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‘Laugh a defiance, Laugh in hope’:1 Suffrage Comedy and Humour as Political Protest

‘Rire par défi, rire par espoir’: humour et revendication politique dans la comédie suffragiste
Eleanor Stewart


Dans le contexte du mouvement pour l’émancipation des femmes au tournant du xxe siècle et de la campagne en faveur du vote, l’Actresses’ Franchise League a écrit et mis en scène un corpus de pièces connu sous le nom de « théâtre suffragiste ». À partir d’une sélection de ces œuvres, cet article envisage le rapport entre les suffragettes et l’humour. Il vise à montrer comment, après avoir été objet de ridicule dans la presse populaire, les dramaturges suffragistes ont retourné la situation en leur faveur. Reflet de la camaraderie et l’état d’esprit facétieux qui animait le mouvement, le rire acquiert une dimension politique sur scène. Dans le cadre très ritualisé du genre comique, les dramaturges suffragistes utilisent l’auto-dérision pour susciter l’empathie et s’emploient aussi à ridiculiser leurs détracteurs. La caricature, la satire et la farce sont les stratégies employées pour battre en brèche le discours anti-suffragiste, dénoncé comme hypocrite et incohérent. Alors que les anti-suffragistes reprochaient aux féministes de manquer d’humour, les comédies mettent en scène des militantes pleines d’entrain et d’énergie, qui utilisent des stratégies délibérément humoristiques. Les dramaturges renversent ainsi les stéréotypes et remettent en question des relations de pouvoir où les hommes détiennent le monopole de l’humour. L’intérêt suscité par ces pièces non seulement dans la presse suffragiste mais aussi dans la presse nationale montre que la forme comique a permis aux dramaturges, sans tomber dans un discours trop hostile, de présenter l’émancipation féminine comme logique et inévitable.

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  • 1 These words are taken from verse four of the suffragette anthem The March of the Women (1910), comp (...)
  • 2 ‘[T]he ideological discourses on the New Woman were undoubtedly promoted in order to ridicule and t (...)

1An object of ridicule in popular culture, the New Woman of the 1890s was depicted in various parodic guises: as a mannish Amazon engaged in outdoor pursuits, a militant activist neglecting her domestic duties and an intellectual with an unhealthy interest in progressive literature. Common to all these public images was the New Woman’s alleged absence of humour, proclaimed to be the privilege of men. According to Sally Ledger, caricature was part of an attempt to contain the threat of the rising woman’s movement.2 The suffragette, a descendant of the New Woman, continued to be satirised in the daily press whose front pages featured amusing depictions of suffrage spectacles. For Krista Cowman, the Daily Mail used ‘light humour to detract from the political dimensions of the WSPU’ (Cowman 261). Oppositional laughter was also part of the political response to demands for female enfranchisement. In 1910, when Liberal MP Hilaire Belloc argued against female suffrage in the Commons, he referenced the suffragette’s status as comic victim: ‘In the songs of the populace, in their caricatures, in their jokes, . . . the populace dislike it’ (Harrison 138). Hostile humour was symptomatic of the anxiety surrounding evolving gender roles and ‘a potent weapon in the maintenance of hegemony’ (Tickner 163). Patriarchal humour which made a mockery of the New Woman reflected the gendered distribution of power and the masculine control of laughter. As Manfred Pfister has argued in his History of English Laughter (as cited in Pailer 2009): ‘Each instance of laughter is inextricably tied up with social and power relations’ (9). Analysing the relationship between gender and humour, Pfister asserts that ‘gender roles, relations and hierarchies—and in particular their transgressions!’ have for long been the target of laughter (Pailer 2).

  • 3 As Catherine Wiley has pointed out ‘The New Woman . . . was hardly respectable in most people’s eye (...)

2The London stage of the 1890s exploited anti-feminist stereotypes for commercial benefit, perfectly illustrating Pfister’s observations. Sydney Grundy and Arthur Jones’s comedies encouraged derisory laughter towards the New Woman as a means of keeping her at a distance.3 Grundy’s The New Woman (1894) stages the trope of the unwomanly woman (masculine attire, cigarette and latchkey) whose political tracts and aspirations to equality are held up for ridicule. In Jones’s equally satirical The Case of the Rebellious Susan (1884) the New Woman is represented as socially inept, lacking in intellect and devoid of humour. Arthur Wing Pinero’s portraits of progressive women are slightly more sympathetic, but they too draw on caricature. The eponymous heroine in The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith (1895) is depicted as neurotic, her political commitment is short-lived and the status quo re-established. In these plays, as Catherine Wiley has remarked, the ‘conventional treatment of feminism served no more than to mirror popular opinion of suffragettes and other independently-minded women as either immoral, ridiculous, or both’ (Wiley 111).

  • 4 ‘By 1911, amateur performances had multiplied so much that the entertainments at suffrage fairs and (...)

