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Moving Women: The Touring Actress as Vector of Political Change
In 1869, one year before the first women’s suffrage bill was presented in the British parliament, John Stuart Mill published his treatise on the subjection of women. One of the lynch-pins of his argument for an end to the legal subordination of women is work. In it he recommends that ‘the present bounties and protective duties in favour of men should be recalled to permit the free play of competition’ in professional contexts. But in one profession this free play of competition had already been in effect for two centuries. In the theatre, Mill points out, women had demonstrated their more than equal aptitude to succeed: ‘The only one of the fine arts that women do follow to any extent, as a profession, and an occupation for life is the histrionic; and in that they are confessedly equal, if not superior to men.’
To position theatre as an incubation chamber for gender equity jars with popular narratives of socio-political progress. This paper makes a provocative case for touring actresses—the ‘moving women’ of my title—as providing a crucial prologue to the Women’s Movement. Charlotte Cushman and Fanny Kemble traversed the Atlantic in one of few public professions open to women in the early 19th century. They were moving women in a second sense in that they captured the imagination of an international public. I reflect upon how, both as artists and polemicists, each made a distinctive contribution to destabilising hegemonic notions about the relationship between women, work and public influence.
Dr Kate Flaherty is Senior Lecturer in English and Drama in SLLL. This paper is part of a book project mapping the influence of touring actresses on the movement for women’s suffrage.