Elizabeth Robins Portrays Working Women in Suffragette Literature: A Reflection through the Lens of the 2015 film, Suffragette
I place the 2015-released film Suffragette within a context of the efforts Elizabeth Robins made to document and, by witnessing, to advocate, the early phases of the British Women’s Suffrage Movement in England. Robins wrote and participated across margins. An expatriate American living in England, she had no personal advantage to gain with a franchise. In her late forties and in ill health, she took perhaps only "safe" opportunities to thrust herself into the fray. But as Jane Marcus points out, with her research on the play that became Votes for Women, she took efforts to experience how working-class experiences were key to political success for the women's movement. Just as the film chronicles the growing radicalism of a fictionalized common laundrywoman (portrayed by Carey Mulligan) in order to dovetail with the dramatic death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw her body in front of the King’s Horse and thus ended the press’s censorship on the suffrage issue, Robins fictionalizes the cockney voice of "Working Woman" for her play and novel. Robins also took interest in the case of Lady Constance Lytton, who dressed as a common seamstress in order to be subject to the same brutal treatment as the lower classes. Robins returns, again and again in Way Stations (her collection of articles and editorials on suffrage), to the plight of the working-class woman. It is also clear, especially from reading her private correspondence, that Christabel Pankhurst and other suffrage leaders sought her out so that her voice, whether from speaking engagements or in print, would lend prestige to the Cause. Robins’ previous writing achievements hardly left her economically secure, and she risked disapproval from important mentors Florence Bell and William Archer for her feminist advocacy. Yet she won over George Bernard Shaw and Henry James. In a private letter in late 1906, James had pronounced her play, still without its final title and still un-produced, as "the Suffragette Movement Hot from the Oven." The week that Suffragette premiered in fall 2015, Wall Street Journal lexicographer Ben Zimmer credited Elizabeth Robins in her 1907 novel for the first known printed example of the positive re-appropriation of the word, invented to slander and minimize the movement.
Gates, Joanne E. "Elizabeth Robins Portrays Working Women in Suffragette Literature: A Reflection through the Lens of the 2015 film, Suffragette." Presentation at SAMLA Conference, 2018 in Birmingham, AL. Archived in 2023 for JSU Digital Commons, Faculty Presentation.
American Literature Commons, Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory Commons, Literature in English, British Isles Commons, Other Film and Media Studies Commons, Women's Studies Commons
Presented for SAMLA Conference, 2018 in Birmingham, AL, with the conference theme, "Fighters from the Margins: Socio-Political Activists and Their Allies."
Session 02.05 at 1:30 Friday November 2, 2018. Panel topic: Working Women Suffragette's Life Writing in Britain and America.