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Sylivia Pankhurst addressing a crowd in Bow, London

The women who were radicalised in prison

Essay | 8 minute read
Suffragette Centenary Series: Force-feeding and physical assaults on First Wave Feminists only led them to strengthen their resolve to fight to the end, argues Diane Atkinson

One hundred and one years ago on 6 February 1918, some women who were thirty, and had certain property qualifications, got the vote. This was only after a long and very painful struggle with the Liberal government, with the police and with the prison warders and governors and medics. In December 1918, just four weeks after the end of the First World War, 8,400,000 women voted at the general election, some of them for one of the seventeen female candidates who were now entitled to stand at elections to become MPs. It was a staggering achievement when we consider the suffering and sacrifice which preceded it in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914.

On 14 January 1910, disguised as a working-class seamstress called ‘Jane Warton’, Lady Constance Lytton endangered her weak heart by deliberately getting herself arrested outside Walton Gaol, Liverpool. To her family’s despair, Constance, who was forty years old and rather frail, became a suffragette by joining the Women’s Social and Political Union, and threw herself into the outspoken and militant movement for votes for women. Constance Lytton had not been allowed to marry the man she loved – he was an army officer without a title and funds to keep an earl’s daughter in the manner to which she was accustomed. She fell in love with the women’s suffrage campaign and risked everything every time she made a militant protest.

Outraged at not being treated in the same way as her working-class sisters when she was arrested in Newcastle on 9 October 1909, for throwing a stone at a Cabinet Minister’s car, Constance was sentenced to a month in prison for ‘disorderly conduct’. When the prison authorities discovered she had a weak heart, and realised who she was (her brother Victor Bulwer-Lytton, 2nd Earl of Lytton, was a senior member of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords) she was immediately released.

Constance was determined to experience prison as a working-class suffragette in Liverpool. So effective was her disguise that suffragettes she had worked with in the past did not recognise her. She went to a meeting held by the local WSPU picketing outside Walton Gaol, urged them to go with her to the governor’s house and demanded the release of suffragette prisoners. ‘Jane Warton’ was arrested and sentenced to fourteen days in the prison’s third-division cells, which meant that she had to wear prison clothing and do menial work. On arrival she was stripped, dressed in prison clothing and put in a punishment cell. She went on a hunger strike and was fed by force after four days of starvation, without a medical examination. Constance was released nine days into her sentence after being force-fed a total of eight times, when the governor became aware of her true identity. Constance told the newspaper Votes for Women how the prison doctor who fed her hit her across the face. The second time he fed her she vomited over his clothes. ‘He was angry, “If you do that again I shall feed you twice.”’ At the next feed Lady Constance vomited over him continuously. ‘He pressed the feeding tube down more firmly and poured in more food. This produced an attack of shivering as to alarm him.’

Constance Lytton’s story is one of hundreds of examples of suffragette campaigners going on a hunger strike and being force-fed in protest at not being treated as political prisoners while they served their sentences. The WSPU reminded the authorities and the press that during the nineteenth century, men who were imprisoned for acts relating to political struggles had fought for, and won, the right to serve their time in first-division cells, which entitled them to wear their own clothes, have freedom of association with other first-division prisoners, have food sent in from the outside, receive visits and books, and write as many letters as they wished. They were also allowed to carry on their own profession so long as prison discipline was not disturbed. Citing historical precedent, Sylvia Pankhurst, who was an artist, was allowed ink and paper and pencils in her cell. However, Emily Wilding Davison, who earned a small living as a journalist, failed to persuade prison governors to allow her paper, pen and ink because of the gravity of her repeat offending,

The suffragettes insisted they were merely asking for privileges for which there was a precedent. The Liberal government denied the offences were politically motivated, and ordered the suffragettes be treated as common criminals. Even then force-feeding was called torture.

I have often wondered if I could interview the 200 suffragettes who are in my book – many of whom served several prison sentences, went on hunger strikes for weeks at a time and were force-fed dozens of times – how they would explain their increasingly radical words and violent behaviour. Kitty Marion, the music hall actress and ‘refined comedienne’ who became a window-smasher and arsonist, joined the militant campaign in 1908 after years of suffering sexual harassment and poverty because she would not climb onto the casting couch for work. When imprisoned she would go on a hunger strike and was fed by nasal and stomach tube. In one year alone, 1913, Kitty was fed by force 232 times.

