The Government’s Game of Cat and Mouse: Women Suffragettes in Prison

Article by Rhiannon Pickin. Edited by Stephen Woodward. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.

British Suffragette hands out leaflets

In 1918, after a long struggle in the name of the suffragette movement to secure the political and social rights for the female population of Britain, women achieved the right to vote through the Representation of the People Act. After many years of protest resulting in protestors being thrown in prison, women could now have a say in how their lives should be governed which started the ball rolling for more legislation that improved their human rights. However, it is difficult to comprehend the brutal mistreatment that those in prison were subjected to, particularly in relation to how those in charge ignorantly counteracted the starvation protests of the women prisoners with horrific and often degrading practises of force-feeding. These horrendous acts of prison torture, which occurred less than a century ago, are prime examples of how the governmental system failed those who they saw as common criminals rather than political prisoners.

Many people, when they think of the actions and protests of the suffragettes, would probably envision them as women who chained themselves to the railings outside Buckingham Palace, as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the vote, or as those who gave their lives to help their cause – who can forget the June 1913 Derby when Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse and thus became a martyr for the suffragette cause? As well as this however there were also their more violent actions, such as the firebombing of the houses of politicians or hiring boats along the Thames so to shout abuse as they sailed past the Houses of Parliament. Such acts would have been treated as acts of criminality and consequentially led to the imprisonment of many suffragette women. However, these women were happy to go to prison in the name of their cause and they often went on hunger strikes during their time incarcerated. In retaliation, the authority within these prison systems, as well as the government, treated these women with the punishment that they saw fit for common criminals, rather than political prisoners, and resolved this issue of hunger striking through acts of force feeding. The suffragette Mary Leigh who was sentenced to a term at Winson Green Prison described the horrors of force-feeding – “The wardresses forced me onto a bed (in the cell) and two doctors came in with them. While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted. It was two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there was a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid was passing. The end was put up left and right nostrils on alternate days. Great pain was experienced during the process, both mental and physical.”

Many members of the public were outraged at this kind of treatment being forced upon educated women, as force-feeding was traditionally associated with the mentally ill. To resolve this outcry from the people, the government passed the Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act. Through this, the government assumed that when these women entered the prisons they would begin a hunger strike, which the government let them continue. So, when the prisoner was so weak from starvation, the prisoners would be released from detention. This led to either the suffragette being too weak to protest against the government or, a more sinister scenario, when the suffragette would die or become fatally ill but not within the confines of her prison cell and her demise not being within the care of the British prison system. It was because of this that the members of the suffragette movement called this the Cat and Mouse Act.

As the term force-feeding suggests, there was an extreme amount of pain felt by the suffragette as a large feeding pipe was forced into her throat or nostril and pushed down until it reached her stomach, leaving her unable to breathe until the pipe had gone all the way down. As well as the mental anguish felt by this and through the constant toil of pacing a cell day in day out without food or drink, physical scars were also left through this procedure. This included how the victim’s gums would bleed if held in place with a steel gag or the feeding pipe may lead to internal bleeding. If dirty equipment was also used on the suffragettes who were force-fed this would also have led to the spreading of various diseases exchanged by blood and mucus. Through identifying the horrid details of such an act, it can be understood why force-feeding has been seen to be similar to rape or torture. Historian Diane Atkinson has also said how “We know that it had a psychological impact on women. Some women’s health suffered quite a major breakdown. Very often the food went down the wrong way and the lungs filled with food, and there was pleurisy and pneumonia. There is a serious health risk, apart from the psychological damage, that this kind of experience could have on women.” However, instead of inhibiting the rise of the suffragette movement, the use of force-feeding in prisons only increased support for the movement from the public as people sympathised and condemned the use of force-feeding against the members of the suffrage movement.


Lady Catherine Lytton disguised as Jane Wharton

It is difficult to imagine that during a time that even some of our great-grandparents may have been able to remember, such barbaric acts of torture were put upon the supposedly ‘more feeble’ sex. Looking over the views of some historians over the years, it is clear that not enough emphasis has been put upon the courageousness of these women who repeatedly went to prison despite first hand knowledge of their treatment and regardless put their lives on the line so that the female voice can be heard and appreciated in our time. It is important that their ordeal is not forgotten, as it gives greater awareness of how the prison system was used as a form of punishment in a chauvinist society, that ultimately mentally and physically injured those who tried to unify the rights of men and women so as to break a tradition of discrimination in British politics.

  • In July 1909 the imprisoned Marion Wallace Dunlop became the first woman to go on hunger strike. She was released after 91 hours of not eating. By September of the same year force feeding was introduced to deal with suffragettes who went on hunger strike.
  • Fearing that poorer prisoners were being treated more severely than their richer counterparts in 1910 Lady Catherine Lytton disguised herself as a working class woman, assumed the name Jane Wharton, got herself arrested and was imprisoned for two weeks in Walton Gaol, Liverpool. She was force fed 8 times and put to hard labour, later publishing an account of her incarceration and openly speaking out against such treatment. She is believed to have been instrumental in changing conditions in prisons for the better.
  • April 1913 the Cat and Mouse Act was passed. It allowed hunger strikers to be released when they became too weak and then rearrested once their health had improved.
  • In protest against the force feeding of Emmeline Parkhurst, Mary Richardson slashed a portrait of Venus in the National Gallery in March 1914, claiming both acts maimed women.

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