Thank you to Stephanie Bryant, a recent graduate of the School of English, for this ‘We Are Feminists’ blog. Here Stephanie looks back to the origins of modern feminism and considers how we (re-)imagine the suffragettes today.
— Amber Regis
If you are really honest with yourself, how much do you actually know about the real women behind the suffragette movement? My knowledge consisted merely of school history lessons that glossed over the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, and TV adaptations like the recent Up the Women that fail to accurately portray the struggle. On Sunday 9th June I saw the sell-out debut performance of Wrong ‘Un, a one-woman show recounting the courageous and heroic actions of women less than one hundred years ago. The Red Ladder Theatre production was part of ‘The Leeds Big Bookend’ and that particular weekend was significant in itself as it marked the centenary of the Suffragette Derby in 1913.
The gifted actress Ella Harris performs a blend of drama and song, captivating the audience with her fascinating tale of both comic and tragic moments. Beginning in 1914, Wrong ‘Un tells the story of Annie Wilde, a working-class woman from Nelson, Lancashire, who seeks direct action for women’s suffrage in London. Part of the ‘clog and shawl brigade’, Annie Wilde comes from the class of women who replaced men in the workplace during the First World War yet suffered unequal pay. The recital of her life story is theatrically intimate; Wilde seems to confide in you personally as she guides the audience through five significant stages in her life as a suffragette. This intimacy heightens the humbling reality of Wilde’s story and women’s struggle for the vote.
Wrong ‘Un also touches on the extreme lengths women went to through hunger strikes and force-feeding in prison, highlighting the brutally violent side of the suffragette story. The playwright, Boff Whalley, explores the effects of political action, considering policies such as ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ and ‘The White Feather Campaign’ through the character’s first-hand experience. I was learning about this for the first time in Harris’s performance, and live theatre really intensified the tragedy behind the movement.
The combination of music and drama creates a satirical twist that mocks the ignorance of Edwardian patriarchal views. As Harris sings the ironically comical lines ‘women will never change anything’, she imitates the male dismissal of her aspirations for gender equality. Sang with a sarcastic smile, the song offers a tasteful and witty view of a suffragette’s life, and the challenges faced are rendered especially humorous in view of their eventual success.
The play beautifully captures the suffragette’s militant battle for the vote, educating audiences on the real people behind the history books. Whalley depicts women’s suffrage in a considered, respectful way, treating these women and their achievements with the utmost respect This is what makes the show so successful and a powerful means t insist on feminism’s continuing importance and relevance.
In 1928, women in Britain were awarded the vote on equal terms to men (after the First World War they had been granted the vote on unequal terms). That was only 85 years ago! Wrong ‘Un is a tribute to those women who fought on behalf of future generations. The victories of the suffragettes can motivate today’s generations to continue the fight for gender equality, and Wrong ‘Un certainly lives up to this inspirational story.
Director – Justin Audibert
Writer – Boff Whalley
Actress – Ella Harris
Wrong ‘Un is touring all summer until August 26th 2013 – Keep an eye out for dates & tickets on the Red Ladder Theatre Company website: http://www.redladder.co.uk/whatson/wrong-un/
January 23rd & 24th 2014 – The City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds
March 7th 2014 (International Women’s Day) – Halifax Square Chapel