Leading Ladies: The actresses who fought for women’s suffrage

By Karen Harker, Gale Ambassador at the University of Birmingham

“There was a young Lady called Vera
As a Speaker all crowded to hear her
She caused a sensation
Throughout the whole Nation
Such as never was seen in our ERA.”

So begins an anonymous limerick written about Vera “Jack” Holme – Edwardian actress, political activist, and militant suffragette. Found in the Archives of Sexuality & Gender, a collection within Gale Primary Sources, this poem is one of thousands of papers, manuscripts, photos and news articles related to the eccentric, multifaceted life of one of Britain’s most devoted advocates for women’s voting rights. Also a part of the Women’s Volunteer Reserve during WWI and Britain’s first female chauffeur, Holme broke the patriarchal boundaries that had surrounded women for centuries through her constant vigilance and dedication to the causes of women’s suffrage and equality.

In one of her most notorious protests, Holme hid inside an organ at Colston Hall in Bristol awaiting the start of a meeting run by Augustine Birrell, a politician of the Liberal Party who did not support the suffrage movement. Detailed in this article from the Evening Telegraph, Holme repeatedly yelled “Votes for Women!” through the organ pipes at the start of the meeting with such “ventriloquial hallowness” that her voice seemed to come from all directions. This anecdote embodies the length to which Holme went to make her voice heard and reveals the influential role Holme and many other actresses would play in the women’s suffrage movement as a part of the Actresses’ Franchise League.

Vera “Jack” Holme (front left) pictured with four other suffragettes campaigning for women’s voting rights.
From: “Photographs. Vera Holme with Fellow Suffragettes.” The Papers of Vera “Jack” Holme, Gale, 1910. Archives of Sexuality & Gender, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FnWj6

Founded in 1908 by Winifred Mayo, the Actresses’ Franchise League brought together actresses and other women working in the theatre for the cause of women’s suffrage. Holme joined the organization in 1908 as well as some of Britain’s most famous actresses such as Lilian Braithwaite, Gertrude Elliott, Violet Vanbrugh, Ellen Terry, Cicely Hamilton, and Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale. By 1911 league membership had reached 750 members and often joined ranks with similar suffrage leagues at large demonstrations and marches throughout the country.[1] As Claire Hirshfield notes, because many of the members “enjoyed celebrity status and public esteem, the AFL was perhaps the most successful of all professional women’s organizations in drawing popular attention and sympathy to the cause of female enfranchisement.”[2] Through propaganda meetings, selling pro-suffrage literature, performing propaganda plays, and giving lectures, these leading ladies sought to educate the community about the importance of women’s suffrage and equality.

Cicely Hamilton’s play A Pageant of Great Women (1910) was one of the propaganda plays performed by the actresses in the league. The play opens with a discourse on the rights of women between the personified character of “Prejudice,” played by Mr. Laurence Housman, and a representative of all oppressed women called “Woman,” played by Cicely Hamilton. To enforce her argument, Woman recalls great women from history, subsequently represented on the stage through a series of tableaux processing in front of Prejudice. Featuring forty-five historical women in total, the play divides them into the following categories: learned women, artists, saints, heroines, rulers, and warriors. The final tableaux is of “warrior” Florence Nightingale, who finally causes Prejudice to slink away, as reported here by the Cambridge Independent Press. Justice, who presides over the entire play, finally grants Woman freedom, saying:

“Go forth to achieve with tears; and bear within thy heart
This word of mine – That soul alone is free
Who sees around it never a soul enslaved.
Go forth: the world is thine … Oh, use it well!
Thou hast an equal, not a master, now.”

A selection of female warriors from history featured in Hamilton’s Pageant of Great Women, a suffrage propaganda play.
From: Cicely Hamilton. A Pageant of Great Women. London: The Suffrage Shop. 1910. p. 46. Online Resource. University of California, Los Angeles. https://archive.org/details/pageantofgreatwo00hami/page/n69

Though in Hamilton’s play the tableaux of historical women is enough to convince Prejudice that women deserve the right to vote, it would take another eighteen years before white, upper-class women would gain that right in Britain, and it would take decades more for working-class women and women of colour. Despite the adversity that they would face, the women in the Actresses’ Franchise League and thousands of other suffragettes would continue to fight for the cause, even when it wasn’t easy. Within Holme’s papers are numerous bail notices and sketches of Holme’s cell in Holloway prison, revealing the harsh realities suffragettes often endured in their fight for freedom.

Pencil Drawing by Vera “Jack” Holme entitled “Sketch Made in Prison: Holloway Prison Cell F3/21” and a bail notice for “willfully obstructing Police whilst in the due execution of their duty.”
From: Campaign for Women’s Suffrage. Two Sketches of Holloway Prison Cells. 2 Dec. 1911. MS The Papers of Vera “Jack” Holme: Campaign for Women’s Suffrage 7VJH/1/2/04. London School of Economics, The Women’s Library. Archives of Sexuality & Gender, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8FoAT6.
Campaign for Women’s Suffrage. Metropolitan Police Bail Notice to Vera Holme, 22 Nov. 1911. 1911. MS The Papers of Vera “Jack” Holme: Campaign for Women’s Suffrage 7VJH/1/2/02. London School of Economics, The Women’s Library. Archives of Sexuality & Gender, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8GMvV2

Whether yelling “Votes for Women” into organ pipes, writing and performing propaganda plays, or being arrested and imprisoned for their cause, the efforts of women like Holmes, Hamilton, and hundreds of other women in the Actresses’ Franchise League undoubtedly helped to pave the way for women’s equality and voting rights. It is inspiring and humbling to think about the continued efforts of these women, who, despite facing constant adversity, vigilantly fought for women’s suffrage, causing, to use the words of the opening limerick, a “sensation throughout the whole nation” until their voices were finally heard. Whenever I cast my vote in an election, large or small, I do so in the memory of these brave women, whose sacrifices offer me and all other women freedoms of which they could only dream.

[1] Claire Hirshfield. “The Actresses’ Franchise League and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage 1908–1914.” Theatre Research International, vol. 10, no. 2, 1985, pp. 129–153., doi:10.1017/S030788330001066X.

[2] Ibid. pp.129-30.

Karen Harker author photo

About the Author

Karen is a Gale Student Ambassador and PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute. Her work focuses on digitally reconstructing and reconsidering the role of incidental music used in nineteenth-century Shakespeare productions, a project which is rooted in archival research and utilises many of Gale’s digital resources. Other research interests include operatic adaptations of Shakespeare, digital humanities, tableaux vivant, and Shakespeare performances during times of war. Karen also enjoys hiking, yoga, singing, and spending time with her cat, Monkey.