Book Review: Vanishing for the Vote- Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census

Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote

Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington.

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.

 

Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Matters, 1877-1969

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The third of my suffrage activists is Muriel Matters, an Australian actress, lecturer, and journalist with a flair for dramatic stunts.


Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters, 1877-1969 (Photo: Frosty Ramblings).

All of the suffrage campaigners I have featured so far as Turbulent Londoners have been British. London has always been a city of migrants, however, and many of the activists involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage were born elsewhere. Muriel Matters was an Australian lecturer, journalist, actress, and elocutionist who put her flair for the dramatic to good use fighting for a right that South Australian women had had since 1894.

Muriel Matters was born on the 12th of November 1877 to a large Methodist family in Adelaide, South Australia. As a child she was introduced to the writing of Walt Whitman and Henrik Ibsen, who strongly influenced her political consciousness. In 1894, when Muriel was still a teenager, South Australia became the first self-governing territory to give women the vote on the same standing as men.

Muriel studied music at the University of Adelaide, and by the late 1890s she was acting and conducting recitals in Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne. In 1905, at the age of 28, Muriel moved to London to try and further her acting career. Leaving a country where women had the right to vote in all federal elections, Muriel arrived in a country where women could not vote at all. Facing stiff competition for acting work, Muriel also had to take on work as a journalist. She interviewed the exiled anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, and later performed at his home. Kropotkin challenged Muriel to do something more useful with her talents than acting–she later identified this as a defining moment in her life. She joined the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a group which had broken away from the WSPU in 1907 because of the lack of democracy in the organisation. The President of the WFL was Charlotte Despard, a formidable woman who is one of my favourite Turbulent Londoners.

CARAVAN TOUR/WFL 20C

The first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour in 1908 (Source: The Women’s Library/Mary Evans Picture Library).

Between early May and Mid-October 1908, Muriel was the ‘Organiser in Charge’ of the first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour around the South of England. WFL activists visited towns in Surrey, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent, with the aim of talking about women’s suffrage and forming new branches. Despite problems with hecklers, the tour was very successful, and many of the other suffrage societies would later run caravan tours of their own.

Not one to rest on her laurels, on the 28th of October 1908 Muriel took part in a dramatic protest at the House of Parliament organised by the WFL. They were protesting against an iron grille in the Ladie’s Gallery that obscured the view of the House of Commons and was seen as a symbol of women’s oppression. Muriel and another activist called Helen Fox chained themselves to the offending grille, and loudly lectured the MPs below on the benefits of women’s enfranchisement. The grille had to be removed so that a blacksmith could remove the two women. Released without charge, Muriel rejoined the protest outside the House of Commons, and was eventually arrested for trying to rush the lobby. The next day she was sentenced to one month in Holloway Prison.

A few months later, the state opening of Parliament on the 16th of February 1909 was marked by a procession led by King Edward. In order to gain attention and promote the suffrage cause, Muriel hired a dirigible air balloon. With ‘Votes for Women’ on one side, and ‘WFL’ on the other, she planned to fly over central London, showering the King and Parliament with pro-suffrage leaflets. The weather conditions and a poor motor meant that Muriel didn’t make it to Westminster, but she did fly over London for one and a half hours, dropping 56lbs of leaflets. The stunt made headlines all over the world.

Muriel Matters dirigible

Muriel Matters on her balloon flight over London (Source: Balloonteam.net).

From May to July 1910, Muriel embarked on a lecture tour of Australia. She was an engaging speaker, making use of illustrations and even changing into a replica of the dress she wore whilst in prison. She advocated prison reform, equal pay, and the vote. At the end of the tour, she helped persuade the Australian senate to pass a resolution informing the British Prime Minister Asquith of the positive experiences of women’s suffrage. In October 1913, Muriel helped persuade the National Federation of Mineworker’s to support women’s suffrage.

On the 15th October 1914, Muriel married William Arnold Porter, a divorced dentist from Boston. She decided to double-barrel her surname. In June 1915, she laid out her opposition to war in an address called ‘The False Mysticism of War.’ She argued that it was not an effective method of solving problems, and justifications for it were based on false pretences. She particularly objected to Christianity as a justification for war, and questioned the significance of nationality. Views such as these were extremely unpopular at the time, and it took great bravery to voice them.

In 1916 Muriel went to Barcelona for a year to learn about the Montesorri method of teaching, a child-centred approach which promotes the development of the whole child, including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Muriel believed that access to education should be universal, and she took what she learnt in Barcelona back to charity work she was doing in East London. In 1922, she toured Australia again, this time advocating the Montesorri method.

Miss-Muriel-Matters-addressing-crowd-407x457

Muriel Matters addressing a crowd in Caernarfon, Wales, in 1909 (Source: Harper Collins Australia).

