The census, taken on a spring night every decade since 1801, is a record of both everyday sexism and the emancipation of women
When the idea of a national census was first championed in Britain, it was argued that, “the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy”. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t always so “rational”, especially when it came to the female proportion of the population. Each decade’s census gives us a – sometimes unintentional – glimpse into society’s attitudes towards women.
In 1811, the second time the census was taken, households were asked to give only their chief source of income. In most cases, this this overlooked the contribution of women who, while likely not the primary earner, frequently did odd jobs, such as selling handicrafts, that kept the family from the breadline. Twenty years later, it changed so only adult male employment was registered, with the exception of the 670,491 female servants in England, Scotland and Wales, once again completely ignoring the long hours put in by women.
Turn to page 76 of March's The Simple Things for more.