Actors and Theater: Bringing Performance to the Political Scene in Portland in 1912
Workers for woman suffrage in Oregon fought from 1870 to 1912 to achieve the vote and used many different tactics to do so. One of these tactics was, as Margaret Finnegan suggests, the use of consumer culture. The second generation of suffragists used mass culture in 1900-1912 and this helped in the final push for woman suffrage in Oregon as noted by Kimberly Jensen. Theatrical productions, among other approaches, helped appeal to a new audience of consumers, both men and women. These women also agreed that consumer culture helped women work toward their ultimate goal of influencing public opinion on woman suffrage. While methods used by earlier suffragists were meant to attain the same goal, the new methods of consumer culture gave another dimension to the political sphere and ideology. Mass media was used as an instrument in distinguishing themselves in the world and what their needs were.
Glenna Smith Tinnin was a drama instructor, interpreter of dramatic and lyric poetry, and playwright among other things. She believed that theater was the best way to promote woman suffrage due to their visual and emotional nature. With this nature came the great ability of “stirring sentiments” and “making appeals”. The audience would be able to place themselves into the idea of woman suffrage or the story of the play. With the ability to get the viewer involved in the subject, it appealed to the need for interesting, deep characters. This “culture of personality” appeared in other places as well as theater. Woman suffrage was found in movies, public speaking, and many others as homage to the fact that personal identity and political participation was an inseparable line.
With political activism becoming a part of the self, many actresses used their talents in the movement, bringing with them a new sense of culture. The long-fought cause was rejuvenated with their presence implying that woman suffrage was new and enticing because those were the very traits that they embodied. With famous names attached to a cause, almost by default came the fans of said star, just like today. While many women could not attain a level of stardom, they could stand in solidarity with a beloved actress by supporting woman suffrage.
Suffragists used the support of prominent actors as a useful tool to gain public support for the cause. One of the first suffrage gatherings in Portland was at the home of Mrs. Solomon Hirsch on January 11th, 1912 as noted in the article “Actor Urges Suffrage.” As described by Sarah Evans, this “tea” was held for two-hundred people, most being anti-suffragists. The article states that this English actor, J. Forbes-Robertson, “gave an address at the home of Mrs. Solomon Hirsch.” At this particular address “an audience of representative men and women of Portland listened to Mr. Robertson’s eloquent appeal” and through his efforts was able to gain the support of 42 people. It is important to note that he held a few ideas that many suffragists used to reason their way into equal rights. He was brought up in feminist household by a suffragist mother, which aided to the development of these beliefs. Those beliefs being that the world was no longer based on physical strength, but mental fortitude and since women were at least as smart as men and since women had many good mental qualities to contribute to the world, there was no reason to deny them the right to vote. However, even with his active advocate position, he felt that women should keep control of their cause. “You cannot trust even the best of men to guide your movement” is what he told the Irish Woman’s Franchise League. Forbes-Robertson must have used appeals like these when confronting the social elite that attended this meeting. “He ended his talk by saying that if by his efforts he had succeeded in converting one man or woman to the cause, he would be satisfied.” His riveting speech was effective to even the large group of anti-suffragists that sat before him for as the article “Actor Urges Suffrage” states, “Following his address 42 persons pledged their personal support.” The importance of Forbes-Robertson’s fame is evident here. The importance of stardom was paramount as introduced by Finnegan. Individuals with any amount of fame could attach their name to a cause and thus were likely to attract their fans as stated above. One may not be able to be famous, but one would be associated with a star.
As Maroula Joannou and June Purvis state, this may be part of the reason that Robertson never actually took a role in the suffrage plays that he seemed to support. His autobiography gives no hint of a reason to why he never used his talents for a cause for which he had done readings and had given speeches. Even without the use of his acting ability, he did spread word and support for the cause. This eventually came to America, where he was truly the most convincing.
The use of actresses appeared again in the article “Suffrage Sandwiches Go Like Hotcakes” when Miss Keenan, a local actress, rode in a lunch wagon with the Portland Woman’s Club, “selling sandwiches, doughnuts, ice cream cones and other quick lunch edibles.” The article assured that this method was effective for making money. Selling cheese and ham sandwiches “to the hungry street crowds at a cost that would make even a department store ashamed of itself” was part of the effectiveness of “the scheme” as well as Pike Davis’s “spiel” from the Men’s Equal Suffrage League that “attracted crowds and made them buy whether they were hungry or not.”
