Ruth Boreham is currently undertaking research into the protests made by women in Scotland in refusing to participate in the 1911 census. Read the following and if you have any information please get in touch with Ruth:
There has been much in the media of late about different ways that the suffragettes and suffragists campaigned for the vote in the run up to partial suffrage in 1918, mainly concentrating on the military action of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) lead by the Pankhursts. But many more ways were used to strengthen the voice of those who believed that women should be given the vote, and the census that was taken on the 2nd April 1911 was seen as a way of protesting against the government who were still refusing to grant them a vote, despite decades of campaigning. Women were urged to use the government’s own tool, the census, against them by various means, from spoiling papers, refusing to give information, or avoiding their usual abode.
There has been much work done since 2009 on the 1911 census returns in England, but what happened in Scotland? Frustratingly the original returns were destroyed long ago, but I am currently looking at the enumerators returns, and other archival records, including letters and newspapers, to find out how widespread the protest was. There were those who wrote ‘suffragette’ as their occupation, those who came together for the night avoiding their usual place of abode, and those who refused to be recorded. I would love to hear if you have discovered any such records in your own research.
We were fortunate to have such welcoming and supporting hosts in Dundee’s Central Library in the Wellgate with Maureen Hood and her team providing display materials from ‘Voteless not Voiceless‘ an exhibition held in the library a few years ago.
The launch was very well attended and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for both the online learning resource and learning more about the history of the suffrage movement in Dundee. In fact it turns out that Dundee could not have been a better place to hold the launch given the richness of the existing history of women in the city.
Following a brief introduction on our motivations for creating the resource and a tour of what information it contained, Esther Breitenbach of the WHS steering committeee gave an overview of the suffrage movement in Scotland, emphasising the long-run nature of the campaign for enfranchisement in Scotland and the differing demands of various groups of women. Central to this is the difference between suffragists and suffragettes: Suffragists used peaceful constitutional methods to make their case that women should have the vote on the same terms on men, and suffragist groups included the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The suffragettes on the other hand advocated militant action and were largely members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Numerically there were far more suffragists than suffragettes and yet it is the suffragettes that live on in popular memory of the campaign for the vote. Esther also spoke of the early organisation of women in favour of the suffrage cause in Dundee and women’s involvement in political parties and activity in the city.
Norman Watson, journalist and author of several books on women’s history in Dundee including the soon to be reissued Dundee’s Suffragettes: Their Remarkable Struggle to Win Votes for Women then spoke very authoritatively and engagingly on the activities of members of the WSPU and WFL in Dundee such as Ethel Moorehead, Lila Clunas and Agnes Husband. Drawing on his vast collection of postcards, suffrage memorabilia, not to mention extensive knowledge, we all learned a great deal about the reasons why there was comparatively more suffrage activity in Dundee. Central to this was the fact that the then Prime Minister’s constituency was in East Fife and Winston Churchill was standing Liberal MP for Dundee in 1908. At this point Churchill was a rising star in the party, President of the Board of Trade and would go on to be Home Secretary in 1910. As a result Dundee was a high profile constituency and thus a strategic target of suffragette militancy. One of the most famous disrupting strategy was taken by Mary Maloney a member of the WSPU who would ring a bell every time Churchill addressed a crowd in Dundee (see image above). Nearby Perth prison also became notorious as this was where suffragettes were sent to be force-fed in Scotland. The WSPU rented a flat across from the prison so that members could sing songs and chants of solidarity with those imprisoned.
If you would like a more in-depth account of Dundee’s suffragette history look out for the publication of Norman’s book later this year.
Following a tea and coffee break, with refreshments generously provided by Dundee Central Library, historian Kenneth Baxter gave a presentation on the political representation of women in Dundee, which from 1918 to c. 1955 lagged behind the other major cities in Scotland. Dundonians were slow to elect their first female Councillor and first female MP. It was interesting to hear more about the women who were elected, their careers and political priorities in the city. While there is no one definitive answer to explain the relative lack of female elected representatives in Dundee given the city’s reputation as a women’s town, we had a good discussion with many suggestions from those attending the event.
The official launch of the online learning resource was a great success and we are keen to hold similar events throughout Scotland. If you are part of a local history or community group and would like to know more about the suffrage movement in your area please get in touch by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
The theme, given that this year is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, is ‘A Vote for the Future’. So it really is the perfect environment in which to launch our resource (more details of when the resource will go live will follow soon). The study of women’s history in Dundee is well established with Eleanor Gordon’s research on the women workers of the jute mills, Kenneth Baxter’s work on female politicians, Sarah Browne’s research on the Dundee Women’s Citizens Association, and Norman Watson’s work on Dundee women, among many others. And let’s not forget the excellent Dundee Women’s Trail!
On Saturday 10th of March, from 2-4pm in the Wellgate Library we will be thinking about the demands made by women in Dundee for equality both before and after the Representation of the People Act of 1918. We’ll be discussing constitutional suffrage as well as the militancy of the suffragettes. Also we’ll be thinking about the role of political parties and the implications of the vote in Dundee in terms of women’s political involvement.
Practical advice on how to find out more about women’s history in Dundee will be provided along with examples of useful source material.