A dark office. An agent, holding a contract that could change a young woman’s life forever. The following, unforeseen sexual assault. Today we are acutely aware of the dangers for women in the entertainment industry. The exposure of powerful men such as Bill Cosby as sexual predators and accusations of sexual assault against others such as Harvey Weinstein have led to the incredible #TimesUp campaign, championed by women across the United States and around the world.
But 100 years ago, another woman was fighting for the same cause. Her story teaches us that if society and government are not responsive to the earnest pleas from women to clean up the subjugation they confront, they risk radicalizing women with violent results.
Just 19 years old, Kitty Marion stood on Waterloo Bridge, looking down at the Thames below her. This huge river slices London in two, wiggling through its center, the rise and fall of the tide matching the ebb and flow of city life. The evening’s glow, from gaslight at the end of the 19th century, would turn the water a deep black.
A few moments earlier, Marion had stumbled out of the offices of a theatrical agent on the other side of the river. She had been invited to sign her first music-hall contract — a skilled singer and dancer, she was determined to become a star, a woman who earned her independence through hard work and talent. But when Marion had arrived to see her agent at the appointed time, she found the office empty apart from a junior partner, the man she would only ever refer to as “Mr. Dreck.” He knocked her unconscious and attempted to assault her.
When Marion gained consciousness, she was horrified. “My whole being revolted against even the possibility of such an outrage happening in a world in which I had been taught to trust everybody,” she wrote in her unpublished autobiography.
As she staggered to the bridge, Dreck’s words rang in Marion’s ears. He claimed that it was “only a harmless little kiss” and that “most girls liked it.” Most damning of all, he told Marion she would have no future in the music halls if she didn’t accept and agree to engage in sex in return for legitimate work. Like many women who struggle with feelings of guilt and shame surrounding a sexual assault, Marion was acutely aware that she hadn’t cried out for help as the attack began, scared it would bring unwanted publicity and ruin her reputation. Staring down at the water, Marion contemplated throwing herself in.
This horrific double standard still exists today. The women who bravely step forward to hold their assailants to account are aggressively demonized and exposed to public ridicule, while the perpetrators find themselves stridently defended. Few women forget the first time they were attacked. The first time someone decided they have the right to touch, to kiss, to take without asking.
Marion’s rejection of Dreck had given her an unkind lesson in the reality of workplace sexual harassment. It was an experience she found repeated multiple times throughout her career on the stage, by many agents and managers, who all believed in and supported the culture of abuse that working women experienced at the time.
Like many women subjected to such violence and violation, Marion was driven to a dark place. But she was resilient. Walking away from Waterloo Bridge, she decided to “develop the courage of a woman, and somehow, some time avenge the insult I had experienced.”
For the next 20 years, Marion campaigned to protect women in the entertainment industry. She made it a union issue, forcing an investigation into the conditions working women faced and the universal sexual harassment they experienced simply for pursuing their independence. But the industry refused to listen to the women, and the government saw no reason to change the laws.
By 1907, and now in her 40s, Marion was a widely recognized star. She had appeared on the same bills as Harry Houdini, and her letters exposing the harassment suffered by women on and off the stage appeared in newspapers across the country. But the government, as well as wider society, still wouldn’t listen.
Refusing to accept defeat, Marion joined the Suffragettes, the name given to the members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and aligned herself with the organization’s new motto, “Deeds, Not Words.” Within a few years she had became one of England’s most notorious suffragists, responsible for a nationwide bombing and arson campaign that led to her being imprisoned and repeatedly force-fed, for attacks on public transport, government ministers’ houses, popular public parks and racecourses. After decades of peaceful campaigning by nonviolent suffragists, the WSPU and its Suffragette members chose a new and violent path.
Radicalized by government-sanctioned force-feedings and police brutality, the Suffragettes decided to meet violence with violence. They believed the fight for the vote was a civil war, to be won by any means necessary. The story of these violent women has remained hidden in the archives, until now.
The blinding anger resulting from assault, abuse and an industry unwilling to protect her transformed Marion. Her rage fueled her political violence, and by joining the Suffragettes, she found a group of women who also were determined to fight back. The British government considered Marion so dangerous that they used the outbreak of World War I to force her to leave the country for the United States, hounded by accusations that her violence was not for the rights of British women but because she was a double agent, planted in Britain by Germany to destabilize society. Forced to abandon her friends and the sisterhood that had given her life purpose, Marion found refuge in the new birth-control movement in the United States, quickly becoming its most recognizable face.
Hers is a unique life, linking the United States and the United Kingdom, and the two most important and powerful issues women still face today — the right to a voice in politics and the right to bodily autonomy.
Marion spent her whole life battling against a culture of sexual abuse that has little changed in the past 100 years. Powerful men, when faced with the opportunity to manipulate women into positions of sexual subjugation in return for their right to work, rarely act against their worst nature and, rarer still, face any serious punishment when their actions became public knowledge. Even the revelation of grotesque audio recordings featuring reality-TV personality Donald Trump bragging “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . . . Grab them by the p---y. You can do anything,” did little to stop his ascent to the presidency.
For women like Marion, the feminist campaigners of our past, the vote was supposed to bring about an almost instant utopia: Once women had access to positions of power, there was a belief that their influence and experiences would be valued and create a world free from sexual harassment, abuse and inequality. The reality of their legacy has fallen seriously short of those idealized hopes. It does not matter what rights are protected in law if our culture does not ensure they are accepted and enforced. This is why, 100 years later, we carry on Marion’s fight.