Suffragette Hunger Strikes, 100 Years On
When the first suffragette began her strike, she politicised her body and contributed to a radical tradition of non-violent protest
One hundred years ago, on 5 July 1909, the imprisoned suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop, a sculptor and illustrator, went on hunger strike. A member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women, she had been sent to Holloway prison for printing an extract from the bill of rights on the wall of St Stephen's Hall in the House of Commons. In her second division cell, Wallace Dunlop refused all food as a protest against the unwillingness of the authorities to recognise her as a political prisoner, and thus entitled to be placed in the first division where inmates enjoyed certain privileges. Her hunger strike, she claimed, was "a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me ... refusing all food until this matter is settled to my satisfaction". After three and a half days of fasting, she was released.
Other suffragettes that summer of 1909, believing they had found a powerful weapon with which to fight a stubborn Liberal government, also went on hunger strike. However, the government feared that the early release of such rebellious prisoners would make a mockery of the justice system and by the end of September forcible feeding was introduced, an operation justified as "ordinary hospital treatment" to save the women's lives. Over the next five years, this vicious circle of events was to shape the representation of the suffragette movement for years to come.
The image of the lonely suffragette on hunger strike in her isolated prison cell held a particular cultural resonance since she appropriated a form of protest that had been adopted by some, mainly male, dissidents in the past - and made it her own. Wishing to retain control of her own body, which had often been battered and bruised in various deputations to parliament, she used it as a political statement to contest an all-male government's refusal to allow her to enter the realm of politics. The hunger strike was a means of passive resistance to the injustices that women experienced, because of their sex.
The forcible feeding of women was a brutal and life-threatening procedure conducted against the wishes of the "patient". The hunger striker was held down on a bed by wardresses or tied to a chair which they tipped back. Then a rubber tube was either forced up the nose or down the throat and into the stomach. The latter method was particularly painful because a steel gap was pushed into the mouth and screwed open, as wide as possible. Tissue in the nose and throat was nearly always damaged, while sometimes the tube was accidentally inserted into the windpipe, causing food to enter the lungs and endangering life. This invasion of the body, accompanied by overpowering physical force, suffering and humiliation made many women feel they had been raped, with the words "violation" or "outrage" being commonly used.
Forcible feeding became particularly cruel and dangerous after the notorious Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 which allowed a hunger striking suffragette who became ill to be released into the community, in order to regain her health, only to be re-arrested when she was well enough to complete her sentence. The process often extended the period of the sentence. Many women, such as Grace Roe and Kitty Marion, were force fed more than 200 times. Some wrote accounts of their horrendous experiences for the WSPU organ the Suffragette or the few sympathetic newspapers that would print their story. That an all-male "Liberal" government inflicted such torture upon women who were excluded from the parliamentary process added to the sense of revulsion that many women and some members of the public felt. It was not until the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914 that the procedure stopped when the WSPU leadership called a temporary suspension to all militancy and the government granted an amnesty to all suffrage prisoners.
Although certain categories of women were not granted the parliamentary vote until 1918, the suffragette hunger strike as a non-violent political tool was adopted by a range of dissidents, including the Irish republican James Connolly and Mahatma Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader of the Indian independence movement, both protesting against British rule in their respective countries. In our own times, in April of this year, Sivatharsan Sivakumaraval and Praramejwaran Subramaniam went on hunger strike outside parliament in protest at the war in Sri Lanka. The hunger striking suffragette who politicised her body contributed to a radical tradition of rebellion, dissent and resistance that is still reverberating around the world.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited