Counting women — Counting enough to be counted

Yesterday, International Women’s Day, I went to see the new small exhibition at the British Library. And while the census is not obviously about women, the question of counting women matters.

Col. William Thornton, who fought under the Duke of Cumberland in 1745, and was later MP for York, thundered that there was no ‘individual of the human species so presumptuous and abandoned as to make the proposal we have just heard’ — the horrifying and radical notion that the country’s population be counted. The very idea was, he said, ‘totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty.’

Uh-huh. Luckily for Thornton, he died before the idea became a reality (of apoplexy, I assume, if the above is any measure of his general level of calm). Even in 1801, the first census was merely a numbering: how many people lived at each address. It was not until 1841 that really nosey questions appeared: name, age (within a five-year-guesstimate) and how the residents were related to each other: head of family, wife, children, servants etc.

In 1911, however, the Suffragettes responded robustly to the coming census. If they didn’t count enough to be given the vote, they decided, they didn’t count enough to be counted. Many women refused to participate, pasting over their forms with flyers reading ‘No Votes for Women. No Census.’ Emily Davison, the Suffragette who died by throwing herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1912, on census night 1911 hid in the chapel of the Houses of Parliament, so that her residence, on the official return, was of necessity ‘House of Commons’. Many others, not willing to go that far, spent the entire night as special events, so that they could legally not appear on the census.

The 2001 census counted 1 million people who acted as unpaid carers for more than fifty hours a week. We can make an educated guess how many of those were women. It brings into focus another statistic that year, that 10 per cent of women worked less than 30 hours a week. Of course, in bureacracy-speak, the latter means paid work, while the former is not called ‘work’ at all.

Perhaps for the next census, it is time to focus government minds on the idea of all women’s work being dignified as ‘work’? Or perhaps, like the suffragettes, we should simply get those 1 million carers to withdraw their labour, even for a couple of hours — 2 million woman-hours of work not done, because the government of men by men fail to connect the dots the census lays out so clearly.

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