Women’s Tax Resistance League 1909 - 1918

TAX HISTORY GROUP  - Women’s Tax Resistance League 1909 - 1918

David Williams reports

One of the bizarre facts that we learned in a fascinating evening was that married women were lumped into the same legislative category by the 1842 Income Tax Act as incapacitated persons, along with infants, lunatics, idiots and insane persons, and their incomes were chargeable on their husbands. Many women understandably found this treatment offensive, especially since before 1918 they were unable to vote. Their long struggle for more enlightened treatment was the theme of an excellent talk to the WCOTA Tax History Group on 24 October by Helen Thornley, Technical Officer with the ATT.

In 1909 the Women’s Tax Resistance League was formed by personalities such as Ethel Ayres Purdie, the first woman member of an accountancy body, Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson (daughter of the first woman doctor), Clemence Housman (sister of the poet A E), and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian aristocrat who refused to pay the licence fee for her five dogs and a male servant and had a seven stone diamond ring distrained. The League caused such disruption at distraint sales -where members would bid to buy back a defaulting member’s property - that some auctioneers refused to conduct the sales.  

In the same spirit, Mark Wilks, a teacher married to a doctor, was imprisoned for 14 days in 1912 after refusing to pay income tax on his wife’s income: the courts were unimpressed by his argument that his wife refused to give him details of her earnings so he was unable to report them. In 1913 a deputation of the League met the Chancellor, Lloyd George, who agreed that treating married women as incapacitated was a “legal humiliation”, but baulked at the revenue cost of changing the law (claimed to be £1.5 million). On the eve of the First World War, Ethel Purdie acquired some government stock paying interest net of tax and took a case to the courts, without success, to highlight the anomaly that tax was withheld from her own income yet repaid, if a rebate was due, to her husband.  

The League suspended its activities during the war, and with peace bringing many women the vote at last, wound itself up in 1918. But many of its members continued to press for separate taxation of married women, although this was not to come until well within the professional memory of many of the listeners to Helen’s fascinating talk.