Votes for the Real Girl
Mary Christian, author of Marriage and Late-Victorian Dramatists, shines a spotlight on actor and playwright Elizabeth Robins, exploring the impact of her play Votes for Women! and her work with the Women Writers’ Suffrage League.
As a young actress, Elizabeth Robins was told by theatrical demigod Henry Irving: “Women have an easy road to travel on the stage. They have but to appear and their sweet feminine charm wins the battle” (Both Sides, 164). Irving’s insistence on “sweet feminine charm,” Robins found, was a demand almost universally shared by the (mostly male) actor-managers who controlled London theaters in the late nineteenth century. Robins later chafed that in this theatrical world, female performers were “everywhere ranked with the harlot” (Ancilla’s Share, 129).
Robins found a less orthodox outlet for her talents by becoming an actor-manager herself, especially producing the plays of Henrik Ibsen, whose work was just beginning to gain attention in England. Though many critics were shocked by the “corrosive” personalities of Hedda Gabler, Hilda Wangel, and other characters, she found that these roles offered her a “self-respect” that had been lacking in her more traditional stage work (Ibsen, 21, 15). Hedda, in particular, the aimless and envious anti-heroine who ultimately escapes her boring marriage with her father’s pistol, Robins saw as emblematic of many women of her time: “she was a bundle of unused possibilities,” having “no opportunity at all to develop her best powers” (Ibsen, 18-19). Yet for all her admiration of Ibsen’s work, for his clear-sighted depictions of women’s hardships, Robins in time became frustrated by what the plays did not offer: alternatives. Though Ibsen rightly showed Hedda’s “unused possibilities,” he seemed to give no satisfying suggestions for how these possibilities might be used. Robins wondered: if a woman like Hedda were to “develop her best powers,” what might such development look like on stage?
More than a decade later, in 1906, Robins attempted to answer this question with a play of her own, Votes for Women!, a depiction of the women’s suffrage campaign, a movement whose increasingly disruptive tactics were drawing widespread debate in England. The play’s main character, Vida Levering, is, like Hedda, an attractive young upper-class woman unsatisfied with the leisured life that is held up in her world as the womanly ideal. But rather than venting her pent-up resentments in book-burning or suicide, Vida recognizes her unhappiness as part of a larger problem, “the helplessness of women,” which traps countless poorer women in wage slavery, abuse, and homelessness (Votes, 20). Her response is to join the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, seeing voting rights as a starting point for ending this helplessness.
Robins subtitled the play “A Dramatic Tract in Three Acts,” unapologetically positioning it as suffrage propaganda. In the years that followed, numerous other writers would follow her example. In 1908 the Women Writers’ Suffrage League (WWSL) was organized, electing Robins as its first president, seeking to enlist support for the movement through literature.
While “frankly propagandist writing” was an important part of the organization’s purpose, Robins envisioned a broader mission for herself and her fellow writers, not only protesting women’s political disenfranchisement, but countering stereotypes of women with more truthful depictions (Way Stations, 110). In a 1909 speech to the WWSL, she declared, “It is the business (the business as well as the high privilege) of men and women writers to correct the false ideas about women which many writers of the past have fostered” (Way Stations, 111-112). In another address, she urged her fellow writers:
[T]here she stands—the Real Girl!—waiting for you to do her justice. . . . The Great Adventure is before her. Your Great Adventure is to report her faithfully. So that her children’s children reading her story shall be lifted up—proud and full of hope. ‘Of such stuff,’ they shall say, ‘our mothers were! Sweethearts and wives—yes, and other things besides: leaders, discoverers, militants, fighting every form of wrong.’ (Way Stations, 236)
Through her writing and her encouragement to other women writers, Robins sought to expand artistic portrayals of women beyond the “sweet feminine charm” endorsed by Henry Irving. Now, in 2020, while the suffragists’ goal of voting rights for women has been achieved for a hundred years and more, both in Britain and in the United States, women writers continue to work toward Robins’s larger goal: to offer readers more truthful stories about women and girls.
Mary Christian is Assistant Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University. She also serves as Membership Secretary for the International Shaw Society. Her book, Marriage and Late-Victorian Dramatists, part of the ‘Bernard Shaw and His Contemporaries’ series, is available now.
Robins, Elizabeth. Ancilla’s Share: An Indictment of Sex Antagonism. Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1976.
---. Both Sides of the Curtain. London: Heinemann, 1940.
---. Ibsen and the Actress. New York: Haskell House, 1973.
---. Votes for Women! London: Mills & Boon, 1909.
---. Way Stations. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913.