The position of women in society is an important theme in The Winslow Boy that plays out almost entirely in the background of the main action yet still feels highly relevant today. Though several bills to give women the vote were looked at in the British parliament between 1910 and 1912—the year at the start of the play—none of them were passed. Women were essentially second-class citizens at the time: rape within marriage was not a crime, for instance, and women could not vote or sit on juries. The Suffrage movement, which fought for women’s right to vote, had spent the first few years of the century using “militant” tactics to bring the issue to wider public attention—heckling politicians, civil disobedience, sit-ins, and so on. At the point when the play is set, there was still a lot of work to be done. Primarily through the experiences of Catherine, an avowed feminist, the play shows the forces of society arrayed against women, and more particularly the way that society often questioned or refused to grant that feminists really were “women” at all.
Catherine's efforts to achieve equality for women are opposed not just by men, but also by women of an older generation. This older generation is embodied by Grace, Catherine's mother, who believes in the traditional role of the wife as home-maker and generally takes a more conservative view of women’s place in the world. Catherine, in turn, has to fight against not just her inequality as a woman, but also her own mother’s ideas of what it means to be female. Though women were generally meant to keep quiet about their opinions, Catherine is unafraid of speaking up; Grace generally tries to avoid any kind of “scene.” Grace is even surprised that John wants to marry Catherine, given that he knows she is a member of the Women's Suffrage Association. This portrays the attitude that those supporting feminism are not meant to have any wants or desires in common with more “traditional” womanhood—it suggests that being a wife and supporting women’s rights are somehow mutually exclusive.
Catherine herself feels the tension between society’s expectations of her as a woman and her deep-rooted desire for progress. It’s not certain that she really wants to be married to John, but she expresses anxiety at not being married as she nears the age of thirty. In fact, this anxiety means she even briefly considers marrying Desmond Curry, Sir Robert’s hapless colleague, despite not being attracted to him in the slightest. She feels she has a somewhat dismal choice, as she tells Arthur, who is generally unsupportive on the issue: “Either I marry Desmond and settle down into quite a comfortable and not really useless existence—or I go on for the rest of my life earning two pounds a week in the service of a hopeless cause.”
Likewise, Catherine is not meant to look feminine because the Suffragettes were painted as being less “womanly” than other women. That’s why Sir Robert—who otherwise has such strong values about what is “Right”—comments on Catherine’s hat: “It seems decidedly wrong to me that a lady of your political persuasion should be allowed to adorn herself with such a very feminine allurement. It really looks so awfully like trying to have the best of both worlds.” Again, this suggests that in order to be a “New Woman”—as Grace disparagingly calls her—Catherine has to sacrifice anything that ties her to being feminine. The play suggests, then, that those women who want a more equal standing between genders are expected to be less “womanly”—they’re not supposed to want to look good or get married. They’re expected to be martyrs to their sole cause and are marginalized as being feminists ahead of being women.
That’s why the closing lines of the play are so important. By giving the closing remark to Sir Robert, Rattigan emphasizes the patriarchal structure of early 20th century British society. Sir Robert says that he hopes to see Catherine in parliament again, but Catherine doesn’t want to simply be a spectator—she tells him that if he does see her there, it will be across the floor rather than from the gallery. By this, Catherine means she’ll be there in a role of power. Sir Robert’s principles, however centered on the idea of doing “Right,” don’t seem to extend to women—he just can’t see them ever being the true equal of men. This shows the depressing truth that even those best placed to understand the Suffragette movement found it too much of a mental leap to imagine a world in which men and women were genuinely equal. Nevertheless, women did have the vote at the time of play’s publication, meaning that audiences would likely see the folly in Sir Robert’s hypocritical short-sightedness, as well as the strength and importance of Catherine’s fight for justice.
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Women and Patriarchy Quotes in The Winslow Boy
JOHN: The annoying thing was that I had a whole lot of neatly turned phrases ready for him and he wouldn’t let me use them.
CATHERINE: Such as?
JOHN: Oh – how proud and honoured I was by your acceptance of me, and how determined I was to make you a loyal and devoted husband – and to maintain you in the state to which you were accustomed – all that sort of thing. All very sincerely meant.
CATHERINE: Anything about loving me a little?
JOHN: That I thought we could take for granted. So did your father, incidentally.
I wish I had someone to take me out. In your new feminist world do you suppose women will be allowed to do some of the paying?
DICKIE: Suppress your opinions. Men don’t like ‘em in their lady friends, even if they agree with ‘em. And if they don’t – it’s fatal. Pretend to be half-witted, then he’ll adore you.
CATHERINE: I know. I do, sometimes, and then I forget. Still, you needn’t worry. If there’s ever a clash between what I believe and what I feel, there’s not much doubt about which will win.
CATHERINE: I suppose you heard that he committed suicide a few months ago?
SIR ROBERT: Yes. I had heard.
CATHERINE: Many people believed him innocent, you know.
SIR ROBERT: So I understand. As it happens, however, he was guilty.
CATHERINE: Not a verbal protest. Something far more spectacular and dramatic. He’d had his feet on the Treasury table and his hat over his eyes during most of the First Lord’s speech – and he suddenly got up very deliberately, glared at the First Lord, threw a whole bundle of notes on the floor, and stalked out of the House. It made a magnificent effect. If I hadn’t known I could have sworn he was genuinely indignant –
ARTHUR: Of course he was genuinely indignant. So would any man of feeling be –
CATHERINE: Sir Robert, Father dear, is not a man of feeling. I don’t think any emotion at all can stir that fishy heart –
SIR ROBERT: It seems decidedly wrong to me that a lady of your political persuasion should be allowed to adorn herself with such a very feminine allurement. It really looks so awfully like trying to have the best of both worlds –
CATHERINE: I’m not a militant, you know, Sir Robert. I don’t go about breaking shop windows with a hammer or pouring acid down pillar boxes.
JOHN: But people do find the case a bit ridiculous, you know. I mean, I get chaps coming up to me in the mess all the time and saying: “I say, is it true you’re going to marry the Winslow girl? You’d better be careful. You’ll find yourself up in the front of the House of Lords for pinching the Adjutant’s bath.” Things like that. They’re not awfully funny –
CATHERINE: That’s nothing. They’re singing a verse about us in the Alhambra.
SIR ROBERT: What are my instructions, Miss Winslow?
CATHERINE: (In a flat voice.) Do you need my instructions, Sir Robert? Aren’t they already on the Petition? Doesn’t it say: Let Right be done?
CATHERINE: You don’t think the work I’m doing at the W.S.A. is useful?
ARTHUR is silent.
You may be right. But it’s the only work I’m fitted for, all the same. (Pause.) No, Father. The choice is quite simple. Either I marry Desmond and settle down into quite a comfortable and not really useless existence – or I go on for the rest of my life earning two pounds a week in the service of a hopeless cause.
SIR ROBERT: Goodbye, Miss Winslow. Shall I see you in the House then, one day?
CATHERINE: (With a smile.) Yes, Sir Robert. One day. But not in the Gallery. Across the floor.
SIR ROBERT: (With a faint smile.) Perhaps, Goodbye.