Sexual Matter and 'Votes for Women.'

By Thomas, Sue | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Sexual Matter and 'Votes for Women.'


Thomas, Sue, Papers on Language & Literature


In Bodies That Matter Judith Butler demonstrates that materiality is a "site at which a certain drama of sexual difference plays itself out" and suggests that "to invoke matter is to invoke a sedimented history of sexual hierarchy and sexual erasures which should surely be an object of feminist inquiry" (49). The object of my inquiry is an early moment in militant suffragette history, an originary moment in suffragette literary history. That moment comprises the British performance and reception of Elizabeth Robins's play Votes for Women! a Dramatic Tract, which opened for a season of eight matinee performances at the avant-garde Court Theatre on 9 April 1907. It was published as Votes for Women: A Play in Three Acts by the Dramatic Publishing Co. in the U.S. in 1907, in the U. K. (by Mills and Boon in an earlier phase of its operations) in 1909; Robins revised and expanded it as a novel The Convert, published in late 1907.(1) In 1996 the script Robins submitted to the Court Theatre, edited by Joanne E. Gates, was published. The play marked a new kind of insurgency effort for the Women's Social and Political Union,(2) although Robins divided part of the proceeds of the play equally between the W. S. P. U. and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Robins worked in Votes for Women to represent "sexual matter" as object and ground of militant political and aesthetic praxis and theory within available generic registers and political discourses. Robins makes the sexual matter -- seduction, abortion, infanticide and shelter for homeless women -- culturally and politically intelligible through melodrama and romance. In the play's reception her use of sexual matter was evaluated and contested. My title alludes to Arnold Bennett's review of Votes for Women! He complained of women's incapacity to appreciate "principles in the abstract" and of his bemusement at the inextricable mixing of "the sexual matter with the political side of Miss Robins's tract" (12). The binary hierarchy abstract reasoning/sexual matter invoked by Bennett circulates in a wide range of reviews of the play, also being mapped across other gendered hierarchies: masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, and realism/melodrama.

Robins figures her perception of British women's actual and ideal relationship to the State through connections among various kinds of houses, including the Houses of British Parliament; these connections are metonymic, in highly generalized terms, of the institutional ties and social hierarchies they materialize. This figuring allows her to comment sharply on the ideology that a woman's proper place is in the home, exercising, she remarked in her 1907 pamphlet "Woman's Secret," "patience at the cradle and the hearth" (Way Stations 2). The pamphlet was originally intended as a preface to The Convert (Gates, Robins 167). The ostensibly open-air suffragette rally in Act II of Votes for Women, and the historical allusion in the play to the unfurling of the banner "Votes for Women" in the House of Commons on 25 April 1906 imply that the interests of women outlined in the speeches are not housed in British constitutional political processes inside Parliament. One of her key implicit political propositions is that the interests of homeless, destitute and working-class women are not represented in the current State, and that those interests cannot be trusted to the chivalry of the propertied man.

That women's material interests were not represented in the State which denied them a vote was a stock suffragist and suffragette argument; the argument contested anti-suffrage propositions about the civic value of chivalry. In 1907 the qualifications for voting at the national level were ownership of property and maleness. It was urged that the interests of all women and working-class men who did not meet the property qualification could be adequately represented by the votes of propertied men, whose interests were the same. …

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