3Suffragists understood how caricature had served their opponents and soon turned humour to their advantage. After decades of polite campaigning, laughter became part of the more militant and attention-seeking propaganda activities adopted by the Women’s Social and Political Union. Cowman has investigated the innovative ways in which suffragettes staged playfully subversive publicity stunts as part of their political protest. Her observations refute the claim that feminists lacked a sense of humour and instead suggest it was the patriarchal establishment which often failed to see the joke. Just as in the wider campaign, the playwrights of the Actresses’ Franchise League were known for their high-spirited camaraderie and sense of fun. Founded in 1908, the AFL harnessed the energy and talents of actresses and writers to campaign for the vote. The League made its theatrical services available to suffrage societies and its sketches and plays inspired and entertained audiences at political meetings all over the country. Although one of the AFL’s priorities was to raise the status of women working in the theatre, suffrage productions blurred the boundaries between amateurs and professionals. The plays were performed by AFL members when possible but, as the League lacked a permanent touring company, local suffragists were also involved.4 Comedy was the most popular genre and the writers developed a propagandist ‘suffrage humour’ which challenged the dominant narrative of the un-laughing feminist and made their detractors the butt of the joke. Most of the comedies were performed between 1909 and 1914 when militancy was at its height, perhaps as a way of easing tensions.

4This article explores the ways in which suffrage dramatists engage with comedy to promote the cause and to destabilize long-standing prejudices about women. They set their own rules on humour: on the one hand using complicit laughter and self-derision to provoke empathy and, on the other, turning to theatrical satire to undermine the anti-suffrage position. As Leslie Hill has commented: ‘[S]uffrage theatre provided a quick, impressionistic means to strike back at their opponents, with the very weapon which had proved so difficult for feminists to wield, humour’ (Hill 154). In her essay Woman’s Secret (1907), suffragist writer Elizabeth Robins acknowledged that, by learning to laugh at themselves to please men, women had reinforced humour as a masculine domain. Women were expected to refrain from provoking laughter or making men the target of jokes. My aim is to show how the suffrage comedies sought to subvert the gender power dynamics of a society in which men defined, controlled and initiated humour. The analysis considers laughter as a contested gendered territory and, within this framework, also draws on the theories of Henri Bergson to unmask the comic mechanisms deployed to unsettle social hierarchies and elevate marginalized voices to centre stage.

5If, as previously mentioned, anti-suffrage discourse was based on ridicule, it is striking that the good-natured heroines of the comedies show a capacity for self-derision, echoing the words of suffragette Annie Kenney: ‘[We] were taught never to lose our tempers; . . . to join in the laughter with the audience even if the joke was against us’ (Kenney 104). Complicit laughter was a means to defuse a potentially conflictual situation but, by responding to hecklers with witty repartee, the suffragettes could also quickly turn insults to their own political advantage. On the stage, the characters were not so much inviting the audience to laugh at them (the audience was made up mainly of supporters) as with them. By recognising their comic status in popular culture, the characters demonstrated the suffragists’ capacity for self-awareness. This self-objectifying humour was not a sign of submission, but part of a propagandist strategy.

6How the Vote Was Won, co-written by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John and first produced by Edith Craig at the Royalty Theatre, 13th April 1909, was performed across the country with different casts and was ‘the League’s first smash hit’ (Holledge 66). In an inversion of the traditional social order—a classic mechanism of comedy according to Bergson—, the play stages the first day of a women’s national strike, highlighting women’s role in the economy and making the men victims of patriarchal conventions. In a collective gesture of political protest, all women are called upon to stop work and ask their closest male relative to support them. From the outset, Hamilton and St John poke fun at the militant tactics of the WSPU. When Ethel, a conventional housewife, alludes to their eccentric stunts, she elicits laughter from the audience. This strategy appears to deride the suffragettes but in fact demonstrates the playwrights’ ability to see the humorous side of the campaign. By emphasizing the amused interest which the militants provoked in the press, the dramatists underline the prominent place of the suffragettes in the public imagination. Although Winifred seems to go along with the joke based on the comic stereotype, her wry humour distances her from the hegemonic laughter and rapidly shifts the target of ridicule to Horace, an anti-suffragist:

ETHEL Do you remember the day when you tried to invade the House of Commons from submarine boats? Oh, Horace did laugh when he saw in the papers that you had all been landed on the Hovis wharf by mistake! . . . . He couldn’t stop laughing all evening. He kept on—you can’t think how funny he was about it!

  • 5 All quotations from the play refer to the Spender and Hayman 1985 Methuen edition.

WINIFRED Oh, but I can! I know my dear brother-in-law’s sense of humour is his strong point. Well, we must hope it will bear the strain that is going to be put on it today. (How the Vote Was Won 23)5

  • 6 In her essay on laughter, suffragist and poet Alice Meynell wrote ‘Laughter is everywhere and at ev (...)

7Winifred’s sardonic remarks are evidence of the extent to which a sense of humour was valued by society.6 Importantly however, her comments signal that laughter is no longer solely the territory of men. Indeed, the strike destabilizes conventional assumptions about women and laughter insofar as the suffrage community makes the hapless men the objects of ridicule. In the following passage, the play again seems to comply with the established stereotype of the unruly suffragette:

ETHEL Horace says you’ll never frighten the Government into giving you the vote. He says every broken window is a fresh nail in the coffin of women’s suffrage. It’s quite true. Englishmen can’t be bullied.

