father about her working is a practical one.  

Her father, who believes she needs more chaperoning so that she does not get such ideas, leaps to the conclusion that she has been influenced by the women’s suffrage movement.  Incensed, he asks if she has been to one of their meetings. She admits, “I’ve stood for a few minutes to listen to them in the street once or twice” (570). MacLachlan, like Hatton and Bensusan, resists directly declaring her heroine a women’s suffrage activist or, as Mr. Peppercorn fears, a militant suffragette. In MacLachlan’s play, however, this thematic coyness assumes a different quality as it is coupled with the heroine’s pragmatic and less idealistic rhetoric. Arguably, this reflects very real tensions within the suffrage movement.  As Richardson and Willis note, at the turn of the century “many New Women wanted to achieve social and political power by reinventing rather than rejecting their domestic role” (9). The same was true of many, though not all, members of the suffrage movement. Carolyn Tilghman notes suffrage drama’s strategic consideration of this ideological tension. As she says, “in order to be persuasive and effective, the revision of social norms in suffrage plays frequently involved a complicated balancing act that required an ability to negotiate women’s right to claim civic participation while also demonstrating an appreciation for family structure and motherhood” (347). As a reflection of this ideological tension, not all suffrage dramas comfortably advocated for New Womanhood. In fact, some suffrage dramas were very careful to portray how granting women’s suffrage did not threaten the patriarchal home. 16 MacLachlan withholds full activist identity from her blossoming New Woman, and thus protects her heroine from appearing too subversive.  Rather, she seems more conciliatory, as the remainder of the play demonstrates. 

In the second scene of the play, when Beatrice’s father, Mr. Peppercorn, takes a nap, he dreams he is visited by a series of female figures: The Spirit of the Age, a teacher, a maid of all work, a typist, a fishwife, a matchbox-maker, an artist, a farm servant, a nurse, a mill worker, a chain-maker, a doctor, a shop assistant, and a singer. All of these working women share their tales of woe regarding injustices they have experienced as women in the workforce. The warnings conveyed throughout this dream are summed up by the Spirit’s closing lines: “For the untrained is the sweated / Which would’st have thy daughter be?” (572). When the third scene begins, Mr. Peppercorn, now literally and metaphorically awake, is a changed man, at least in part. 17 He now agrees that it would be prudent that Beatrice learn how to support herself lest she ever become a charwoman in the future. Beatrice is overjoyed, although her father makes a point of saying that this is as far as he will go. In other words, he still does not approve of women’s suffrage. Thus, the play ends on a note of tempered, conciliatory optimism.

Of the four burgeoning New Women in this essay, Beatrice is the most narrowly drawn. While Caroline, Helen and Philippa yearn for lives beyond their domestic confines, Beatrice desires to renegotiate the same terrain.  MacLachlan does not construct a New Woman who threatens the status quo.  Moreover, her play’s title—Mr. Peppercorn’s Awakening—indicates her intent. Ultimately the dramatic conflict climaxes in the father’s raised consciousness and it his journey that guides the narrative of the play.  Beatrice’s potential New Woman agency is deflated by her father’s conversion to the idea that women ought to know how to earn a decent living. Beatrice’s autonomy and self-determination are linked to his assent which diffuses their import and her identity as a New Woman. Unlike Before Sunrise in which Caroline’s burgeoning voice was silenced, first by her friend Mary and then by her mother, in Mr. Peppercorn’s Awakening, the co-opting of Beatrice’s voice by her father is packaged thematically in a positive light. 

In addition to its ideological ambiguity around the politics of New Womanhood, the play betrays more than a hint of classism. For instance, the charwoman is not an envied type, but one to be avoided at all cost. Beatrice’s sympathy for her is tempered by her opportunistic use of the charwoman’s plight for her own ends. Although the parade of women in scene two validates the labour stories of all classes of working women, Beatrice’s “practical” New Womanhood complicates her full expression of female unity. Rather than explore the components of Beatrice’s New Woman and/or suffrage activist identities, MacLachlan lets them serve as catalysts for change for her father.   However, as far as the play investigates these roles, Beatrice’s desire for self-determination and freedom from parental restrictions certainly echo those of Caroline, Helen and Philippa. She, like the others, evidences an awareness of the fact that the world for women, or at least for some, is changing. Coupled with this is at least a hint on MacLachlan’s part that Beatrice desires to join these women, to be a part of their emerging, evolving senses of self. Though in the end MacLachlan succeeds in advocating for change in a non-threatening way, she does imply that there is a very real causal link between becoming a New Woman and then an activist for the women’s suffrage cause. In other words, perhaps once Mr. Peppercorn lets his daughter work outside the home, MacLachlan hints her politicisation will increase and lead her to the women’s suffrage movement.