In the 1924 General Election, Muriel ran as the Labour candidate for Hastings. She ran on a socialist platform, advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed, and gender equality. She didn’t win- Hastings was a safe Conservative seat, and wasn’t won by Labour until 1997. The ability to stand in itself was victory enough for Muriel. After the election, Muriel and her husband settled in Hastings. William died in 1949, and Muriel died 20 years later, on the 17th of November 1969, at the age of 92. Provocative until the end, she was remembered locally as being partial to a spot of skinny dipping at the nearby Pelham Beach.

Australian-born Muriel Matters launched herself wholeheartedly into the the campaign for women’s suffrage in her adopted country. Her flair for dramatic acts of non-violent civil disobedience helped her attract valuable attention and publicity for the cause of women’s suffrage.

Sources and Further Reading

Fallon, Amy. “Muriel Matters: An Australian Suffragette’s Unsung Legacy.” Last modified 11 October 2013, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/11/muriels-neglecting-an-australian-suffragettes-unsung-legacy

Friends of Hastings Cemetery. “Muriel Matters Porter.” No date, accessed 8 February. Available at http://friendsofhastingscemetery.org.uk/mattersm.html

The Muriel Matters Society Inc. “About Muriel.” No date, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://murielmatterssociety.com.au/home-page/who-was-muriel-matters/

Wikipedia. “Muriel Matters.” Last modified 20 January 2018, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Matters

Turbulent Londoners: Jane Cobden, 1851-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. My next Turbulent Londoner is Jane Cobden, one of the first women to be elected to the London County Council.


jane-cobden

A portrait of Jane Cobden by the artist Sidney Starr.

Fans of Victorian crime drama Ripper Street might recognise Jane Cobden from series 2 and 3. Played by Leanne Best, Cobden was a strong, opinionated London County Councillor, more than a match for love interest Detective Inspector Edmund Reid. But how does the character match up to the real Jane Cobden?

Born Emma Jane Catherine Cobden on the 28th of April 1851 in Westbourne Terrace, London, Jane was the fourth of sixth children of the well-known reformer and politician Richard Cobden. She devoted her life to campaigning for women’s rights and protecting and developing her father’s legacy- she was committed to the’Cobdenite’ issues of land reform, peace and social justice.

In 1869 Jane moved to South Kensington with her sisters Ellen, Anne and Kate, also dedicated activists. Jane was active on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, and became increasingly committed to the cause of women’s suffrage over the 1870s. In 1871, she attended the Women’s Suffrage Conference in London with her sister Anne. In about 1879 she joined the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, and by the following year she was the organisation’s Treasurer.

The National Society was cautious, avoiding close association with political parties and excluding married women from their demand for the vote. This was too conservative for some, and the Central National Society broke away in 1888. In 1889 this group split again, and the Women’s Franchise League (WFL) was formed, including Cobden and Emmeline Pankhurst. The WFL’s aims were more radical- they wanted votes for women on the same basis as men, and women to be eligible for all political offices. Jane was politically pragmatic as well as ambitious, however. She disagreed with the mainstream Liberal Party’s stance on many issues, but remained a member because she believed it was the best way to advance her causes.

NPG x131220; (Emma) Jane Catherine Cobden Unwin by Fradelle & Young

A photo of Jane Cobden taken in the 1890s, by Fradelle and Young (Photo: National Portrait Gallery).

In the late 1880s, no one was sure whether women could serve as councillors or not; the law was unclear. In November 1888, the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors (SPRWCC) was set up to test the law. This catchily-named organisation set up a £400 election fund and choose two women to stand as Liberal candidates for the newly established London County Council. Jane stood in Bromley and Bow, and Margaret Sandhurst stood in Brixton. Jane campaigned on a variety of issues, including opposition the tax on coal, better housing for the poor, “fair” wages, and opposition to sweat shops. Both women won, but their positions were not secure; there were many who opposed their election and tried to overturn the results. Sandhurst’s election was challenged by the man she defeated, and her election was declared invalid. Jane was supported by her runner-up, who was also a member of the Liberal Party. However, a judge eventually ruled that Jane’s election was unlawful, and therefore so were her votes in the council. She quietly served the rest of her term, and did not stand for reelection. It wasn’t until the Qualification of Women Act in 1907 that women legally gained the right to sit on county councils; Cobden was truly a woman before her time.

In 1892, aged 41, Jane married Thomas Fisher Unwin, a publisher. Encouraged by him, Jane expanded her interests to include international peace and justice, and rights of aboriginal people around the world. The couple strongly opposed the Boer War. In 1893, Jane represented the WFL at the World Congress of Representative Women in Chicago.

jane-cobden-ripper-street

Jane Cobden as portrayed by Leanne Best in BBC/Amazon drama Ripper Street (Photo: BBC).