WINIFRED No, but they can bully. It’s your husband, your dear Horace, and a million other dear Horaces who are going to do the bullying and frightening this time. The women are going to stay quiet, at home. By tomorrow, perhaps before, Horace will be marching to Westminster shouting out ‘Votes for Women!’ (23)

8However, by giving these words to Ethel, a conventional character unable to think for herself, the play criticises her mindless compliance with social convention. Initially, Horace brushes aside any potential disruption: ‘Who cares if they do strike? They’re no use to anyone’ (26), only to find his own dismissive predictions proved wrong in his own house. A return to conventional roles leads, ironically, to the male characters’ conversion to the cause. The play also sends up the zealous spirit of the campaign when Madame Christine proudly announces: ‘At three o’clock that motor became the property of the Women’s Social and Political Union. All the rest of my property and all available cash have been divided equally between the National Union and the Women’s Freedom League’ (29). Aunt Lizzie’s comment: ‘Any man who tries to oppose us today is likely to be slung up to the nearest lamp post’ (31) is a deliberate reference to the suffragettes’ tactic of chaining themselves to railings and an example of how the playwrights draw on the movement’s own strategies for comic effect.

9How the Vote Was Won stages a series of stereotypical representations of suffragettes, subverted for political ends. Horace’s sister Agatha, a ‘dowdily dressed’ suffragette, is the first to arrive. Having given up her job as a governess, she performs the role of the helpless female, asking Horace to support her until the bill for female suffrage is passed. Agatha’s performance as kept spinster undermines the ideology of separate spheres. Horace’s increasing irritation enables the anti-suffragist to incriminate himself and would have elicited laughter from a pro-suffrage audience: ‘But why can’t you support yourself? You’ve done it for years’ (27). Molly, Horace’s niece, also embodies an unconventional form of femininity. She plays golf, is the author of ‘scandalous books’ and earns more than her uncle. Again, Horace’s words (‘I have always understood from you that you earn more than I do’) invalidate the anti-suffrage argument. Madame Christine pretends to play along with supporting conventional gender roles (‘I had a husband once. He liked me to do foolish things—for instance, to support him’ 29), but is in fact mocking assumptions about women’s economic status. The ‘aggressively cheerful’ Maudie Spark, a music-hall singer with a ‘raucous’ voice, seems to perpetuate the stereotype of the disreputable woman of the stage. However, by claiming the right to define herself, Maudie undermines society’s power to define her. Her comic self-objectivity is a sign of self-confidence and a strategy to show off her comedic talent: ‘They won’t get any more work out of Maudie Spark, Queen of Comédiennes, until the women have got the vote’ (30). The play further inverts stereotypes as the women remain rational and calm whilst Horace appears hysterical.

  • 7 All quotations from the play refer to the Spender and Hayman 1985 Methuen Edition.

10Lady Geraldine’s Speech by Beatrice Harraden, first performed at the WSPU Women’s Exhibition in the Prince’s Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, 15th May 1909, is an all-female, one-act comedy, set in the drawing-room of the suffragette Dr Alice. Despite her political affiliations, Dr Alice has been called upon to help write an anti-suffrage speech for an old school friend, Lady Geraldine. A series of talented, good-humoured activists arrive one by one (a painter, a professor of literature and a pianist), unaware that there is an ‘anti’ present and, by the end, Lady Geraldine is converted to the cause. Several references made by the suffragette characters call to mind the unflattering stereotypes of the New Woman: Dr Alice advises Lady Geraldine to mention the ‘unwomanliness’ (94)7 of the movement and Silberthwaite describes Dr Alice as ‘so ugly when she’s disagreeable’ (95). Through ironic stereotyping, the suffragette characters control the caricature rather than endorse it and expose the false assumptions on which it is based.

  • 8 All quotations from the play refer to the 2018 Methuen edition, the first ever publication of the p (...)

11Stereotypes of suffragettes were re-employed for comic effect in Netta Syrett’s one-act Might is Right, first performed by a cast including several members of the AFL at the Haymarket Theatre, 13th November 1909. The farce stages an unlikely scenario: the ‘Secret Society for Women’s Suffrage’ plans to kidnap the Prime Minister until he promises to give women the vote. The title alludes to the theory of male superiority based on physical force, only for the plot to subvert this argument and reconfigure gender power relations. From the start, however, suffragette methods are satirised. When Lady Seaborne expresses her reservations, Miss Tracy’s reply echoes Christabel Pankhurst’s justification for direct action: ‘I quite agree, Aunt Betsy. We’re all behaving disgracefully. If you can think of anything that combines ladylike behaviour with a chance of getting what we want, we shall be only too grateful. Can you?’ (9).8 The play gently mocks the fervour of the movement when Miss Finch melodramatically pledges her allegiance to the society (‘To the death!’) and Miss Mowbray is described as ‘a first-rate shot’ (17). Eight suffragists are portrayed, ranging from moderate to militant, but all ‘burning with a sense of wrong and injustice’ (10) and described as ‘specially selected widows and spinsters’ (11). Stereotypical markers depict the uncompromising Miss Finch: ‘lanky and untidy in appearance. She is dressed in floppy clothes of purple, green and white, and wears the Votes for Women badge’. Devoid of domestic skills (‘She can’t cook, she can’t sweep, she can’t even dust a room’ 14), she is seen reciting suffragette slogans or inscribing them in the Prime Minister’s butter pat. Unrelenting in her attitude: ‘The point is to get him here by foul means or fair, alive or dead—’ (10), she is determined that the Prime Minister should be treated in captivity just as the suffragettes were treated in prison. The Daily Telegraph described the character as a ‘dreadful person’ but ‘the most amusing character in the piece’ (15 November 1909) whilst the critic from At the Play commented ‘a suffragist of the raucous order is well-caricatured’ (27 November 1909). The manipulation of established stereotypes underlines the suffrage dramatists’ capacity to laugh at themselves. They sought to produce empathy in the audience by encouraging the public to laugh with them at their tactics but also to expose the absurdities of the dominant culture and its rigidly prescribed representations of women.