The four young, burgeoning New Women of this essay all yearn for change. They know the restrictions that their patriarchally inscribed households pose upon their happiness in life. The least evolved, potential New Woman is Hatton’s Caroline. She is also the most severely oppressed—forced into a loveless marriage by her parents, her consent, her heart’s desires and ambitions completely unacknowledged. Of the four characters, she never finds her voice, a necessity in order to begin the transition process towards New Womanhood.  In comparison, Bensusan’s Helen spoke up for herself, expressed her judgments of her world, and declared her desire for change. In these articulate moments she is on the brink of New Womanhood until the patriarchal politics of both work and home silence her and reverse her transition. Thus, with respect to these two dramatic examples, the question arises as to whether or not the playwrights create heroines who may still be considered as having transitioned to New Womanhood simply because they desired to do so.  In other words, is there a place within our understanding of New Womanhood for the seekers, the awakened dreamers who through no fault of their own cannot complete their evolution to an actualised, living state of New Womanhood?

In counterpoint to the lost and/or never achieved New Womanhood of Caroline and Helen are the successful transitions of Philippa and Beatrice. Their voices are not silenced and thus they achieve their desires for autonomy and alternative futures. Yet, only one of these two success stories also includes evolution to an activist identity; it is only Vaughan’s Philippa who directly “sets her own agenda” (Richardson and Willis 12). Despite her parents’ best efforts, she maintains her own voice. She successfully speaks on her own behalf and also on behalf of other women. Her parents are relegated to the fringes of their daughter’s story, watching as she fully transitions to a New Woman, then to women’s suffrage activist/suffragette, and, even, at the end, allegorically to Joan of Arc. Throughout the play, Philippa is literally the voice for and of the future.  MacLachlan’s Beatrice, on the other hand, exercises her voice differently and for a different end. Vocal in her own support, she strategically concedes her voice of autonomy to her father, a concession which her father ironically uses for her benefit. Thus, Beatrice’s transition to New Woman requires her father’s participation, cheating her from assuming full autonomy and independently developing her vision of the future. While it is certainly possible to read Beatrice’s concession as manipulative, MacLachlan’s employment of the dream sequence diffuses any such intent as she focuses attention on Mr. Pepercorn’s, not Beatrice’s, change to an enlightened state, just as she curiously upstages her heroine with the voices of the working women in scene two. Beatrice’s story thus raises the question of whether or not a woman who renegotiates her domestic world rather than breaks free from it can be considered a New Woman.  She is the only one of the four who does not articulate a vision of a life beyond her home.

When considered together, these four plays offer a rich and complex conversation with regard to the fluidity of New Woman identity between 1909 and 1913.   For the heroines, who all yearn for change, their greatest hurdle is breaking free of domestic, familial politics which sap their sense of autonomy and self-determination.  The playwrights portray how becoming or being a New Woman for many young unmarried women was a goal fraught with conflict. However, as these plays suggest, if such young women successfully overcome these struggles, they are primed to become women’s suffrage activists. This is the powerful political message conveyed collectively by these four plays.  As Carolyn Tilghman observes, “typically, suffrage plays are about fairness and about possibilities” (356). Indeed, her words encapsulate precisely what these four bourgeoning New Woman want—fair treatment so that they may envision and enact different possibilities for themselves.   

Anna Andes is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SusquehannaUniversity.  Her scholarship is focused upon British and American women playwrights of the suffrage era.  Her article “The Evolution of Cicely Hamilton’s Edwardian Marriage Discourse: Embracing Conversion Dramaturgy” is forthcoming from English Literature in Transition, 1880-1921.

