An oil painting has always hung in my granny’s house. It depicts a striking woman with dark hair, high cheekbones, and a massive feathery hat.
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As I discovered, the woman in the painting was far more impressive than even the featheriest of hats can convey.
Lena (née Celina Manson) was my granny’s great-aunt, making her my great-great-great aunt, and her painting still hangs in granny’s living room. I asked once who had painted it, but she didn’t know. All Lena ever told her about the artist was he was “some man who was in love with me, darling.”
This was my first ever glimpse of my suffragette ancestor Lena.
Image: isobel hamilton/mashable
I didn’t pay the painting above the mantelpiece much mind until I started studying the suffragettes at school.
That’s when I found out that Lena — stage name Adeline Bourne — had been an actress, a suffragette, and a founding member of the Actresses’ Franchise League.
The more I looked into Lena’s work and the League, the more I was struck by just how similar their mission was to the stories dominating the press at the moment about equality of employment and representation in the media.
A hundred years after the vote was won, just how much has changed?
1908: The League is founded
The Actresses’ Franchise League (AFL) is a little-known piece of suffrage history. It was founded in 1908 by a group of theatre professionals — a mixture of actresses, playwrights, dancers and composers — to work through their profession for the Suffrage cause.
By 1913 the AFL had 900 women members and an affiliated men’s organisation.
At their genesis AFL wrote and produced plays which researcher Naomi Paxton terms “unapologetic propaganda pieces, written with passion and inspired by frustration.”
The plays are comedies, which was often used to discredit them — the accusation being that the plays were trivial pieces of light entertainment. There was, however, a very specific reason for the AFL’s comic style.
My granny found this pot of Lena’s, given to her as a gift by the AFL.
Image: isobel hamilton/mashable
“Plays were still subject to censorship in that period,” Paxton said. “I’ve been in the British Library and found plays that mention prison and arrest, and they didn’t get passed by the censor.”
So the AFL circumvented the state censorship by producing plays that were “much more subtle in their references.”
Contrary to the old sexist stereotype of the humourless feminist, these were women who used comedy as a tool to advance their cause, undermining their political opposition.
Adeline Bourne, née Celine (Lena) Manson
Image: Dover street studios
The AFL stopped producing their own plays quite quickly, in 1914. Yet they remained active until 1958, when the AFL was officially disbanded.
“The rest of the time they exist[ed] they [were] still very networked within the industry,” Paxton told me, “a lot of the people who were involved quite early [went] on to found national companies and produce plays themselves.”
They also gave birth to the Woman’s Theatre — a theatre group entirely run by women, although some male playwrights’ work was admitted for production.
In this way the AFL functioned not only as a political movement, but also as a training ground and a professional network for women. Its ranks were far from restricted to just actresses; their members included writers, composers, and dancers like pioneer Margaret Morris.
Margaret Morris was a pioneer in modern dance and founded a dance school which exists to this day. Pictured: Pupils from the International Institute of Margaret Morris Movement practising in 1935.
Image: Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images
1963: Lena still speaks out
Lena was known to the world as actress Adeline Bourne. As a young woman she starred in such plays as Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
Lena in her role as Salome.
Image: bertram park/h s mendelssohn
But long after her acting career ended and the AFL had ceased to exist, she was still speaking out about women’s rights. On her 90th birthday she gave interviews to various national newspapers about her memories of being a suffragette, the clippings of which my granny stored carefully.
“Women have got to go on struggling.”
“We suffragettes were up against materialism and silly unimportant things,” she told the Evening Standard in 1963. “I’ve seen women thrown to the ground by several burly men. I could have been back in the arena in Rome. And where are women today?”
She answers the question herself: “Nowhere. Women have got to go on struggling. We haven’t really got anywhere at all.”
Image: evening standard, January 8th 1963
“The trouble is they are not being taught, like men, to have a broader outlook on life,” she also told the Daily Mail. “After all, we should not be here just to eat and drink and get married.
“There are bigger things. We should take our place in world affairs. We should lead the world. And we could. In the suffragette days we realised this.”
Lena at age 90 still telling the national press what’s what.
Despite the seriousness of her demands, Lena had a playful side. She described the suffragette movement as “dowdy” to the Mail and said, “My own group tried to take the dowdyism out of the suffragette movement and get some glamour into it. And we succeeded. But it should go on and sweep the world.”