12Although writers of suffrage comedy recognised the value of self-derision, their main purpose was to ridicule their detractors. Oppositional laughter had been a powerful political weapon in the anti-suffrage campaign and suffrage dramatists shifted the target of the joke by depicting the suffragettes as the majority. In Lady Geraldine’s Speech, it is no longer the New Woman but the ‘anti’ who is treated as an object of curiosity. On discovering the true political allegiance of Lady Geraldine, Silberthwaite exclaims: ‘Great heavens! How delightful! I’ve been longing to meet one face to face. . . . I’ve never seen a real Anti-Suffragist before!’ (97–98). The revelation of the mistaken identity and the impersonal allusion (‘to meet one’) reinforce the comic effect. Similarly, social norms are destabilized when in How the Vote Was Won Molly observes ‘Since this morning Suffragettes have become women’ (30) and Aunt Lizzie asserts ‘It’s not the popular thing to be an “anti” any more’ (31). Through an inversion of the established order, the cause is presented as being the defining spirit of the age and the laugh is turned on the anti-suffragists. However, it should be noted that in Lady Geraldine’s Speech, although conventional women are relegated to the minority and their lack of logic underlined, they are not attacked personally. Dr Alice accepts to write Lady Geraldine’s speech to prevent her being publicly humiliated. When her suffrage friends cannot help but tease Lady Geraldine, Alice implores them not to give her friend away:

DR ALICE You mustn’t betray her. I wouldn’t have her betrayed for the world. She’s very dear to me. . . . I can’t and won’t have her humiliated. If I hadn’t helped her over her speech, she would probably have made herself ridiculous—and I couldn’t have stood for that. (98)

13Pro or anti-suffrage, the women are bound together by bonds of sisterhood. Shared interests (Crowningshield and Lady Geraldine discover a joint passion for music) ultimately override political differences. The cheerful, charismatic disposition of Dr Alice and her friends have a positive effect on Lady Geraldine who, inevitably, finds herself drawn into their community.

14In some cases, in order to re-direct laughter at their opponents, the dramatists portray anti-suffrage characters as unflattering caricatures, targeting their inconsistencies, political ignorance and incapacity to think for themselves. How the Vote Was Won questions the assumption that only men take politics seriously when Horace readily confesses: ‘I’ve only voted once in my life—but that’s neither here nor there’ (32). Lady Geraldine unwittingly admits: ‘With a few notable exceptions, all the Anti-Suffragists have my sort of brains. How can we possibly help each other?’ (94). She confesses to Dr Alice that she hasn’t ‘really gone into the details’ (93).

  • 9 ‘Inadvertently to say or do what we have no intention of saying or doing, . . . is one of the main (...)
  • 10 All quotations from the play refer to the Spender and Hayman 1985 Methuen edition.

15Another example of unconscious self-derision which reinforces the caricature of the ‘anti’ can be observed in Evelyn Glover’s Miss Appleyard’s Awakening, first performed at the Rehearsal Theatre, London, 20th June, 1911. The play takes place in Miss Appleyard’s drawing room during an election. By showing two anti-suffrage characters engaging in public life (Miss Appleyard is just back from canvassing and Mrs Crabtree arrives with a petition), Glover unmasks the inherent contradictions of so-called separate spheres. Mrs Crabtree’s very presence in Miss Appleyard’s drawing-room illustrates the absurdity of her own arguments. As they start to talk, much of what Mrs Crabtree says undermines the credibility of her own position.9 She inadvertently makes Miss Appleyard aware of the hypocrisy of her own position and gives advantage to the suffrage cause. Mrs Crabtree seeks to find the ‘traitors’ within the movement who, despite being anti-suffrage, engage in local politics: ‘They pretend to be Anti-Suffragists and they canvass!’ (121)10 The comedy revolves around mistaken identity as Miss Appleyard realises that she is one of the culprits but does not reveal herself straightaway. This gives more time for Mrs Crabtree to expose her arguments and for Miss Appleyard’s interventions to underline their lack of logic:

MRS CRABTREE . . . There’s Lord Curzon, too—of course you know his fifteen reasons against Women’s Suffrage? . . . ‘Political activity will tend to take away woman from her proper sphere and highest duty, which is maternity.’

MISS APPLEYARD But we can’t all be mothers.

MRS CRABTREE Oh, he recognises that! Only no doubt he considers married women particularly because, as he says in a later reason, they, if any, are best qualified to exercise the vote.

MISS APPLEYARD But I thought he said it would interfere with maternity? . . . 

