This Saturday is Women’s Equality Day, and we wanted to celebrate by telling the stories of a few women you may not have heard about. These women were actresses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and were popular subjects for postcards in their day. But there’s so much more to their lives than that.
Eva Moore was born in England in February of 1868, and acted on stage until 1945 (her daughter was Laurence Olivier’s first wife.) But apart from her successful theater career, Eva was a strong believer in women’s suffrage. She performed in films and plays that advanced the cause of voting rights for women, and was active in meetings, marches, and other demonstrations. She was one of the founders of the Actresses’ Franchise League, but was forced to resign when she took a role in a sketch that implied women preferred romance to voting rights, something which greatly offended her fellow suffragettes.
It is possible that she actually prevented the assassination of Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith. In September of 1909, a “Mrs. Moore” approached Scotland Yard with a letter that indicated two suffragettes had begun target practice with pistols, for an attempt on Asquith’s life. The inspector in charge of the case said, “Mrs Moore says she has been making efforts to restrain these women for some time past and has used her power to have them removed from the carriage entrance to the House of Commons, fearing that something would happen to Mr Asquith. But now she finds they are getting out of hand, and therefore she thought it best to inform the authorities.” While it may have been a different Mrs. Moore, Eva Moore was known to be good friends with Asquith’s sister-in-law, and certainly would have been in a position to know which suffragettes might have been planning violence.
During World War I, Eva raised money for charities, including hospitals, and received the Ordre de la Reine Elisabeth. She died in 1955.
Though she was legendary on stage, her legacy is the work she did to ensure fair pay for actors and actresses. In 1934, she was involved in the founding of actors’ union Equity. Marie hosted a dinner at the famous Savoy hotel for 85 of the top entertainers of her day. The dinner was more than a simple party, however, as Marie allowed none of the guests to leave until they had signed their assent to a statement: “We the undersigned, hereby pledge ourselves that we will not enter into any engagements with theatre managers on conditions which would deny our right to refuse to work with non-members of Equity.”
For her golden jubilee in May 1935, a benefit performance was held at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. King George V and Queen Mary attended, as did J. M. Barrie, Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham, amongst others. $5000 from the event was donated to the Royal Hospital to be used for medical bills of entertainers and performers. Noel Coward later wrote of Tempest, “she wastes no time on personal inhibitions or inferiority complexes. In fact, she takes off her coat and gets down to the job of the moment with less shi-shi than any actress I have ever met…. Despite the fact that for fifty years she has performed a multitude of plays to multitudes of people, she has always contrived to remain the mistress of her tradition rather than allow any tradition to become the mistress of her.” Tempest was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1937; in 1941, her house was destroyed in the Blitz. She said, “Hitler has taken nearly everything from me but my life, but you can’t live on regret.” She died in 1942.
Lena Ashwell came from a military family; she was born on the ship Wellesley while it was anchored in the River Tyne. After realizing that her singing voice was not good enough to make her a professional singer, she took up acting. Successful on the stage, she began to take the reigns behind the scenes, managing first the Savoy Theatre, then her own theatre, the Kingsway, in 1907.
She was a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage. When asked by a fellow suffragette to “pledge your militant sisters to call a truce and to abstain from any act of violence or hostile demonstration,” Ashwell replied, “I hold a strong belief active efforts on the part of every non militant Suffragist to obtain suffrage rights for women will eventually force those prejudiced or obtusely indifferent to realise the vital necessity for reform. Only the courageous can put an end to militancy by publicly asserting their belief in women’s suffrage, and taking active steps to redress the evils of which militancy is the hideous result.”
When World War I broke out, Lena was determined that the soldiers fighting on the front lines should not be deprived of the high culture available to those at home. The War Office, however, did not agree. Soldiers were expected to make their own entertainment with writing and reading letters, playing cards, and occasionally playing football, when time and fighting allowed.
Reality backed up Lena’s views. Boredom was a massive problem in camps, and soldiers began to organize crude, bawdy shows for entertainment. Ashwell kept pushing: she insisted that every camp have its own theatre, and benefit from professional entertainers. She organized the first tour in 1915; Ashwell and her fellow performers often had to wade through mud, use suitcases as a stage, and sleep in barns. However, Lena was proved more than correct: the soldiers were eager for any kind of professional performance, and showed a particular love for Shakespeare.
Lena wrote, describing a scene in which Novello sang “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” which he had just written: “When he sang it, the men seemed to drink it in at once and instantly sang the chorus, and as we drove away at the end of the concert, in the dark and the rain and the mud, from all parts of the camp one could hear the refrain.” The performers used whatever furniture and props were at hand to stage comedies, romances, and dramas. One Shakespearean performance took place in a horse hospital. It was common for injured soldiers to be wheeled out of hospitals, even in bad weather, to enjoy the performances. After every show, the performers visited the wounded, often stopping to sing for a single soldier.
As word spread about Lena Ashwell’s shows, demand for shows on the front lines increased. She organized parties to perform for men on the front lines; shows were interrupted by artillery and anti-aircraft fire. Lena wrote, “I found myself in a tent which seemed in the darkness to be far away from everything and everybody. I stood on a table and recited all the poems that I knew, but wished with all my heart that I had learnt many more, as the audience grew and grew, and they sat silently around like hungry children. It was a quaint, gentle, peaceful evening, and curious that on that night I should have been nearer the firing line than at any other moment.”
For four years, over 600 performers (over half of them women) staged shows in France, Egypt, and Malta. Tens of thousands came to the performances; impromptu shows broke out on ships, train stations, and other unusual locations. By 1917, many of the touring groups were composed entirely of women, something the authorities worried about but the soldiers enjoyed greatly. It had been the first major effort to entertain troops on the battlefield, a tradition that continues to this day.
According to the Telegraph, “When she was asked to compile a record of their experiences, Ashwell called on the letters and diaries of her artists – nearly all of which seemed to concentrate mightily on food and transport. It did not surprise her, for she herself had found that the war was so terrible that it was impossible to express anything about what they had seen. But she believed that they had performed a service on a par with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance. Her own recollections were always the tears and the cheering which accompanied thunderous applause in the battle zones.”
Lena Ashwell was awarded the Order of the British Empire, and died in 1957 at the age of 84.
The battle for women’s equality has been long and hard-fought, and it’s not finished yet. But it’s important to remember the stories of women like these,who fought for what they could, where they could.
Postcards of each of the women mentioned here are currently available in the Stamp & Coin Place store.