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WTRL badge, designed by Mary Sargant Florence
Wikimedia Commons

The Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL) was from 1909 until 1918 a direct action group associated with the Women’s Freedom League, encouragong women to resist paying taxes as a protest against their disenfranchisment. It was one of a number of suffragette groups that split from the main Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1909, over differences of opinion surrounding suffragette militancy.[1]

The league member and author Beatrice Harraden said in 1913 that:

The least any woman can do is to refuse to pay taxes, especially the tax on actually earned income. This is certainly the most logical phase of the fight for suffrage. It is a culmination of the Government’s injustice and stupidity to ask that we pay an income tax on income earned by brains, when they are refusing to consider us eligible to vote.[2]

The formation of such a league had been proposed by Dora Montefiore in 1897,[3] whose London home was besieged by bailiffs for six weeks in 1906 because of her refusal to pay her tax without representation,[4] but it was not formally established until 22 October 1909.[3] Members saw themselves in a tradition of British tax resistance that included John Hampden, one of the Five MembersFive members of parliament whom King Charles tried to have arrested in the House of Commons on 4 January 1642. of parliament whose attempted arrest by King Charles I in January 1642 sparked the First English Civil War. According to the historian Laura E. Nym Mayhall,

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 between 1906 and 1918, some continuing to resist through the First World War, despite a general suspension of militancy.[5]

The English doctor and philanthropist Elizabeth Wilks, a founder member and treasurer of the WTRL, refused to pay her tax in 1908. According to the law at the time, the joint income of a couple was added together and the husband paid the tax. But Elizabeth, who earned more than her husband, refused to tell him how much she had earned. As a married woman, she herself was not required to pay tax, which presented the authorities with a quandary. Her husband, Mark, said he was willing to pay whatever tax was required, but he had no idea how much that should be, there being no legal requirement for a wife to tell her husband about her income. The authorities illegally seized some of Elizabeth’s goods in 1910 in an attempt to levy the tax on her income, and then tried to claim the tax either from the Wilks or from Elizabeth’s husband alone. Mark was arrested for non-payment and held in Brixton prison, which sparked protest demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park, leading to his release two weeks later.[6]

It was not until 1972 that the law was changed to allow wives to have their earned income assessed separately for taxation purposes.[6]