MRS CRABTREE I don’t altogether follow that myself, I admit. I’m content to leave it to a superior brain to my own. (121–22)

16When Mrs Crabtree admits ‘I’m not at all in favour of women attending public meetings as a rule, though I have made an exception to hear Lord Cromer’ (121), the play highlights that her anti-suffrage commitment makes her unable to follow her own principles. The comic effect is reinforced by Mrs Crabtree’s complete lack of self-awareness, in sharp contrast with Miss Appleyard’s gradual awakening. As Bergson put it, ‘a comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself’ (Bergson 22). As Miss Appleyard moves towards conversion, she pushes her visitor’s reasoning to its logical conclusion in order to spotlight its contradictions:

MRS CRABTREE . . . I naturally don’t take any interest in politics. I don’t consider them to be a woman’s concern.

MISS APPLEYARD What do you consider to be a woman’s concern?

MRS CRABTREE (impressively) Her HOME!

MISS APPLEYARD But—do excuse me— . . . Don’t vague sympathies and sentimentality and—what else did Lord Cromer say?—hasty generalisation?—matter in the home? (122)

  • 11 All quotations from the play refer to the Hayman and Spender 1985 Methuen edition.

17Another duologue of misunderstanding by Glover, A Chat with Mrs Chicky, also targets the incoherence of the anti-suffrage position. First performed at the Rehearsal Theatre, London in 1912, it was one of the most popular and most performed pieces of the AFL’s repertoire. Set in Mrs Holbrook’s brother’s house, the presence of Mrs Holbrook, an anti-suffrage canvasser, and of Mrs Chicky, the feisty charwoman and working mother, invalidates Mrs Holbrook’s assertion that ‘You can’t combine politics and domestic matters’ (106)11 and recognises domestic labour as work. In this clash of social class and politics, the stereotype of working-class ignorance is inverted and it is Mrs Holbrook who is made to look foolish, whilst Mrs Chicky emerges as intellectually superior. Her sharp wit embodies the spirit of the movement and it is the anti-suffragist who lacks humour. By feigning ignorance about women’s suffrage, Mrs Chicky mocks the inconsistencies in Mrs Holbrook’s arguments and gives credit to the cause. Whilst the maid’s suffrage humour is expressed through rational argument and reason, Mrs Holbrook’s lack of logic is highlighted from the start when she informs Mrs Chicky: ‘You haven’t got time to trouble your head about politics, have you?’ (105), only to launch into a diatribe against suffragists. Highly amused, Mrs Chicky concludes: ‘Then I ’ave got to trouble me ’ead about pollytics after all?’ (106). For each of Mrs Holbrook’s abstract arguments, Mrs Chicky responds with practical examples. It is she who explains married woman’s legal rights regarding children: ‘Bless you’re ’eart, ‘M., women like us don’t have to read about the lor like you ladies! We’re too busy knockin’ up against it’ (107). As in Miss Appleyard’s Awakening, Mrs Holbrook’s continued lack of self-awareness provokes laughter. The comic force of the scene derives from the contrast between the playful but thoughtful Mrs Chicky and the obstinate Mrs Holbrook who, to use Bergson’s term, like a machine refuses to shift her position. Her inflexible attitudes are reflected in her reliance on stock phrases. The rigidity of her language provokes amusement because the ideas, ‘uttered automatically’ have become laughable (Bergson 108). Increasingly frustrated that the charwoman seems wilfully intent on misunderstanding her, Mrs Holbrook asserts ‘A woman’s place is in her home, you know’. Mrs Chicky’s witty response to this hackneyed formula is to offer to hand in her notice. As Mrs Chicky manipulates humour to her own advantage, the power dynamics shift. Mrs Holbrook loses control of the situation, echoing Bergson’s theory that situational comedy is produced when one character unknowingly becomes ‘a mere toy in the hands of another’ (Bergson 77). Much of the comic pleasure in this play stems from the inversion of hierarchical positions.

18Similarly, in How the Vote Was Won, Horace Cole’s ill-thought out declarations serve merely to strengthen the suffrage cause. When he reminds Agatha that she has supported herself for years, she replies: ‘Yes—ever since I was eighteen. Now I am going to give up work, until my work is recognised’ (27). Horace’s total lack of awareness is further illustrated when he exclaims to Madame Christine: ‘Do you think you are justified in coming to a poor clerk, and asking him to support you—you who could probably turn over my yearly income in a single week!’ (29) By inadvertently acknowledging the role that women already played in the economy, he gives credit to the key feminist argument expounded in the play and discredits the opposition. For Bergson, one of the functions of laughter is a corrective one: ‘Laughter . . . pursues a utilitarian aim of general improvement’ (Bergson 25). In the context of the suffrage campaign, playwrights clearly recognised the social value of laughter on the stage. By making their opponents the target of ridicule and by depicting them as inflexible, the dramatists sought to expose their position in society as ultimately untenable.

  • 12 All quotations from the play refer to the 2019 Methuen edition, edited by Naomi Paxton.

