Fascinating Edwardian Women for Women’s History Month

Reach back into Edwardian Promenade’s archives for a series of posts on fascinating Edwardian women!

Cornelia Sorabji

Cornelia Sorabji

Though Indian (Parsi) and a woman, Cornelia Sorabji accomplished the unimaginable in becoming the first woman to practice law in India and Britain. Sorabji was born into a large family of nine children, her father, Reverend Sorabji Karsedji, a Parsi Christian, and her mother, Francina Ford, an Indian who had been adopted and raised by a British couple. Sorabji’s mother was devoted to the cause of women’s education, and made her mark upon Indian society with the establishment of several girls’ schools in Puna (then known as Poona). It was through her mother’s contacts that opened the door for Sorabji to become the first woman to take the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford University in 1892.

Lutie Lytle

Lutie Lytle

Though Lutie A. Lytle (1871/5-1950) was not the first black woman lawyer in America (the second, in fact), she was the first black woman to practice law in the South, when in 1897, she passed the bar in Tennessee. She then moved to Topeka, Kansas, where she then became the first black woman lawyer in that state. Her path to becoming a lawyer was extraordinary and interesting in and of itself. The child of “Exodusters” (a term applied to black Americans who migrated to Kansas after the end of Reconstruction), Lutie’s interest in politics and the law were fostered by her father John R. Lytle’s involvement in the Populist Party. Though her father’s campaign to become Topeka’s city jailer failed, Lutie entered into Populist politics and was appointed an assistant enrolling clerk for the Kansas legislature.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

America is the land of dreams and opportunity, and Florence Foster Jenkins was wealthy enough to take advantage of this. Born to wealthy Pennsylvanians, Florence expressed an interest in music at an early age. She took piano lessons during her childhood and adolescence, but when at adulthood, she hoped to study abroad, her father refused to foot the bill. In retaliation, the headstrong Florence eloped with a physician named Frank Thornton Jenkins, no doubt hoping this would give her some measure on independence. Unfortunately, Florence’s hasty marriage ended in a bitter divorce, but when her father died in 1909, she inherited his entire fortune. At forty-one, Florence had the independence and the means to fulfill her dreams of becoming a professional opera singer.

(apparently, her life is going to be made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant!)

Guilhermina Suggia

“I can say with no doubt that there hasn’t been a cellist with the merit like that of the artist I’ve been teaching. She has nothing to fear with comparisons to her male colleagues. Mademoiselle Suggia, with high musical intelligence and a complete knowledge of the technique, has the right to be considered, in the world of the Arts, a celebrity.” Julius Klengel (1902)

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan represented the flower of the New Woman–gently-bred, but very well educated–and further established herself as one of the many heroines of WWI. Before the war, Gwynne-Vaughan made her mark as a botanist and mycologist, earning her Doctor of Science in 1907 at the age of twenty-eight. She was soon given her own research school of fungal cytology at Birkbeck College in London, and in 1909, she was named head of the botany department.

Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché

In 1894 she accepted a position as secretary with Léon Gaumont at a still-photography company. This business soon went under, but Gaumont, bought the inventory and established one of France’s first motion-picture companies. Alice followed Gaumont to his newly-formed L. Gaumont et Cie and rather than remain a mere secretary, she became his head of production, directing, producing, writing and/or overseeing the company’s films and reelers between the years 1896 and 1906.

GUEST POST: Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905

Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905

Margaret Leask is a freelance researcher and theater historian as well as a former arts administrator in Australia and England. As an oral historian, she has recorded and archived interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and the Sydney Theater Company.


For Ellen Terry, actress-manager Lena Ashwell (1869-1957) was ‘a passionate voice’. From her first appearance on stage in 1891 to the end of her life, Ashwell was determined to make the theatre accessible and relevant to everyone, prompting G.B. Shaw to describe her as possessing an ‘awakeningly truthful mind as well as an engaging personality.’

