Shaw’s Corner plays central role in suffrage movement

Portrait of Charlotte Payne-Townshend

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, we turn to Shaw’s Corner, home of renowned Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte, to discover a partnership that quietly championed the suffrage movement.

Personality, playwright and political activist 

George Bernard Shaw was born into a lower-middle class home in Dublin in 1856, but by the early 1900’s had grown to become a successful playwright, and one of the most famous men in the world. 

Witnessing poverty in Ireland inspired him to champion equality for all, fuelled by a belief that inequality of any kind was neither inevitable or acceptable. It is understood that Shaw’s need to spread his ideas widely overcame a natural shyness, and he became well known as a celebrity of his time and a serious thinker committed to questioning the status quo in society. 

Committed to equality

The playwright moved to Shaw’s Corner in 1906 with his wife, Charlotte Payne-Townshend. In Charlotte, Shaw chose a partner who was on all fronts his equal.  A suffragist, philanthropist and translator, Charlotte shared Shaw’s ideals and devoted much of her time to the struggle for women’s rights. The pair were committed socialists and part of the Fabian Society, whose members believed that capitalism created an unequal society.  Charlotte was a key member of the Fabian Women’s Group and lobbied widely for suffrage.

Advert for The Vote newspaper from The Play Pictorial 1912
Advert for The Vote newspaper from The Play Pictorial 1912
Advert for The Vote newspaper from The Play Pictorial 1912

Impacting British social and political life

Thanks to Shaw’s clever use of humour, his audiences allowed him to challenge their views on how society was put together.

In their entertaining packaging, Shaw’s plays acted like a Trojan horse, successfully introducing revolutionary new thinking to the masses and encouraging debate about the big issues of his time, such as poverty, war and women’s rights.  

'A Militant Suffragette' Lillah McCarthy as Margaret Knox in Fannys First Play by Bernard Shaw
Lillah McCarthy in Fannys First Play by Bernard Shaw
'A Militant Suffragette' Lillah McCarthy as Margaret Knox in Fannys First Play by Bernard Shaw

Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893) focuses on Shaw's belief that the act of prostitution was not caused by moral failure but by economic necessity. In Fanny’s First Play (1911) Shaw takes the opportunity to poke fun at the critics, the patriarchy and middle class family life whilst exposing the double-standards at the heart of British society and promoting equal opportunities for women. And Pygmalion (1912), shines a light on the morals of the British class system, and a woman’s place within it. Many of us may be familiar with its more recent adaptation, the well-known American musical My Fair Lady.

Shaw wrote more than 60 plays, and in 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Giving women a voice

As well as campaigning for the right for women to vote, Shaw insisted that they be given the opportunity to take centre stage to represent their own views during the suffrage movement.

" The vote will never be won by speeches made by men on behalf of women. Every time you ask a man to appear on your platform, you confess the insufficiency of women to plead their own cause."
- Bernard Shaw

An inspiration 

Whilst George Bernard Shaw’s plays inspired many people, of particular significance is the influence his works had on The Pankhursts, a name famously associated with the suffragette movement. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the leading militant organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom.

Both Shaw and the WSPU shared the view that the suffrage movement would have to become radical and militant if it was going to be effective. In 1906, Bernard Shaw told an American journalist that suffragettes should “shoot, kill, maim, destroy – until they are given the vote.”

Our greatest entertainer and teacher

On his death in 1950, the Prime Minister summed Shaw up “As critic, dramatist, man of letters, humourist, social revolutionary and prophet, he was our greatest entertainer and teacher.”

Shaw’s Corner is now the final resting place of this inspirational man, and his wife, Charlotte. The ashes of both are scattered in the garden at Shaw’s Corner, outside the playwright’s wooden writing hut.