1Novelist Sarah Grand is credited with coining this term in 1894.  See Gardner and Rutherford (3-4).  That same year, Sydney Grundy’s play The New Woman appeared on the stage.  Important as well to note the New Woman was assumed to be white and from the middle class.
2Regarding the New Woman debate see Ledger, “Who was the New Woman?” (9-34), and Richardson and Willis, “Introduction” (1-38).
3By way of example, the New Woman heroines of Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1893) and The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith (1895) and Jones’ The Case of Rebellious Susan (1894) all ultimately fail at 2their attempts to claim autonomy and self-determination as each play concludes with a reaffirmation of conventional social values.
4The AFL, under the guidance of Inez Bensusan, is credited with producing many, though not all, of these plays in partnership with the WWSL. See Holledge for a lengthy discussion of the AFL.
5Croft’s book “Votes for Women” and Other Plays is an invaluable, chronological list of suffrage dramas. She also includes early plays produced by the Pioneer Players, the woman’s theatre organization I note below.  For more on the flexible nature of the category of suffrage drama see Carlson and Powell.
6  See Rosen and Mayhall for discussions of the emergence of militancy within the suffrage movement.
7   Whitelaw’s insightful biography of Cicely Hamilton explores the complexities of the women’s suffrage movement and its many suffrage leagues, and also Hamilton’s personal negotiations of her political views in the face of the increasing militancy of the WSPU and other organizations.
8  Carlson’s essay advocates for further study of suffrage drama’s centrism as a counterpart to other studies of its radicalism.
9  See Holledge for discussion of the controversy regarding the WSPU references in Harraden’s play and its lack of favor with other suffrage societies (64-65).
10  A number of other suffrage dramas also include unmarried daughter characters; The Pot and the Kettle (1909) by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John, An Anti-Suffragist or The Other Side (1910) by H.M. Paull, and Elizabeth Baker’s Edith (1912), to name a few.
11 See also Stowell’s discussion of Before Sunrise and its 1860’s setting.
12  Sos Eltis offers a different reading, arguing that “Bensusan depicts the invidious choice offered to Helen, but it is still a choice, and Helen thus retains some degree of agency, however limited her environment” (37).
13  See Tilghman’s discussion regarding the need to not alienate men and anti-suffrage women (347).
14   Such a remarkable coincidence reflects the melodramatic style of much of Vaughan’s play, especially evident in the London slum scene. For a discussion of suffrage drama’s use of melodrama see Tilghman 348-350.
15  George Bernard Shaw’s Press Cuttings (1909) and Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John’s Pot and Kettle (1909) also satirize militancy.
16  In these dramas, of which Jerome K Jerome’s The Master and Mrs. Chilvers is a fine example, suffragists are portrayed as still desiring marriage, children and staying within their own domestic sphere as designated to them by patriarchal social structure.
17  See Carlson for discussion of Mr. Peppercorn’s Awakening as conversion drama.

Works Cited
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Carlson, Susan. “Comic Militancy: The Politics of Suffrage Drama.” Women, Theatre and Performance: New Histories, New Historiographies. Eds. Maggie B. Gale and Vivien Gardner. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2000. 198-215. Print.

Carlson, Susan, and Kerry Powell. “Reimagining the Theatre: Women Playwrights of the Victorian and Edwardian Period.” The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre.  Ed. Kerry Powell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 237-256. Print.

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Gardner, Vivien. Introduction. The New Woman and Her Sisters: Feminism and Theatre 1850-1914. Eds.Vivien Gardner and Susan Rutherford. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992. 1-14. Print.

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Holledge, Julie. Innocent Flowers: Women in the Edwardian Theatre. London: Virago P, 1981. Print.
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MacLachlan, Helen. “Mr. Peppercorn’s Awakening.” Suffrage Drama.  Vol. III of Women’s Suffrage Literature. Eds. Katharine Cockin, Glenda Norquay and Sowon S. Park. New York: Routledge P, 2007. 569-573. Print.

Mayhall, Laura E. The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Rosen, Andrew. Rise Up Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903 – 1914. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,, 1974. Print.

Richardson, Angelique, and Chris Willis. Introduction. The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact: Fin-de-Siècle Feminisms. Eds. Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. 1-38. Print.

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Whitelaw, Lis. The Life and Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton: Actress, Writer, Suffragist. Columbus OH, : Ohio State UP, 1991. Print.