2010: Re-staging the Actresses’ Franchise League
A further 55 years down the line and women in Lena’s industry still feel similar frustrations.
Samantha Bond is a British actress who directed an AFL play called Lady Geraldine’s Speech in 2010. I met with her to talk about the experience.
Samantha Bond is a British actress who directed the AFL play ‘Lady Geraldine’s Speech’ for a special showcase in 2010.
Image: Dave Benett/Getty Images for mothers2mothers
The comic conceit of the play is a group of highly successful suffragettes helping a slightly hapless younger woman (the titular Lady Geraldine) to write an anti-suffrage speech she has accidentally promised to deliver. It features an all-female cast, “which as a female actor of certain years is a thrill in itself,” Bond told me.
“It’s using humour to make your point.”
Bond showed me a quotation from the playwright Beatrice Harraden, which she felt encapsulated the voice of the piece. In it Harraden said she wished to capture, “the good temper, the courage, and the good camaraderie of the suffragettes.”
This overwhelmingly positive, comic approach to suffrage is one that struck Bond as particularly significant. “It’s using humour to make your point,” she told me. “If you want to try and persuade someone, particularly of a political [shift] within their own head, to attack is not always the best choice to make.”
Naomi Paxton (left) and Beatrice Rose (right) star in ‘Lady Geraldine’s Speech’ in 2010.
Image: Chris redgrave
In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave property-owning women over 30 the right to vote. It was a start, but a hundred years later Bond points out that the AFL’s political manifesto is far from irrelevant.
“The shocking thing is this was over a hundred years ago,” she said. “There were women talking about issues that women in my profession are still discussing.”
“They were talking about the equality of representation in our industry,” she added, “which to this day is something which enrages me more than I can begin to explain.
“You have Dame Kristen Scott Thomas walking into an awards ceremony [BAFTAs] talking about the inequality of pay. The AFL was talking about that a hundred years ago.”
2017: progress is not a straight line
It was disheartening to see such striking similarities between what makes Samantha Bond angry now and that which enraged Lena.
“1917 marked the peak for female representation in film.”
According to data analysis by the British Film Institute (BFI) 1917 marked the peak for female representation in film, a full year before women in Britain could vote.
Women made up 41% of combined casts in 1917, as opposed to 30% in 2017. The First World War may have had a major impact on this — both in the number of films being produced and the men available to work on them — but looking at the gender mix in more recent decades, the number of roles for women has seriously plateaued.
“Since the end of the Second World War there have been no sustained gains in the percentage of cast members who are women in UK films,” the analysis concludes. “Instead, this percentage has fluctuated between 25% and 36%, and in 2017 sat at 30%.”
Female representation in British film crews has seen a more consistent increase over the century, rising from women making up 3% of crew in 1913 to 34% in 2017. While this is undoubtedly an improvement, it still leaves a lot to be desired, especially in departments like photography and sound, where the percentage of credits filled by women has never risen above 10%.
2018: Where do we go from here?
Now voices similar to those of Lena and her comrades are being raised again. The domino effect of the Harvey Weinstein scandal has been wide-reaching, and the equality manifestos of organisations like Time’s Up and 50/50by2020 are a sadly familiar tune.
Looking back over the history I was despondent. The AFL clearly had been significant, championing the cause and forging career paths for extraordinary women in entertainment, giving them their shot at seniority so badly needed for any group to thrive in an industry. But for what?
The day after I made up my mind to write this article, Lena’s voice was featured on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme, in honour of the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. I had never actually heard her voice before; it was cut-glass enough to shave a window and a little tremulous, so must have been her speaking in her old age. Nonetheless, it came through loud and clear.
Her voice has not faded. It is chosen and listened to, for whatever that’s worth. She said on her 90th birthday that “women have to go on struggling,” and they will. There will be men to aid them, as there were in 1909.
This is a moment when the industry can make the message stick, to cement the legacy of the AFL with actual demographic change. Frances McDormand suggested inclusion riders in her Oscar speech — and while positive discrimination can feel like pandering to some, the data seems to suggest that waiting for the industry to catch up with the times is too complacent to work.
Lena’s voice reaching down the centuries is nice, but Lena didn’t want nice. She wanted women to lead, and they can.