Tax Resistance in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement

In past hunts I’ve found intriguing hints but few details about the role of tax resistance in the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain. Here’s a bit more, in an excerpt from The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, :

Rooting their rejection of the law’s authority in the principle that “government without the consent of the governed is tyranny,” [suffragettes] claimed the right to withhold consent until they received representation in Parliament. Withholding consent provided an especially compelling argument where women could establish that they fulfilled the responsibilities of citizenship but lacked basic political rights. Tax resistance formed an important part of suffragettes’ overall strategy to reject the legal obligations of women who lacked representation, drawing upon an older tradition of tax resistance in England for its authority. WTRL member Mrs. Darent Harrison invoked that history in her assertion of a “sense of intimacy and spiritual kinship which must exist between all who have ever defied the law of the day, in defence of eternal justice, and in obedience to the call of public duty.” The WSPU decided to resist payment of income taxes in . The WFL urged “no vote — no tax” . Drawing once again on historical precedent, the suffragettes argued that in , the king illegally levied taxes, whereas voteless women were illegally taxed by Parliament, an even more serious offense, since it occurred at a time of representative government. Militants believed that, by refusing to pay taxes without representation, women would force Parliament to grant votes to women. Tax resistance was frequently presented as part of a larger strategy, as in when Charlotte Despard defined WFL tax resistance as part of a larger general strike of women, which would extend to the refusal to bear children, to manage their homes, or to fulfill any of the citizen duties they currently performed.

Tax resistance proved to be the longest-lived form of militancy, and the most difficult to prosecute. More than 220 women, mostly middle-class, participated in tax resistance , some continuing to resist through the First World War, despite a general suspension of militancy. Suffragettes resisted payment of two general categories of tax: the first included property tax, inhabited house duty, and income tax; the second, taxes and licenses on dogs, carriages, motor cars, male servants, armorial bearings, guns, and game. Contemporaries had several theories regarding tax resistance’s appeal. Suffragette speaker and sympathizer Laurence Housman cited the clarity of tax resistance’s logic as a primary reason for its popularity. Suffragettes’ tax resistance also cut across organizational lines. The formation of the Women’s Tax Resistance League in brought women together from numerous organizations, including not only the WSPU, WFL, and NUWSS but also the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, Church League for Women’s Suffrage, Free Church League, Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, Actresses’ Franchise League, Artists’ Franchise League, and the Women Writers’ Suffrage League.

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