Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014. RRP £16.99 Paperback.
The centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is being marked in a number of ways, including the publication of a number of books on various aspects of the campaign for women’s suffrage. There are already a significant amount of excellent studies on the campaign for women’s suffrage however, including Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington, published in 2014.
Vanishing for the Vote focuses on one particular tactic in the campaign to gain women the right to vote, the 1911 census boycott. On the night of Sunday the 2nd of April, women from across the suffrage spectrum evaded, boycotted, or refused to complete the most comprehensive census survey ever attempted. The argument was that if women did not count as full citizens, then they should should not allow the government to count them. Not every suffrage campaigner agreed with the tactic however; some believed that it was more important that social policy be informed by accurate data about the population.
This census rebellion would not be a violent confrontation, like forcible feeding in prison or street battles with the police. Rather, it would be peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean, in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown women, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?
Liddington, 2014; p. 2
In Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington explores the boycott in depth, including: the census itself; the Women’s Freedom League, which spearheaded the boycott; some of the key personalities involved; the events of census night itself; and the protests’ significance and implications. In 2009 the original 1911 census schedules were made public by The National Archives, providing researchers with a wealth of new resources. Liddington and another historian, Elizabeth Crawford, tracked down 500 census schedules of women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, in order to conduct the first in-depth analysis of what happened during the boycott. The book looks big, but around half of it is actually a Gazetteer of these census schedules, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in suffrage campaigners.
The book is clear and well-written, and although the structure appears unusual at first, it makes sense as the book unfolds. In the Introduction, Jill argues that Vanishing for the Vote is suitable for academic and popular audiences. Whilst the writing is accessible, I think some of the content would alienate readers that are just interested in history; Liddington explains the methodology of collecting the census details and explores the relevant literature in quite some detail, so it feels more like an academic history book than a popular one. Liddington takes a balanced approach to the debate about the boycott, taking the time to explain the history of, and logic behind, the census itself as well as the campaign to boycott it. As a result, Vanishing for the Vote is not just about how suffrage campaigners asserted their rights as British citizens, but also about how the Edwardian state was attempting to improve the lives of its citizens. As Liddington often argues, it was government by the people versus government for the people. Supporters of women’s suffrage had to decide what was more important to them–the right to vote, or accurate data to inform social reform.
Most people are familiar with the suffragette tactics of smashing windows, arson, and hunger strikes. Vanishing for the Vote is a thorough, engaging, and balanced exploration of one of the lesser known tactics employed by campaigners for women’s suffrage. If your curiosity has been piqued by the centenary celebrations, then it is definitely worth a read.