An inspiring and strong woman in a rapidly changing world, she was crucial both for the advancement of women in the English theatre and for the formation of the National Theatre. She made her name in H.A. Jones’ Mrs Dane’s Defence in 1900 and presented ‘new drama’, including Cecily Hamilton’s Diana of Dobsons (1908) and J.B. Fagan’s The Earth (1909) at the Kingsway and Savoy Theatres, as well as being active in the Actresses’ Franchise League and a committed founding member of the British Drama League. When war was declared on 4 August 1914, with amazing rapidity, Ashwell, Decima and Eva Moore and Eve Haverfield formed what Ashwell later described as a ‘really wonderful and most comic organization’, the Women’s Emergency Corps.

Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons

Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons

A temporary office was set up in Robert Street, Adelphi; letters were sent to the press and a public meeting convened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 7 August. The Corps’ first task was to create a register, for use by any authority requiring such services, of all women, with their particular skills, who could help the war effort. The list included cooks, interpreters, crêche and mother carers, stores’ distributors, clothing collectors and distributors, carers of horses and riders, motor drivers and ‘all women trained in any capacity’. Immediately, many hundreds of women offered their services and women’s suffrage took a back seat while Britons adjusted to a changed world.

On 4 September the WEC had 10,000 women registered and government departments, railway companies, and business houses had been informed of competent unemployed women available for work previously done by men. Ashwell also established the Three Arts Club Emergency Relief Fund, recognising female arts workers would be particularly hard hit by the war’s impact on employment. August was traditionally a time when many London theatres were closed for summer and suggestions were made to halve admission prices and actors’ salaries; already many were on the breadline. In co-operation with organisations including the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Ashwell hoped to help those in urgent need to obtain paid employment; to give training for such employment and maintenance when required; and to obtain and administer grants from existing funds for the relief of such cases.

Lena Ashwell was one of the first to suggest artists be gainfully employed to boost troop morale by providing entertainment. After initial, official, resistance to the idea, she was thrilled that, ‘on one never-to-be-forgotten day, when I had quite lost hope of the drama and music of the country being regarded as anything but useless, Lady Rodney called on behalf of the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the Y.M.C.A. She had returned from France, and came from Her Highness Princess Helena Victoria, Committee Chairman, to ask if it was possible for a concert party to go to Havre.’

Ashwell had close connections with the royal family (she was married to Dr Henry Simson, the royal gynecologist who delivered the future Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret), and no doubt she told the princess of her despair and desire to help troops and artists. A request from Her Highness was less easy for officials to ignore. Ashwell obtained support from a friend to cover expenses for the first concert party while Helena Victoria and her committee made arrangements with the War Office: ‘owing to the very suffering state of men at Base Camps who had passed through a very difficult period of fighting, and were to be at the Base for rest and further training, this experiment of sending recreation should be made.’

Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party

Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party

For the duration of the war, Ashwell auditioned artists and prepared thousands of concerts and performances in YMCA camps and hospitals and on ships at the Front and in firing line zones. Between 1915 and 1919 over 600 artists, in parties of up to six singers, instrumentalists and entertainers gave three concerts a day all over France, in Belgium, Malta, Egypt and Palestine. Over £100,000 was raised through donations, concerts in England and colourful events to pay for this project and there were few soldiers who missed experiencing the comfort from home represented by these programmes. When peace was declared, her Lena Ashwell Players set about taking regular theatre performances into local communities throughout London and beyond. Long before educational drama and public subsidy for the arts were realities, she engaged local authorities in the provision of facilities and support for her work.

The above is just a brief sample of Lena Ashwell’s extraordinary life and commitment to a better world, through participation in the arts, as an actress, manager and advocate. Although she wrote four books about her work (including Modern Troubadours about her wartime experience and an autobiography, Myself a Player), her achievements have been largely unsung. However, with the publication of Margaret Leask’s biography, Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer, by the University of Hertfordshire Press and the Society for Theatre Research in 2012, there is now the opportunity to appreciate Lena Ashwell in the historical and cultural contexts in which she worked and which she helped to transform.

Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

The book was short-listed for the 2013 Theatre Book Prize in London. One of the judges, Penelope Keith, called it “a real page turner”! The Times Literary Supplement review, 28 June 2013, concludes: “This biography is certainly a counterpoint to simplistic narratives of English theatre in the twentieth century; when asking how, and why, we have ended up with a multifaceted theatre industry, Lena Ashwell’s career is surely part of the answer.”