As the campaign for women’s suffrage gained pace after 1900, Jane chose not to participate in the illegal activities of the WSPU, but she fiercely defended her sister, Anne, when she was imprisoned for a month in October 1906. She organised the Indian women’s delegation in the Women’s Coronation Procession on the 17th of June 1911, a few days before the coronation of George V. Cobden never gave up on a political solution to women’s suffrage. The Conciliation Bills of 1910-12 would have given a small number of propertied women the vote. Cobden asked the Irish Parliamentary Party to support the doomed bills, because of the support that women had given to the Land League campaign in England. She also continued to campaign for other causes she cared about during this time, publishing two books on the subject of land reform: The Hungry Forties: Life Under the Bread Tax (1904) and The Land Hunger: Life Under Monopoly (1913).

Jane Cobden died on the 7th of July 1974, aged 96. The BBC’s synopsis of her character in Ripper Street describes her as “one of the giants on whose shoulders the Suffragette Movement was to stand,” and it doesn’t exaggerate. Cobden may be more well-known than other women’s rights pioneers because of her portrayal in Ripper Street, but I think her achievements still deserve more recognition.

Sources and Further Reading

Baldwin, Anne. “Women’s History Month: Persistence Pays Off, as Women are Finally Elected to the London County Council.” Women’s History Network. Last updated 5 March 2010, accessed 31 October 2016. Available at http://womenshistorynetwork.org/blog/?tag=jane-cobden

Hurley, Ann. “Emma Jane Catherine Cobden-Unwin 1851-1947.” Hurley and Skidmore Family History. No date, accessed 31 October 2016. Available at http://www.hurleyskidmorehistory.com.au/emma-jane-catherine-cobden-.html

Richardson, Sarah. “What Next, and Next? The Cobden Movement: Fleeting or Fundamental?” Liberty Fund. Last updated 8 January 2015, accessed 31 October 2016. Available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/lm-cobden

Wikipedia. “Jane Cobden.” Last updated 4 September 2016, Accessed 31 October 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Cobden

Turbulent Londoners: Charlotte Despard, 1844-1939

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The second Londoner to be profiled is Charlotte Despard, an inspirational pacifist, feminist and socialist campaigner.


 A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source:http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg)

A portrait of Charlotte Despard by Mary Edis, exh. 1916 (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

Charlotte Despard was a prominent feminist and social campaigner in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who fought for many causes during her long life. Born into a wealthy French family in Kent in 1844, she married in 1870. She was brought up as a young Victorian lady should be, and frequently railed against her lack of a proper education. After her husband died in 1890, she became a dedicated and inspiring campaigner, although she was well known for her simple black clothing for the rest of her life.

Despard organised and funded a health clinic, a soup kitchen for the unemployed and youth and working men’s clubs in the slum called Nine Elms in Battersea, London. Not content with mere philanthropy, she actually moved into the area, living amongst those she worked so hard to help. In 1894 she became a Poor Law Guardian in Lambeth, a job at which she excelled, using her position to care for the most vulnerable ‘paupers’.

Politically, Despard was an active supporter of the Social Democratic Party and the Independent Labour Party, running in the 1918 general election as a pacifist Labour candidate for Battersea. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union moved to London in 1906, she was a well-known progressive speaker, and an obvious choice for an ally. She became the WSPU’s honorary secretary, and was imprisoned twice in 1907 for her actions as a suffragette, at the age of 63. However, later that year the Suffragette movement split, and Despard became President of the Women’s Freedom League, which unlike the WSPU was democratically organised and advocated a campaign of passive resistance.

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930's, when she was in her nineties (Source:http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg)

Despard addressing an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s, when she was in her nineties (Source: History Today)

Despard was a pacifist, opposing the Boer War and World War One, despite her brother, Sir John French, being the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France until 1915. The two remained close throughout the First World War, until Charlotte declared her support of Irish home rule and later independence. As the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Sir John French was tasked with trying to supress the very people she supported, and their previously close relationship suffered badly. In 1921 she moved to Ireland, where she continued to campaign for civil rights and the relief of poverty and distress. Despite her advanced years, she was classed as a dangerous subversive under the Irish Free State’s 1927 Public Safety Act. In 1933 her house in Dublin was attacked by an anti-communist mob.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Despard was also active in promoting a variety of other causes, including Save the Children, the Indian independence movement, theosophy, and the London Vegetarian Society. She died after a fall at the age of 95, but left behind an enduring legacy. Charlotte Despard was a confident, strong-willed, independent woman, who frequently defied convention and suffered hardship to fight for what she believed in. She is an inspiration.

Sources

History Today. http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/despard1.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).

Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War. London: Pan Books, 2011.

Mulvihill, Margaret. ‘Despard, Charlotte (1844–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2014 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37356, accessed 12 Nov 2014.

Open University, The. ‘Charlotte Despard.’ Making Britain (no date) http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard (accessed 12/11/14).

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (no date) http://www.oxforddnb.com/images/article-imgs/37/37356_1_200px.jpg (accessed 12/11/14).