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'First of the Feathers' : Soldiers and Suffragettes

By Leah Hockley, author of 'First of the Feathers' and English and Creative Writing Student at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Check out this post from Leah, author of the immersive play 'First of the Feathers', that will be performed as part of the festival. Read about her views on suffragettes and their role in the First World War, as she challenges our perceptions of history, and encourages us to question radical political action. 

The Great War was a monumental event that changed our world forever, and the vastness of those four years means that a lot has slipped between the cracks. 'First of the Feathers' dramatises some of the many roles women played in the Great War, including handing out white feathers to non combatants assumed to be ‘cowards’ or ‘shirkers’. Through the character of a young Suffragette, the performance will discuss the possible motivation behind women’s political actions, the impact that the White Feather Movement had on men who avoided conscription, and the various experiences women went through in the campaign for the right to vote. In an effort to recreate an authentic and immersive experience, students from local schools which had sent young men off to war all those years ago will be debating with our Suffragette about why they chose not to go and fight for their country, allowing them the opportunity to provide explanations that the men never had the chance to voice themselves.

But why are we doing this? The play is important for many reasons but, primarily, 'First of the Feathers' raises problematic questions that we tend to avoid when we remember our history.

Are the Suffragettes the righteous fighters we make them out to be? Or are they also flawed people fighting for something right, sometimes in the wrong ways?

The Suffragettes are among the most famous icons of feminism, and their heroic struggles for women’s suffrage have been honoured throughout 1918, as we commemorate a hundred years since (some) women were awarded the vote. But all of their mistakes, their risky decisions, and their, as some may argue, occasional and unnecessary cruelty, seems to have been somewhat forgotten by history. Our difficulty in perception and remembrance, is that we may forget that just because they are heroines doesn’t mean they didn’t do things wrong. And just because some men were against female progression doesn’t mean that all men should be punished or humiliated for it. This is what makes the presence of the students so significant, as the audience will be able to see what kind of effect the Movement had on both participants and victims of the White Feather campaign.

There were many ways this story could have been told, but having one young woman – who was both a Suffragette and part of the White Feather Movement – seemed to be the most effective way of complicating our own response to these seismic events. We have the benefit of being able to look at the Great War in retrospect, considering all of the different debates simultaneously along with the effect they had in the years to follow. This approach allows the play to dig deeper into the decisions of the Suffragettes and the women who participated in the White Feather Movement, considering how they would have felt about what they did and providing the possible reasoning behind it. This not only makes the research and information easier to take on board, but it draws out an emotional reaction to the character and her motivations, which hopefully in turn will encourage the audience to ask more questions about one of the most important events in history. At the end of the day, the aim of the play is to show the many different sides of history, and that not everything is as clear-cut as we would like to believe.