Mapping Women’s Suffrage plots the locations and lives of suffrage campaigners in cities, towns and villages across England in 1911. By then, the suffrage movement had campaigned for half-a-century and had gathered considerable support in its demand for Votes for Women.
The largest women’s suffrage organization, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1897 and was later led by Mrs Millicent Fawcett. Its suffragists used law-abiding methods such as petitions and processions to patiently persuade the government to give women the vote. Thanks to the NUWSS’s considerable work, a network of local suffrage groups spread across the country.
Yet, the government repeatedly failed to act on votes for women causing immense frustration amongst suffrage campaigners. Hence, in 1903, a new society - the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) - was formed in Manchester by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. It soon adopted new tactics to win women the vote and was willing to break the law. The WSPU’s suffragettes pursued a strategy of ‘spectacle politics’ carrying out a range of headline-grabbing activities including mass window smashing and later a campaign of arson. These actions resulted in many arrests and imprisonments. The government refused to acknowledge imprisoned suffragettes as political prisoners, so hunger strikes began in 1909. The government soon responded with forcible feeding - a torturous practice that was condemned across the suffrage movement. This embittered already tense relations between suffrage campaigners and then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government.
Not all campaigners felt happy with the WSPU suffragettes especially their use of more extreme tactics like arson. Suffragists in the NUWSS preferred to retain what they saw as dignified, law-abiding tactics to win popular and political support for the Votes for Women cause. And in 1907, some suffragettes broke away from the WSPU to form a new organisation called the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL led by Mrs Charlotte Despard was prepared to break the law and used a variety of tactics to campaign for the vote, but preferred methods of civil disobedience such as refusing to pay taxes – No Vote, No Tax – or taking part in the suffrage census boycott of 1911 (see below).
Despite differences between suffrage organizations, the Votes for Women campaign grew in strength and number and together these larger, and many smaller suffrage societies and their campaigners, helped secure votes for women in 1918. However, it was an important but only a partial victory as the vote was only granted to some women over 30 who met property qualifications. It was not until a decade later in 1928, that women were finally given the vote on the same terms as men.
It is the locations, identities and lives of many of these determined campaigners ~ and in the year 1911 ~ that Mapping Women’s Suffrage aims to capture. You can look at the map to find a suffrage campaigner who lived near you – a suffragist or suffragette down your street.
A SNAPSHOT IN TIME: WHY 1911?
In 1911, the women’s suffrage campaign was at its height. Many women and men who sympathised with Votes for Women had become active campaigners by then. Indeed, suffrage branches had sprung up the length and breadth of England. There was scarcely a community or town that did not have its own NUWSS branch. Larger towns and cities often had WSPU and WFL branches too as well as a paid suffrage organizer, a central office, and even a suffrage shop selling books, posters, scarfs and badges.
Importantly in April 1911, the Government conducted its decennial census survey to gather household and population information needed to inform its ambitious health and welfare reform scheme [we still fill in the government census survey every ten years to this day]. For the first time in 1911, the census was filled in by the head of household’s own hand rather than by a government official, allowing us to glimpse right inside every family home. The 1911 census forms together with information drawn from archives, newspapers, local events and records, enables the Mapping Women’s Suffrage project to identify and plot the home addresses of many suffragists and suffragettes at the height of the movement, putting them back in the neighbourhoods where they lived and often campaigned.
The 1911 census itself is important because it became embroiled in the politics of the Votes for Women campaign. Militant societies, notably the WSPU and WFL, who were prepared to break the law, urged suffragettes to boycott the census illegally, spoiling the state’s population statistics in protest at women’s exclusion from the vote. Their defiant slogan was ‘No Vote, No Census’ ~ to win publicity for the cause. Suffragettes who boycotted the census either chose to evade the census officials who collected the forms altogether, hiding away in darkened rooms so that they were not counted. Or they chose to resist, remaining in their homes but defiantly refusing to supply the information the census official required. This was illegal and women who participated risked a hefty fine or even imprisonment. This action contrasted with the large law abiding NUWSS which urged its members to comply with the census, arguing that boycotting it was unlikely to persuade either politicians or the public to grant women the vote. This meant that most suffrage campaigners complied with the census. However, patterns will have varied across England, cities and country, north and south, London and elsewhere. The Mapping Women’s Suffrage project has incorporated the census protest into the map to record and display these patterns of protest. You can use the drop-down menu on the map to select and filter which campaigners resisted, evaded, or complied with the 1911 census.
For some suffragettes, the census forms themselves became symbols of protest ~ they scrawled messages of defiance across them (see images above). Many suffragette and suffragist census forms are supplied free by the Mapping Women’s Suffrage project (thanks to partners The National Archives) and can be viewed by clicking suffrage campaigner icons on the map.