I chose the 1911 Census Protests as the subject for my Forgotten Women Podcast drama, as it felt like a largely untold story from the campaign for women’s suffrage, and not something I’d seen featured in documentaries or dramas.
The Census Protests involved peaceful acts of civil disobedience being committed by a wide range of women. Not only the suffragettes, who by this time were well known for their marches, demonstrations and direct actions, took part, but many of the law-abiding, peaceful suffragists were involved too. As I discovered the range of original, innovative and inventive ways women found to avoid being registered on the census forms, I became hooked by this subject.
“If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted” was the slogan summing up the rationale behind the actions of that night. Emmeline Pankhurst of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) called on women to boycott the 1911 census in protest against the Liberal Government‘s refusal to give women the vote. Her plan was for a nationwide passive protest whereby women who were at home on census night would refuse to complete the return (risking a £5 fine or a month’s imprisonment), or they might avoid the census altogether by being out of the house.
When we think of political demonstrations we tend to imagine marchers carrying placards and chanting slogans, but the census night showed that protests could take other different forms, and also be great fun, despite the possible serious consequences. Although doubtless some of those who took part faced being shamed or disowned by their husbands, families or friends, nobody was charged for census evasion.
The action was ground breaking as this was a time when women were discouraged from going out alone at night and those that did so were often harassed by male strangers or the police, and judged as ‘not respectable’. Census night was for many Edwardian women, young and old, the first time they had ventured out at night, unescorted by a husband or male family member. For once, in
some areas, the streets after dark were thronging not with men but with women, and a sense of excitement, freedom and possibility hung in the air.
Before researching the events of the night of April 2nd 1911 for this project, the only part I knew about was Emily Wilding Davison hiding herself away inside a cupboard within the Houses of Parliament. If she were discovered there then it would be as a woman recorded in the male bastion of parliament. Davison was one of the most committed suffragettes and is remembered for being killed after being hit by King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. A plaque in her memory was placed in the broom cupboard by Tony Benn, Helena Kennedy QC and Jeremy Corbyn.
Among the other stunts and events organised by women evading the census were a midnight picnic on Wimbledon Common, skating at The Aldwych Ice Rink and supper at a vegetarian restaurant in Covent Garden.
Although my play focuses on events taking place in London, census night protests took place countrywide. In Birkenhead, a Miss Davies wrote on her form the name of a male servant, adding “no other persons, but many women”. In Manchester, a house full of census evaders was renamed “Census Lodge”. An Ibsen play reading (‘A Doll’s House’ perhaps?) entertained Portsmouth women, while others walked on the Yorkshire Moors, gathered in an Edinburgh café and one woman even put on her fur coat and spent the night in a cycle shed behind her house.