FEATURE: Knebworth House premiere will put the spotlight on Lady Connie’s crucial contribution to the suffragette struggle
- Credit: Archant
A century ago, when the battle to win votes for women was still being fought, doughty suffragettes could hardly have contemplated a future in which the victory they were prepared to die to achieve had been overtaken by electoral apathy.
Acentury ago, when the battle to win votes for women was still being fought, doughty suffragettes could hardly have contemplated a future in which the victory they were prepared to die to achieve had been overtaken by electoral apathy.
The idea that, once they were empowered with the same democratic rights as men, women would have to be cajoled into having their say at the ballot box by political big hitters aboard a pink minibus would doubtless have appalled them.
But at least campaigners like Lady Constance Lytton, whose vital contribution to the struggle is spotlighted in a new play, would have been consoled that the people doing the urging in a pre-election push last month were also women, and women who had been elected to parliament and held positions of power in the government.
Lady Connie & The Suffragettes is a one-woman play commissioned by the Stevenage Arts Guild which will be premiered at the landmark which was once her home with two performances on Sunday – International Women’s Day.
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Playwright Ros Connelly, whose previous work includes a drama telling the story of Emily Wilding Davidson, the suffragette who died under the hooves of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, said: “I really enjoy discovering and researching the women who have played a part in our history, whether in political, literary or theatrical life.
“They so often become marginalised or trivialised and I think it’s great to bring them back out of the shadows.
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“They can tell us so much about what women have done and can do, often against great odds.”
She has also written about the great actress Ellen Terry, whose Stevenage connections are also well known.
“I have been teaching in Stevenage for the Stevenage and Knebworth Arts Group for many years and the wonderfully interesting and engaging people who come to my courses have made Stevenage very special to me,” she said.
“Being able to write about people who have a connection to Stevenage is particularly appealing, and I hope Ellen Terry and Constance Lytton will not be the last.”
Digging into the past for her latest project has seen her liaising with historian Ros Adams, who lives in Knebworth, and archivist Clare Fleck who was able to provide access to Lytton family photographs, Constance’s unpublished letters and her diary.
“These all really helped to shape the play in ways I hadn’t foreseen, and as a result I have included more of her life before she became a suffragette.”
Ros also visited Knebworth with actress Emma Spearing, who will be playing the role on Sunday, and director Jenny Culank.
“Henry and Martha Lytton Cobbold kindly gave us a guided tour and told us more about the family’s views on Con – as she was known by the family – and we got a real feel of the place where she spent several years of her life when young.”
And she’s clear that Lady Connie was dedicated to the controversial cause: “She is a key figure in the suffragette movement, not just in Stevenage, particularly for the way she highlighted, through her own bravery, the different treatment of suffragettes by the authorities according to class and influence.
“She knowingly put herself at risk of physical harm for her beliefs and in order to highlight the appalling treatment of women whose social obscurity meant that, behind prison walls, they were not being heard.
“She paid a very heavy personal price for that and is justly celebrated for her contribution and her bravery.”
So where does Ros stand on that pink bus pulling into Stevenage town centre?
She said: “I think that the suffragette cause was about wanting parliament to be properly representative of all people, not just one gender or one class, and they knew that women needed the vote to help that happen.
“However, perhaps the disinclination of many women, and men, to vote now is a sign that the battle for proper and meaningful representation in parliament is not yet won.
“If women in particular don’t think that there is anyone who genuinely represents their views, they may not see the point of voting.
“Labour’s pink bus may be drawing attention to that, but I think the suffragettes would have come up with something rather more imaginative and they would have wanted more fundamental change.”
Demand for tickets for both performances has been high, but it might still be possible to secure a place to see the play.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01438 350217 to check on availability.