Suffragists in Oregon and elsewhere performed the play How the Vote Was Won by British authors Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St John. According to Dale Spender and Carole Hayman this play began as a pamphlet written only by Cicely Hamilton, illustrated by C. Hedley-Charlton, and published by the Women Writers’ Suffrage League in England in 1908. Hamilton was a member of the League and her colleagues believed that the pamphlet had great potential in the venue of a theater. Hamilton worked with another playwright, Christabel Marshall, who used the pen name Christopher St John, to produce a full-length stage version of the story.
How the Vote Was Won is a one-act play centering on a few key characters. The action is quick yet effective. The play is set in England and starts in the home of Horace Cole, a clerk who survives on £3.10 per week (about $119 today). He is an avid anti-suffragist and his wife, Ethel, has no interest in the suffrage movement. The opening dialogue between Ethel and her suffragist sister Winifred introduces the main theme. Anti-suffragists contended that women did not need the vote because they were all supported by men. So Winifred and other activists decided to leave their jobs and their single residences to go live with their closest male relative. The play continues with Winifred leaving along with the hired help of the Cole household. Even the working class women who had no families left go to work houses. The rest of the play is filled with the arrival of many of Horace’s female relatives. Participants include Horace’s sister Agatha, a self-supporting governess; Madame Christine who owns a dress shop; Maudie, a first cousin who is an actress; and other equally interesting women. These colorful characters fill his home and demand a place to stay even though they are fully able to live alone. Horace’s Aunt Lizzie is the one to finally change his mind. The idea that such an elegant woman as his aunt would leave her life for the cause of suffrage leads Horace to a new realization. Independent women, such as the ones invading his home, are citizens and should be treated as such. He soon marches off proudly with another male neighbor to demand the vote for women. The ending is then accented with a small nod to the need for men’s participation by Ethel throwing her arms around her husband and announcing “My hero!”
In Portland the College Equal Suffrage League put on the play How the Vote was Won. It opened in Portland on October 25, 1912 but was staged in Oregon City and other locations beforehand as mentioned in “Suffrage Play Ready; ‘How the Vote was Won’ Will Be Staged Friday.” There were to be ten performers for the roles mentioned above and the article indicates that the play “had been presented in Ohio and other states”. The article mentioned that there was a woman, Mrs. Emma Watson Gillespie, in charge of the dramatic side of the League. The existence of that position shows how important all means of communication was to the new side of the fight. This article also mentions an anonymous donation from “A Suffragist” that helped them cover advertising to outlying counties “by means of notices in the papers”.
Over a week later, the article “Free Play is Announced” was released on October 25, 1912 to announce the Portland opening of How the Vote was Won, its 8 o’clock starting time, its cast, and the other parts of the program. There was to be a musical act as well as a few readings that supposedly were “all of a humorous nature, with the exception of an address by Mrs. Sara Bard Field Ehrgott, will be given in addition.”
Two days later, October 27, 1912, the Oregonian published “Suffrage Play Pleases.” The article emphasized the positive reaction of the public to the performance of How the Vote Was Won. Suffragists held the event at the Bungalow Theater. Helen Miller Senn read a comedic piece called “Anti-Suffrage Woman” as well as some of her own work. The article summarized the play and explained that the women were told they “were unsexing themselves when they wanted to earn their own living rather than be dependent upon their nearest male relation, who, by law, was bound to support them if possible.” The play helped relate the idea that when women refused to work “mere man was the first to see the justice of the demand to have a say in the business to which they belonged.”
Consumer culture and mass media aided in the creation of a second generation of suffragists. It sustained the creation of suffrage identities and needs as well as sent a message in an effective manner. Theater and actors were used as a cultural key, as actors provided a name with which to identify. Throughout 1900-1912, these methods were an essential part of gaining woman suffrage. Younger suffragists of the College Equal Suffrage League used plays produced across the nation as a way to attract attention to their cause and they were successful in this as history notes in 1912 when sex was finally removed as a prerequisite to vote.
Evans, Sarah. “Oregon.” History of Woman Suffrage Vol. 6 ed. Ida Husted Harper. (New York: Arno Press Reprint, 1969): 538-549.
Finnegan, Margaret. Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture & Votes for Women. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Jensen, Kimberly, “Woman Suffrage in Oregon,” Oregon Encyclopedia, http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/woman_suffrage_in_oregon/
Joannou, Maroula, and June Purvis, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives. New York: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Spender, Dale, and Carole Hayman, How the Vote Was Won and Other Suffrage Plays. London: Methuen, 1985.
About The Author
Kayla Cheri Ward participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2011 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Kayla is a Psychology major with interests in photography and activism work in the LGBTQ community.