Records of the Actresses' Franchise League

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Annual reports 1909-1914; annual statements of accounts; leaflets including lists of officers and league's objects and list of members; programme.

Administrative / Biographical History

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the economic position of actresses was precarious due both to the nature of their work and the inequality of rates of pay between themselves and their male colleagues. Influenced by the argument that working women needed the vote to improve their economic and working conditions, the Actresses' Franchise League was founded in 1908 by Gertrude Elliot, Winifred Mayo, Sime Seruya and Adeline Bourne. The first meeting was held in December of that year in the Criterion Restaurant in London and was attended by nearly four hundred actresses. Membership was open to those of the profession who wished to support efforts to achieve suffrage for women and the main office was established in the Adelphi Theatre. At the first meeting, it was decided that the group should not affiliate to either the constitutional National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies or the militant Women's Social and Political Union as many individual members were already part of one or the other. However, by 1909, leaders in the Women's Social and Political Union and the Women's Freedom League were regularly being asked to address their meetings. A number of members who held non-militant views, including the Vice president, Irene Vanburgh, consequently resigned from the group in 1910. However, few actresses involved with the organisation took part in militant action as this could have disastrous consequences on their careers, as another member, Kitty Marion, discovered.

By 1911, provincial branches had been created in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Eastbourne and Liverpool and members included Cicley Hamilton, Ellen Terry, Edith Craig, Lena Ashwell, Sybil Thorndyke, May Whittey, Eva Moore, Lillah McCarthey and Elizabeth Robins. It held some meetings and distributed literature but its initial principle role was to support the work of other organisations' campaigns. It regularly put local suffrage organisations in touch with its touring members so that the latter could offer their services in that area by staging suffrage events, speaking at lectures, reciting and writing plays. In 1912 the League became part of the Federated Council of Suffrage Societies and in 1913 a men's group was added. It was around this time that the group undertook a new activity: the creation of the independent Women's Theatre Company, an extension of propaganda and pageant work hitherto carried out for others. Over time, the close links with the WSPU faded and those with the NUWSS and the Men's League for Women's Suffrage grew stronger. Membership rose from 360 in 1910 to 900 in 1914. However, less that two weeks after the start of the First World War, normal activities were suspended and members joined with the Women's Freedom League and the Tax Resisters';s League to form the Women's Emergency Corps. This began to lay the foundations of a register for women who were willing to take part in war work. In addition, from 1915 the Actresses Franchise League helped organise the British Women's Hospital. However, when this work was treated with indifference by the government, their efforts were transferred to creating a Theatre Camps Entertainments group which toured military bases throughout the country. Though it took little active role in the post-war campaigns for an equal franchise for women, the organisation continued in existence until 1934.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for consultation. Intending readers are advised to contact The Women's Library in advance of their first visit.

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Related Material

Correspondence with the London Society for Women's Suffrage is contained in the Women's Library collection GB 106 2/LSW. The autobiography of one member, Kitty Marion, is also held by the Women's Library (see GB 106 7/KMA).