19Another strategy to redirect laughter towards opponents is the inversion of stereotypes. In How the Vote was Won the trope of the un-laughing suffragette is displaced and it is men’s lack of humour which is exposed. By the time Horace’s niece, Molly, arrives on his doorstep he bursts out angrily ‘I suppose this is a joke!’ (28) and dismisses the strike as another silly suffrage stunt. In Pot and Kettle by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John, first performed at the Scala Theatre, London on 12th November 1909, much of the humour comes from the role reversal. The play opens as Mr and Mrs Brewster are waiting for their daughter Marjorie to return from an anti-suffrage meeting whilst her cousin Nell, a suffragette, is busy getting dinner ready. Nell is resolutely cheerful and the irony of the situation is not lost on her. When Ernest mocks her for becoming domesticated, she shares in his joke by turning it to her own advantage: ‘It’s just as well, isn’t it, now that Marjorie’s political views take her out so much’ (53).12 Whilst anti-suffrage cartoons showed female political activism leading to chaos in the domestic sphere, here it is Marjorie’s public engagements which have made her late home whilst Nell has taken over the domestic duties. By overturning popular clichés, the play challenges the claim that feminism would threaten traditional gender roles. In a comic inversion of the media’s portrayal of suffrage events, it is the anti-suffrage meeting which is depicted by Nell as a disorderly spectacle: ‘Good Lord, to think what a treat I’ve missed’ (55). Nell feigns interest in Marjorie’s meeting only to ridicule the movement’s predictable platitudes and its members unthinking support: ‘Yes, how did it all go off? Decorous enthusiasm, eh? Cheers for the wife, cheers for the mother, cheers for the ’appy, ’appy ’ome? (55).

20Mr Brewster perpetuates the trope of the unattractive suffragette, but this image of ‘unsexed monsters’ is invalidated when Marjorie, who assumes that the elegant Lady Susie is an ‘anti’, is proved wrong. Finally, in the ultimate comic reversal, it is the anti-suffragist who is charged with assault. Provoked by Lady Susie’s heckling interventions, Marjorie confesses that she lost her temper:

MARJORIE So then I got more excited still— . . . I knocked her hat over her eyes and thumped her twice.


MARJORIE . . . She said she was going to charge me with assaulting her—that I belonged to the militant section of the anti-suffragettes and she didn’t approve of their tactics—and that it would take us down a peg to have the case brought into court—oh it was dreadful. (60–61)

21In this unexpected turn of events, it is the ‘anti’ who is depicted as indulging in unladylike behaviour. The play therefore undermines the anti-suffrage argument by making the anti-suffragist responsible for domestic chaos and the suffragette responsible for re-establishing order. Thanks to her friendship with Lady Susie it is Nell who, putting family loyalty first, persuades her not to humiliate her cousin and to drop the charges.

22The comic reversal is reinforced by the Brewsters’ sudden shift in position. Initially delighted with her daughter’s involvement in the anti-suffrage society Mrs Brewster becomes convinced of its disruptive influence: ‘Why did we let you join the anti-suffrage society’—why didn’t we keep you safe at home! (62). However, the dramatic irony in Mr Brewster’s outburst merely underlines the illogicality of the anti-suffrage position:

MR BREWSTER These people are frauds—their position is ridiculous. . . . They tell our innocent child that she must take no interest in politics and plunge her into the frenzied atmosphere of a riotous political gathering. . . . These women are following in the tracks of the suffragettes! [T]hey are wrecking the home they profess to stand for, and they are too stupid to see it. (63)

23The playwrights make the anti-suffragist unwittingly speak for the suffrage movement deliberately making Mr Brewster’s tirade play into the hands of the feminist cause. Nell’s act of kindness towards her cousin is also politically-motivated as accepting Lady Susie’s luncheon invitation also enables Nell to bring her cousin into more intimate contact with the movement. Fittingly, it is suffrage humour which has the last word when Nell plays along with Ernest, Marjorie’s fiancé, but warns him: ‘All the same I should make her chuck the Anti-Suffrage League, if I were you. It’s too strenuous altogether. If she must belong to something let her pick out something quieter—the Women’s Freedom League, or the WSPU…’ (65). By making suffragettes the agents of humour, suffrage dramatists both challenged stereotypes and used laughter to further their quest for empowerment. If patriarchal humour controlled and excluded women, suffrage plays reversed the balance. The feisty, independent heroines are empowered thanks to their intelligence and wit. They invite the audience to laugh with them and by laughing at their opponents, relegate them to the margins.

24Mistaken identities, satire and the inversion of the established order are all strategies deployed by the suffrage dramatists to discredit their opponents and portray them as predictable, inflexible or incoherent. The physical humour of farce is another technique which created oppositional comedy. In A Chat with Mrs Chicky, the use of proxemics contributes to the farcical effect and reveals much about Glover’s propagandist intentions. The stage directions reinforce the satire and enable Mrs Chicky to assert suffrage superiority, despite her social position. The visual contrast between the two characters highlights their different class and political views. As Mrs Chicky dusts vigorously to the point of almost asphyxiating Mrs Holbrook, the latter’s claim that ‘women have their own special work to do in their homes’ (106) seems unconvincing. The irony stems from the fact that whilst Mrs Holbrook presents women as domestic creatures, Mrs Chicky works feverishly around her. The staging of this scene provokes laughter and makes a political point: the more briskly Mrs Chicky sweeps, the more Mrs Holbrook is seen criss-crossing the stage to keep up with her, literally and metaphorically. As she pokes her broom under Mrs Holbrook’s chair she seems to be sweeping away anti-suffrage arguments. Mrs Holbrook again becomes the target of humour when, turning to the concept of chivalry, she claims that ‘all these ideas of doing men’s work are ridiculous’ (109) just as Mrs Chicky puts on her gloves to clean the grate. Throughout the duologue, the increasing proximity of Mrs Chicky to Mrs Holbrook adds to the comedy and symbolises the gains that the suffrage campaign was making. Finally, to contradict the anti-suffrage argument linking the right to vote with physical force Mrs Chicky, by now in total control of the situation, flaunts her physical strength:

