After fifty years of campaigning for the vote some suffragettes decided that a course of more direct action was needed. In April 1911, on the night of the census, hundreds of suffragettes vanished from their homes: their motto was “If women don’t count, we won’t be counted.” Feminist historian Jill Liddington explored this incident in her new book;”Vanishing for the Vote; Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census”.
To avoid the census enumerator and the Liberal Government’s instruction to every household to comply with its census requirements, militant suffragette organisations encouraged women to boycott the census. This involved subterfuge and imagination. In Manchester dozens of women secretly gathered in two houses to sing and dance the night away, whilst in London a famous incident took place in the Houses of Parliament where Emily Wilding Davison hid in a cupboard overnight, an event which Tony Benn rewarded with a plaque in 1999.
Not all suffragettes took part in the boycott. Non-militant suffragettes decided that they wanted a complete census so as to encourage the government in its “People’s Budget” agenda of bringing in health and social reforms, including a new National Insurance scheme and campaigns to reduce infant mortality and knock down slum housing.
The suffrage boycott of 1911 did not just highlight the differences between the more militant activists and their constitutional sisters but has echoes today in why women decide to vote or not to vote and what issues they put their energies into campaigning on. I spoke to a number of women from different generations about what is important to them.
Betty Tebbs was born in 1918 when some women were first allowed to vote for the first time, although, not her mother or female relatives as they were not householders. Growing up in a working class, northern family, her politics have been driven by her experiences. At the age of 14 she joined a trade union;” I experienced at first hand the double exploitation of women in industry and it seemed quite right for me to work to change this situation.”
Her political activity has been affected by worldwide events , including the Second World War, and all her life she has been involved in the campaign for peace. “I have been in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarnment since 1946 and I think it is one of the issues that has dominated my life.”
Alice Searle (who describes herself as part of the “older generation”) is concerned about the growing inequality in society and, in particular, the way the welfare state is being closed down. “My generation would not fail to vote”, she asserts, “ My father was a trade unionist and member of the Labour Party and he brought me up to see voting as my responsibility because of what women did to get the vote.”
During her lifetime Alice has worked in projects where she was living at the time, including small projects based around children and VSO work in South Africa. Now back in Britain she is involved in a variety of local community and history projects.
But it is the politics of the Labour Party, in particular in her local area of Salford, that has made Alice re-think her support for the election process. “I have lost faith in them making the right decisions for the local community. I am suspicious of the way they work with developers and business. My political experience has made me aware, cynical and distrustful of the political process.”
For younger women it is their life experiences that have forced them to get involved in politics. Sharza Dethick, aged 53, works for her local council but is on a zero hours contract. Faced with the loss of her job she joined Unison and ended up representing herself in a meeting with management. “The union branch officer did not say anything in the meeting. I said it all and saved, not just my job, but those of the other members of staff who were not even in the union. It made me realise that I can do his job.”
She is now the Equalities Officer but in a different union, Unite. She feels the unions need to do more to oppose the government and has also joined the Peoples Assembly as they are more active. “They are doing something, even if its only giving out leaflets or speaking at street corners, they are raising the issues.”
Maria Barbiner, aged 48 years, worked all her life and then left work to care for her mother until her death. She had not been involved in any political activity until, signing on for benefits and faced with the Bedroom Tax, she decided that she had to do something about it. “It changed my life” she reflects, “ I never thought someone like me would be caught up in the Bedroom Tax. I have worked all my life and to me it is just state sponsored bullying.”
Maria has spoken at Bedroom Tax marches across the country, on nationwide television and radio, and now gives advice to other people affected by the tax. The Manchester and Salford Bedroom Tax campaign is one of the strongest in the country. She also feels that she has changed the policy of the Labour Party and has joined as a member “I am fighting from within. I told Ed Milliband to wake up to the affects of the Bedroom Tax”.
Twenty two year old Jennifer Reid has no interest in voting and is not interested in the mainstream political process. Rejecting a university education, she works part-time in a car auction centre whilst pursuing her career in researching and singing broadside ballads from the C19th. For part of the week she is a volunteer at the Working Class Movement library and Chethams Library where she unearths long forgotten local ballads about life and politics.
Jennifer was involved with anarchist politics but became disillusioned with what she saw as a largely middle class movement. What really enthuses her is the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 when 18 people were killed and hundreds injured at a demonstration calling for manhood suffrage.
“No-one knows about it and it was the tipping point in history. I want to go into schools and teach kids about it, to inspire them and sow a seed about how important it is to know your own history.”
Jennifer is organising an event in August to commemorate Peterloo. She will be marching from her home town of Middleton to St Peters Square, the site of Peterloo. “We are going to sing songs and bother people, make them wake up to how Peterloo affected them and the process of liberty in this country.”
Nichole Binnie is 19 years old and sitting her A levels. She is concerned about her own future. From a working class family, whose Mum is a care worker, her ambitions are grounded in her background; “I want to be the first woman in my family to go to university.” She does believe in voting.”It will be my first vote and although I don’t think my single vote will make a difference I choose to vote because of the suffragettes. I think if women don’t use their vote then what the suffragettes did would be in vain. “
For many women it is their own experience at work which has affected their views, including 18 year old student, Zoe Davies. She is studying for her A levels and working in a cafe. “For me, and my Mum, equality in the workplace is an important issue”. Zoe is not involved in any political organisation but she does read 38 Degrees and Change.org websites. “Everyone should have a voice, we should not sit back and let the powers that be do what they like.”
In 1911, although differences of strategy divided the suffragettes, they all did agree on one issue: they wanted the vote. Ironically today we have the vote but for many women the electoral process has lost its shine and instead it is the grassroots campaigns that they are dedicating their time and energy to.
Over the last few years organisations such as the Peoples Assembly, the Bedroom Tax campaign and 38 Degrees have attracted many women, some such as Betty and Alice who have always been active in campaigning but also new activists such as Maria. Younger women like Jennifer are enthusiastic about remembering the past and want to wake up the more disillusioned of the electorate through campaigns such as Peterloo. Other young women such as Nichole and Zoe, whilst concentrating on their studies, still believe in the voting process but link this up with a new form of participatory democracy through on-line campaigns. It might look very different from 1911 but I am sure the suffragettes would be proud of their contemporary sisters in taking on the challenges of living in 2014.