On 26th October, I saw the one-woman show Alice In Her Shoes. Writer and performer Elaine Pantling portrayed Leicester’s suffragette Alice Hawkins. Pantling was accompanied by a 40-person strong choir, made up of three different choirs: Fosse Singers, Red Leicester Choir and DMU Square Mile Choir.
Prior to the show starting the stage was bathed in the suffragette’s iconic purple, they used the colour purple to illustrate their loyalty and dignity in their suffrage. There was a large commissioned banner used a backdrop, it depicted Alice’s life. It was created by artists Sarah Kirby and Soraya Smithson. To the left and right of the stage three banners stood proudly, the donned some of the suffragette’s slogans, such as ‘Give Me My Voice’ and ‘Women Have A Right And We Will Fight’.
At the start of the performance, Elaine drip fed the audience the segments of Alice’s life in the first person. She was born in Stafford and moved to Leicester when she was 13. Her father used to tell her talk would get her into trouble, and Alice would reply ‘If I don’t, I feel as though I shall burst.’ She met her husband, Alfred, after a socialist meeting, he called to her ‘I’ll walk you home, Alice Riley’, she told him she can walk home fine by herself, and they have ‘been walking together ever since’.
Alice attended her first meeting as she heard that the Votes for Women campaign would be mentioned in the King’s speech, but it wasn’t as Prime Minister H. H. Asquith had not put it forward to be mentioned. This was the start of Alice’s life as a suffragette, as she didn’t want to be ‘something stuck to an MP’s shoe, to be discarded’.
Elaine emphasised Alice’s first arrest with forceful hand gestures to show her being handcuffed, throwing her hands behind her back as ‘Alice’ shouted ‘Freedom is our right!’
After being released from prison, suffragettes were given a cooked breakfast and hot tea, this is when Alice met Emmeline Pankhurst. To signify the impact the meeting this had on Alice, Elaine impersonated Emmeline. At this point, Elaine asked the audience – as if we were the audience suffragettes at the meetings – if we would accept Alice into the Women’s Social and Political Union, the audience gave a resounding ‘We do!’
Emmeline and Alice stayed close for the remainder of their time together as suffragettes. Pankhurst sent a telegram offering her condolences when Alice’s son died. Pankhurst often sent her a chauffeur driven car to take her to their meetings.
When Alice was told she that the suffragettes were costing the union money, she co-founded the Women’s Independent Boot and Shoe Trade.
At a rally in Hyde Park, Alice gave a speech, saying ‘I have a voice and I will use it!’ which much of the performance hinges itself on, and is all-embracing in the choir’s songs when they join the sections of Alice’s life together.
She was a part of operation letterbox, where she poured ink into letterboxes, but she was caught and imprisoned again. Whilst in prison she gave up eating, she became so ill that she was sent home and told to return and finish her sentence when she was well enough. Her husband wrote her a letter to tell her that he’d been to a protest to show his disapproval of Churchill. At the protest, he had been pushed down some stairs and had broken both of his legs.
The WSPU’s interrupted a golf course as it was the favoured game of H. H. Asquith. They tore up the golf course and marked the WSPU letters. For this, the suffragettes were called ‘irritational’.
Then the war came, and the suffragettes were asked to help, Alice delivered food parcels to those in need, those who had lost their husbands and sons.
When the vote was given, Alice told her daughter and her daughter, Violet, and Violet said they haven’t won, they’ve lost as the vote is for people over 30. Alice said it’s not the end, it’s the beginning.
The performance ended with a roar of applause, then ‘Alice’ said, ‘I have a voice, will you use yours?’ The audience replied with a loud ‘Yes!’ The audience was asked to sing ‘Rise Up Women’ by Elaine and composer Janet Wood.
Pantling is inspiring as Alice as she continues to say, ‘I have a voice!’ and often adding ‘and I will use it!’ which made you feel a part of the experience prior to being asked to sing. When she took to her wooden boxes and stood tall ringing her bell, you knew that you too were a part of the suffragette movement even if you have never entered that world before tonight.