MRS HOLBROOK Can’t you see that the right to vote really depends on physical force—strength, you know—and that women haven’t got that? (MRS CHICKY finding MRS HOLBROOK in her way gets up and pushes her, chair and all, a foot or so centre with perfect ease.) (110)

25Thus, Glover uses farce to dismiss the antis’ arguments as illogical and hypocritical. In How the Vote Was Won, the technique of farce is also employed at the expense of male detractors. Overwhelmed by the presence of his determined female relatives and realizing that the strike would impact his economic status, Horace is suddenly converted, makes a speech exposing the inconsistencies of the anti-suffrage position and promises to march to the Commons in support of the franchise. The farcical denouement stages Horace and Williams decorated with suffrage ribbons and badges and brandishing a banner (fig. 1). The burlesque nature of the two male characters is expressed through their costumes and body language. This is in sharp contrast to the more authentic and diverse costumes of the women which serve as a reminder of the cross-class nature of the movement. The white ribbon and WSPU badge added to the masculine-looking hats, the men’s over-sized moustaches and comic pose create a clown-like appearance, underlining the performative and therefore artificial nature of their political conversion. Although they are cheered by the women, Horace’s chauvinistic claim that ‘When you want a thing done, get a man to do it! Votes for Women!’ (33) remains highly ironic.

Fig. 1. How the Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John

Fig. 1. How the Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John

© LSE Library

  • 13 Cited in Holledge 67.

26It was certainly the farcical element that made How the Vote Was Won popular with audiences, the most significant accolade perhaps coming from the Times’ critic: ‘The audience were delighted. [T]he denouement, conceived and carried out in the finest spirit of farce, reflects the highest credit on the authors’.13 However, it can also be argued that, by choosing the framework of farce the dramatists express their political message without seriously threatening the status quo. Indeed, the photograph depicts the return of the hetero-normative couple centre stage. The women direct their gaze towards them and Ethel looks up adoringly at her husband, implying that she too has been converted. Susan Carlson has described suffrage comedies as ‘politically progressive and socially conservative’ (Carlson 212) arguing that the comic format enables the plays to plead for political change whilst respecting social protocol. In How the Vote Was Won and Might is Right, the conversion of men is closely linked to an alliance between men and women. In the former, Horace’s support for the suffrage cause strengthens his marriage to Ethel and in the latter, the Prime Minister’s final conversion stems from his romantic union with a suffragette. The comic structure of these two plays allows the writers to create social disorder based on comic reversal, followed by a return to ‘a status quo which is usually grounded in marriage and community’ (Carlson 205). Furthermore, despite the comic nature of the political conversions, we are reminded that it was still the men who had power to implement political change. Suffrage dramatists thus turn the world upside down through comic reversal, but through a safe, ritualized framework which does not threaten patriarchal institutions.

27However, Miss Appleyard’s Awakening and Lady Geraldine’s Speech function within a less conservative framework by offering an all-female stage picture and by ending with a conversion of a female ‘anti’ engineered by other women. Such examples could be described as ‘counter-images’ as defined by Hans Robert Jauss in his analysis of the comic hero. According to Jauss, the comic of the ‘counter-image’ represents a negation of societal norms and can be regarded as ‘a protest that is seriously meant but safe because presented in comic guise’ (Jauss 191). In these two works, the choice of comedy provides a familiar and entertaining medium through which to express a radical political message. Their uplifting tone portrays feminist political commitment as something to be celebrated. In all the plays analysed in this article, comedy enabled suffrage writers to undermine their adversaries without direct confrontation and created a safe space to expose injustices and depict a glimpse of a different future. The works lead to a ‘beginning of solidarization’ (Jauss 191) insofar as, at least on a political level, they inspire ‘the creation of new norms’ (Jauss 192), reflected in the conversion narratives and the staging of female alliances.

  • 14 The Times 24 June 1912, 10.
  • 15 Cited in Spender and Hayman 19.
  • 16 Cited in Spender and Hayman 20.

