‘If I can’t dance’, said the great first-wave feminist and anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman, ‘then I won’t join your revolution.’ Real transformation involves activity at all kinds of levels, not least the artistic. Whilst the hard achievements of politics and ideas must be fought for, all the arts have a role to play in questioning, subverting, re-imagining, recasting, and re-symbolising ‘reality’. Street theatre is just one aspect of this vital ‘liturgy of life’…
Many artists were involved in first-wave Christian feminism. Indeed, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage had a particular gathering of talents associated with the Revd. Percy Dearmer ‘the artists’ friend’. These included Laurence Housman, Alice Meynell, Evelyn Sharp, Martin Shaw and Mabel Dearmer. Little wonder then that, among the sections of the suffrage movement, there was an Artists’ Suffrage League as well as an Actresses Franchise League.
Florence de Fonblanque (1864-1949) was hence but one of those who brought their artistic skills to the women’s struggle. An actress for many years, Florence also came from an Italian background. Her father was a friend of Mazzini, an influence which ran through her life and that of other first-wave feminists. Originally a member of the WSPU, she joined the Women’s Freedom League, and then, later, the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage.
Florence’s greatest contribution to the women’s movement was the her conception and organisation of The Women’s March from Edinburgh to London. This was a triumph of conception, organisation and publicity. As her sister, Maud Arncliffe-Sennett, wrote in her autobiography The Child:
she dressed her little army in warm autumnal brown and bright emerald green brazzards and rosettes, and she secured a splendid Press, London as well as the provinces.
Although mainstream suffragists in the NUWSS had been sceptical about it, they quickly seized on to the idea, and, in 1913, they themselves were thereby inspired to organise a Great Women’s Pilgrimage. Starting in Newcastle upon Tyne on 18 June 1913, this journeyed to London, arriving on 26 July. Touching many places and engaging afresh many along the way who had never been involved before, not least working-class women and men, it was a huge advertisement of the breadth and depth of the movement and undoubtedly began to affect the thinking of Prime Minister Asquith and Government leaders. It was tribute to the imagination of those who can ‘think outside the square’…
God of image and drama,
who works through the creativity of human beings,
we give thanks for Florence de Fonblanque
and for all women and men who have used art to enlarge the lives of others.
Support and inspire all artists who enlarge our lives and liberty,
and enable us to share in their re-imaginings.
In the name of Jesus who piped for us to dance, Amen.