Purchase Dr. Leask’s biography of Lena Ashwell from: Indiebound | B & N | Powell’s | Amazon | Amazon UK | Scribd

Guest Post: Suffragette Style by Lucy Adlington

“You can always tell Suffragists by the way they are dressed,” pontificated an anonymous gentleman in 1913. “There’s that Mrs Chew, for instance – her hat’s never on straight!”

Stalwart suffrage campaigner Ada Nield Chew felt she had far more important concerns than a tidy appearance. Years later Ada’s daughter Doris commented, “How much easier it would have been today when she would not have needed to wear a hat!”

The truth is, hats, gloves, hemlines and handbags were all vital indicators of social status in the Edwardian era. Correct dress represented respectability. Women who stepped out of an acceptable female role were almost automatically branded unladylike, and satirised as unattractive.

Suffragette satire

If we view style of one hundred years ago, we find the fashions of 1914 quite alarming in their weight and constraints. The silhouette is long and sheath-like, moulded around form-fitting steel-structured stays and all-encompassing underwear. By contrast, the ideal of feminine beauty is dainty, delicate and generally pastel-shaded – hardly an icon of education, capability, or political power.

The 1914 female ideal

Some commentators did acknowledge the constraints of contemporary female fashion. “A man knows that if for a year he were to submit himself to the restraints which a woman puts upon herself, he would mentally, morally, and physically degenerate,” wrote a journalist in April 1914.

One Edwardian woman who certainly didn’t let fashion hobble her was martial arts expert Edith Garrud. Her ju-jitsu skills made a mockery of would-be muggers and over-assertive policemen alike. She kept wooden clubs in her hand-warming muff. If she sweetly dropped her handkerchief in the street it was as a prelude to a devastating bit of self-defence.

Edith Garrud in action

Undaunted by the contrast between the demands of appearance and the demand for political representation, both militant and non-violent suffragists learned to use their clothes as part of a series of battle tactics. For example, women who were dressed impeccably could pass without suspicion into public spaces or political meetings. Once in place they could whip chalk from their purses to scrawl slogans on pavements; they could pull chains from their handbags to secure themselves to railings, in order to have their say while someone searched for bolt-cutters. ‘Slasher’ Mary Richardson even concealed a small axe in her blouse sleeve, ready to attack Velasquez’s painting, the Rokeby Venus, at the National Gallery.

1914 suffragette damage to rokeby venus

More generally, the tactic of adopting all-white ensembles in mass public rallies was hugely dramatic and it gave women a tremendous sense of solidarity. The militant Women’s Social Political Union went one step further and promoted specific WSPU colours. White was for purity, purple represented loyalty to the King, and green was for hope.

Militant suffragettes used clothes creatively to disguise themselves. Emily Wilding Davison made a fetching telegram ‘boy’ attempting to gain access to Parliament. Lady Constance Lytton took on the disguise of a working-class seamstress in order to highlight the prejudiced treatment of lower-class women in prison. On one glorious occasion, several WSPU suffragettes disguised themselves as their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, in order to foil an attempt to arrest her.

Once women behaved in unladylike ways, chivalry from men was forgotten. The gloves came off on both sides. There were many reports of violence against suffragettes, from the minor outrage of torn clothes–or clothes stained with rotten eggs–to serious cases of sexual assault during suffrage rallies. Edith Garrud was employed to lead a team of bodyguards to protect WSPU speakers.

If arrested, female protesters were subjected to the further humiliation of having their respectable carapace of clothes quite literally stripped away and replaced with deliberately de-feminising prison garb.

By 1914 the green ‘hope’ of the WSPU banner was very much mingled with bitterness. Cat and mouse games between police and protesters, parliament and petitioners had reached an angry impasse. Militant terrorism was becoming increasingly shocking; peaceful petitions were still limited in success. With the declaration of war in August 1914 women found themselves facing different enemies, and poised on the brink of a veritable social and sartorial revolution. Their wardrobes would never be the same again.

To find out more on this subject Great War Fashion: Tales from the History Wardrobe by Lucy Adlington is available online and in bookstores. Pre-Order on Amazon US or Buy from Amazon UK.

Follow Lucy on twitter @historywardrobe or on the History Wardrobe facebook page. Visit www.historywardrobe.com for details of costume-in-context presentations, or www.greatwarfashion.com & www.ljadlington.com.