By Jill Liddington
Elizabeth Crawford and I, suffrage historians both, watched with keen interest in early 2009 as the 1911 census began to go online. On Tuesday 13 January selected English counties became fully searchable by the public. Excitement was palpable. By midnight, there had been 3.4m searches and 17.4m pages viewed, particularly by family historians. But it was suffragettes who grabbed attention – with headlines like ‘1911 Census: the secret suffragettes who refused to be counted’.
We joined the searchers at the National Archives to look for the census schedules of known Votes for Women campaigners. Among our early discoveries were, as we expected, suffragette evaders – whose names were absent on their own household census. We also came across resisters writing ‘No Vote, No Census’ angrily across their schedule. For instance, one suffragette in Essex wrote on hers, at an unrepentantly defiant angle:
‘I, Dorothea Rock, in the absence of the male occupier, refuse to fill up this Census paper as, in the eyes of the Law, women do not count, neither shall they be counted.’
But we found many other schedules at odds with our expectations. All our suffrage reading had led us to believe that census evasion and resistance had been very widespread up and down the country. But the primary evidence we were uncovering suggested considerably lower levels of boycott activity; and this hinted at a more complex mix of individual motives in households on census night. We were puzzled by these unexpected suffragette rejections of the call to boycott the census. So we began to read more widely and to revisit the broader historical context.
Our article suggests how we’ve tried to make sense of the puzzling evidence we were uncovering. We named this ‘the battle for the 1911 census’ as a way of suggesting explanations for the patterns we found emerging.
Read on for an excerpt from their paper “‘Women do not count, neither shall they be counted’: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the 1911 Census”, which is published in History Workshop Journal, Advanced Access, 23 February 2011. You can read the full article for free on the journal’s website.
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Amid all the suffragette propaganda, it was probably the Women’s Freedom League’s uncompromising Manifesto, ‘No Votes for Women – No Census’, that had widest and most immediate impact. Issued under the names of Edith How Martyn and Charlotte Despard, it quickly caught the eye of The Times, which quoted from it extensively. The Times dilated on WFL plans to refuse ‘to give intimate personal details’ to the enumerator, and, under the heading ‘Obstruct Government Business’, noted that the WFL even incited members to:
… oppose, hamper, destroy if possible, the power of an unrepresentative Government to govern women, refuse to be taxed, boycott the Census, refuse all official information until women have won that which is their absolute right – the right of a voice and vote.
The very next day The Times published a short yet pointed letter rebutting this Manifesto argument, from the eminent educational reformer Professor Michael Sadler of Manchester University. He warned the WFL that ‘to boycott the Census would be a crime against science’ because ‘upon the completeness of the Census returns’ depended future legislation to better the conditions for all people; ‘to sulk against the Census’, Sadler concluded, ‘would not be a stroke of statesmanship, but a nursery fit of bad temper’. Sadler, the Oxford-educated Manchester academic, spoke from the very heart of Liberalism’s progressive intelligentsia. His was not a lone voice. Sadler’s deep distaste for the planned suffragette boycott found a ready echo with, for instance, the Manchester Guardian editor, C. P. Scott, also an Oxford-educated member of the Liberal political élite, who had the ear of both suffragist leaders and Cabinet members and acted as an influential go-between.
Sadler’s jibe of a ‘crime against science’ reverberated – and stung. Immediately, Edith How Martyn (herself a scientist and now signing herself ARCS, BSc) retorted in The Times that for women to comply with the census ‘when governed without their consent is a crime against the fundamental principles of liberty’. Indeed, she stated, ‘the Census is designed, not by a scientist for scientists, … but for politicians with the knack of juggling with statistics’ to make the figures support their theories.
So within a fortnight of the King’s Speech a fierce political debate for and against the census boycott flared among academics and writers, newspaper editors and suffrage leaders. It pitted scientific statistical accuracy against women’s rightful citizenship demands, raising questions about the very nature of democracy and what constituted a ‘crime’.
Meanwhile, the NUWSS remained absent from WFL census planning. A few suffragists expressed alarm that intrusive questions about married women could be used as an excuse ‘to turn out the married women from the labour market’. But for the boycott to be really effective, suffragettes needed thousands of suffragists to join in. Both WFL and WTRL continued lobbying NUWSS societies, furiously dispatching requests to speak at their meetings. For example WTRL, trying to appeal as widely as possible, sent out copies of its ‘Women and the Census’ leaflet, urging that ‘Passive Resistance to the Census involves no sacrifice’ and stating that:
This year Special Intimate Questions relating to Women as Mothers have been added. Refuse to assist a Government which denies you Citizenship – withhold the information which helps make laws which govern you without your consent.
One copy of this leaflet reached the large and influential London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS), where it was duly filed – and ignored. Well-practised at polite yet bureaucratic stone-walling, LSWS refused to place the proposal on the agenda of its next meeting, or even to put up a WFL poster ‘as our Society has not adopted the policy of resistance to the Census’.
Jill Liddington is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Leeds; her most recent suffrage history is Rebel Girls: their fight for the vote (2006).
Elizabeth Crawford is author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide (1999). She is a curator of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Unison Gallery, a permanent exhibition to be opened in 2011.