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A guest post by Jane Young who reviews Stage Rights! The Actresses’ Franchise League, Activism and Politics 1908-58 by Dr Naomi Paxton. 

stage rightsA study into a hitherto neglected area of theatre history. Many familiar names prominent in social reform appear, along with those well known in the world of theatre, surprisingly well known given that prior to this research, there has been very little published information available on the Actresses’ Franchise League.

Although centred on London in the main, these pages follow the work of the organisation to towns in England, Scotland and Wales and abroad, covering European and American initiatives to develop women’s theatre. Differing attitudes to a common cause are thoroughly explored and present a refreshing perspective of a politically feminist foundation which comprised many other strands in its contribution to the theatrical profession and social welfare initiatives.

Extensive endnotes provide a cornucopia of information taken from less well known and under utilised sources for anyone with an interest in theatre history or the debates surrounding the route to universal franchise.

Biographical accounts of some of the Votes for Women paper sellers and the experiences encountered by members of the Actresses’ Franchise League provide a marvellous narrative of social history and class difference which illustrate the significance of the part women’s suffrage played in changing attitudes, not just for the emancipation of women but as an important cog in the campaign for social reform.

Why this publication is significant is best described in the words of the author in the final chapter:

An understanding of the legacy of the AFL is important because it points towards a recognition of the range of its many spheres of influence and interest and includes an analysis of the potential of theatrical engagement with ideas of political activism in a wider social context, …

An immensely readable, beautifully researched work into a very specific genre of suffrage in the twentieth century, this book is also a wonderful insight into much wider social and political issues of the time. An added bonus is that, along with the notable leading ladies, it entertains.

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This work was originally published in hardback in 2019 but as an academic publication was rather pricy. It has just now been released in a paperback edition and within reach of most readers’ budget.

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Stage Rights! The Actresses’ Franchise League  (248pp) by Dr Naomi Paxton is published by Manchester University Press with a cover price of £17.99.

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