28But to what extent can we be sure that humour was a successful political weapon of retaliation? As it is thought likely that the majority of the audiences were supporters, it is difficult to assess whether the comedies led directly to many conversions. However, it is noteworthy that the mainstream, not only the suffrage press, also appreciated their humour and did not appear overtly hostile to their ideas. A Chat with Mrs Chicky was described in The Times as ‘a female suffrage tract, but a tract with more fun and actuality than most’.14 According to The Star, How the Vote Was Won was ‘Genuinely funny . . .  the desolating effects of a general strike of women workers . . . are as significant as they are truly comic’,15 whilst the reviewer from the Pall Mall Gazette remarked that ‘The story is funny enough, but the way in which it is told is funnier still. . . . The fact that it is so acutely controversial is not at all against it—it is, in fact, a virtue rather than a defect, for the Theatre of Ideas is upon us’.16 The recognition of a feminist ‘theatre of ideas’ as an entertaining yet serious art form challenged commonly held beliefs according to which women could neither write good plays nor display a sense of humour. These works were the expression of a new age, a reflection of the inroads that suffrage artists could make into overturning gender prejudice and successfully combining art and politics, using the comic genre. According to Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz in their study of rhetoric: ‘Humor has always played an important role in argument. . . . Humor . . . makes people suspend their judgment and even their prejudices’ (Lunsford 38).

29Finally, by portraying suffragists as a joyous, collective body, not as alienated individuals, the plays depict the movement in a more appealing light and emphasize the role that laughter played within the AFL. Humour is not only shown as a tool for protest but as a means to strengthen the solidarity between activists. Several of these plays stage the suffragettes as a community of women with a common purpose. The sense of high-spirited camaraderie in How the Vote Was Won, Lady Geraldine’s Speech and Might is Right is a reminder of the power of humour to unite. According to Bergson, laughter is inherently social. It depends on and strengthens our complicity and interaction with one another. Indeed, his claim that ‘our laughter is always the laughter of a group’ (Bergson 12) plays out in these works on two levels. Shared jokes both reflect and reinforce the common bond between suffrage characters, and the spectacle of the laughing body of women on stage would, in turn, have resonated with empathetic audience members. For Bergson, laughter is a communal experience which creates a feeling of belonging. Taking these observations into account, it is likely that the laughter of the suffrage comedies created a liberating atmosphere of optimism, strengthening and possibly extending the suffrage community and anticipating (as the hopeful title How the Vote Was Won suggests) the inevitable triumph of the movement.

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Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudesely Brereton and Fred Rothwell. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1st edition, 19 Mar. 2018.

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1 These words are taken from verse four of the suffragette anthem The March of the Women (1910), composed by Ethel Smyth. The lyrics were written by Cicely Hamilton and suggest a celebration of defiant laughter.

2 ‘[T]he ideological discourses on the New Woman were undoubtedly promoted in order to ridicule and to control renegade women’ (Ledger 1997, 9).

3 As Catherine Wiley has pointed out ‘The New Woman . . . was hardly respectable in most people’s eyes, and thus when she was allowed on the stage at all, it was . . . in the form of caricature and exaggeration’ (Wiley 111).

4 ‘By 1911, amateur performances had multiplied so much that the entertainments at suffrage fairs and exhibitions were provided partly by the AFL and partly by the local suffragists’ (Holledge 72).

5 All quotations from the play refer to the Spender and Hayman 1985 Methuen edition.

6 In her essay on laughter, suffragist and poet Alice Meynell wrote ‘Laughter is everywhere and at every moment proclaimed to be the honourable occupation of men, and in some degree distinctive of men, and no mean part of their prerogative and privilege’ (Meynell 29–30).

7 All quotations from the play refer to the Spender and Hayman 1985 Methuen Edition.

8 All quotations from the play refer to the 2018 Methuen edition, the first ever publication of the play, transcribed from the original manuscript and edited by Naomi Paxton.

9 ‘Inadvertently to say or do what we have no intention of saying or doing, . . . is one of the main sources of the comic’ (Bergson 107).

10 All quotations from the play refer to the Spender and Hayman 1985 Methuen edition.

11 All quotations from the play refer to the Hayman and Spender 1985 Methuen edition.

12 All quotations from the play refer to the 2019 Methuen edition, edited by Naomi Paxton.

13 Cited in Holledge 67.

14 The Times 24 June 1912, 10.

15 Cited in Spender and Hayman 19.

16 Cited in Spender and Hayman 20.

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Titre Fig. 1. How the Vote Was Won by Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John
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Eleanor Stewart, « ‘Laugh a defiance, Laugh in hope’: Suffrage Comedy and Humour as Political Protest »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 96 Automne | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Eleanor Stewart

Eleanor Stewart is a lecturer in British civilization and Anglophone theatre at the University of Avignon and member of the research group ICTT (“Cultural Identity, Texts and Theatricality”). Her research focuses on the interaction between theatre and feminism, with a special interest in the Edwardian period. She has published articles on suffrage dramatists (Elizabeth Robins, Cicely Hamilton, Githa Sowerby and Christopher St. John) and contemporary women playwrights and is author of the book “La Nouvelle Femme dans le théâtre britannique: 1890-1914” (Harmattan, 2020).
Eleanor Stewart est maître de conférences à l’Université d’Avignon où elle enseigne la civilisation britannique et le théâtre anglophone. Membre de l’Équipe d’Accueil ICTT (« Identité Culturelle, Textes et Théâtralité »), elle travaille sur l’interaction entre théâtre et féminisme, avec un intérêt particulier pour l’époque édouardienne. Elle a publié plusieurs articles sur des dramaturges suffragistes (Elizabeth Robins, Cicely Hamilton, Githa Sowerby et Christopher St. John) et contemporaines. Son livre, « La Nouvelle Femme dans le théâtre britannique : 1890-1914 », est paru chez l’Harmattan en 2020.

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