In 1992 I was privileged to interview Victoria Lidiard, née Simmons, who had come to London from Bristol in March 1912, aged twenty-three, with her sister Winnie, and broke a window at the War Office in Whitehall. She was sent to Holloway for one month, went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. When she returned to Bristol at the end of her sentence, a local clergyman spat in her face when he saw her selling the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women in the street.

When I asked Victoria, who was 100 years old, if she had planned her militant career, she said no, and this was surely true of all the women who ended up behind bars. It was teeth-grinding frustration at the government’s intransigence and lies which made militants of hundreds of women of all classes, from all parts of the United Kingdom, and all kinds of life experiences, into convicted criminals.

It was also police brutality, the physical and sexual violence while demonstrating outside the House of Commons. On 18 November 1910, always remembered by suffragettes as ‘Black Friday’, 150 women were physically and sexually assaulted. The violence of that day and riots during the following week proved to be a tipping point. Mrs Pankhurst, founder and leader of the WSPU, was afraid that women would die in these confrontations and so she changed the direction and mood of the campaign. She called on the suffragettes to wage a guerrilla war – her words – against the Liberal government until they gave women the vote.

The experience of prison – not only of starving themselves and being force-fed when all they wanted was the vote, but also the obvious controlling behaviour of the authorities – is what sparked their revolt. Meeting their poorer sisters, whose lives were hard, drove many more women on in their perilous journey for the vote. Friendships, romantic relationships, careers and jobs were often lost and sacrificed to ‘the Cause’ of votes for women.

There was gratitude for suffragettes who went to prison and were fed by force. When they were released from Holloway Gaol, and other prisons, they were greeted at the prison gates and escorted to a breakfast reception – something like a press conference. The room, often in a central London hotel, would be packed with WSPU members and friends wearing the purple, white and green colours of the WSPU, and the suffragettes would tell of their experiences in prison to a hushed audience, shocked and moved by their brutal experiences. They were given medals, ‘For Valour’, ‘in recognition of a gallant action, whereby through endurance to the last extremity of hunger and hardship, a great principle of political justice was vindicated’. Silver bars were engraved with the dates of their force-feeding and attached to the ribbons every time they served time and were tortured by the authorities.

A Suffragette banner for the ‘WSPU Holloway Prisoners’ which symbolised the spirit of comradeship that gave suffragette prisoners the courage to endure hunger strikes and force-feeding

Many women who were unable to take a public role in the suffragette campaign would pledge their time, or money, and donate jewellery, and place it on the collecting plate that went round at the end of the event. Such donations would be sold in the pages of Votes for Women, or auctioned, and the proceeds were added to the WSPU’s ‘War Chest’.  It was the accounts whispered or croaked by women who had just been released from prison after being force-fed three times a day for days at a time, with stories of teeth broken by the metal gags which were inserted to stop the women spitting out the food, of the feeding tube being forced down and the liquid food whooshing straight into the stomach and the vomiting of it over the prison doctor and wardresses and themselves. The humiliation of their vomit being weighed and recorded. Sometimes food ended up in the lungs causing pleurisy and pneumonia, conditions which were often fatal in the days before antibiotics.

Being in prison was a radicalising experience, and for suffragettes’ families and comrades outside. The conflict between a Liberal government determined not to give women the vote and the women trying to force them to do so was fought on the streets in towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom, but more painfully inside prison. British prisons in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Aylesbury, Cardiff, Dublin, Belfast, Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh filled with suffragette prisoners when Holloway was full, and were the location of the torture of women.

Three times a day, day after day, these harrowing force-feedings oxygenated the already high levels of arson, vandalism and bombings from 1910 onwards. It was not a planned programme of radicalisation, more a human reaction to the wickedness of a government in concert with its own executive arms which attempted to torture women out of their protest and put the WSPU out of existence. The police, the prison governors, the doctors and the female warders did the dirty work for the government. Just as one might expect.

Diane Atkinson’s latest book is Rise Up Women: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (Bloomsbury)