Friday, February 17, 2017

Historical Footnote: Militant Suffragettes, Forced Feeding, and Class Identity

A brief historical footnote completely unrelated to President Agent Orange.

I've been working with an honors student on her senior thesis this spring. She's interested in the militant suffrage movement in England (1909-1914 roughly); we've been reading memoirs by the Pankhursts, novels like Gertrude Colmore's Suffragette Sally (published in 1910 -- interestingly, there's no digital version of it online anywhere!), the anti-suffrage novel Delia Blanchflower (archive.org), and combing through old collections of the London Times and Votes for Women (the weekly newspaper closely affiliated with the WSPU).  We're finding lots of interesting stuff, but since I am not an expert in this area I wanted to put this footnote out there in case readers have suggestions or tips relating to this topic they could share.

We got interested in the depiction of the imprisoned activists who engaged in hunger strikes as a mode of resistance inside prison during the peak of the militant suffrage movement.

One curious discovery my student made was that at first this was seen as linked to class identity. In the early 1900s, the women's prison system in England was structured along strict class lines. First class women prisoners ("political prisoners") could wear their own clothes, order food for delivery in prison, have access to books and writing materials, and even receive visitors. Second class prisoners had more limited rights, and third class prisoners (often prostitutes: women suspected of "moral turpitude") lived in pretty abysmal conditions.

Most of the militant suffragettes, starting with the Pankhursts themselves, were middle class (some of the prominent leaders were also upper-class -- titled women like Lady Constance Lytton). But when imprisoned for various acts, from simply being disruptive in public to actually committing acts of vandalism (breaking windows), and rioting, they were thrown into the third class prison. Initially at least (in 1909-1910) many of the hunger strikes that ensued were oriented towards calling attention to this fact -- the suffragettes thought they deserved to be put in the first class facility as political prisoners, rather than be thrown in with the "common" prisoners.

It's also worth mentioning that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were pretty crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See more here)

Later the hunger strikes morphed into something else -- a much more powerful rhetorical tool for calling attention in general to the Suffragists' claims and cause (as Lytton would later describe it: the hunger strike was a "woman's weapon" against the state). In 1910  Lytton went to prison under a pseudonym, disguising her class background. She went on hunger strike and then was subjected to force-feeding. When she came out, her account of how she'd been treated helped raise mainstream awareness of what was happening to the imprisoned suffragettes. She also asserted her commitment to an egalitarian -- middle and working class -- suffrage movement.

It's probably important to mention also that Edwardian medical technology was pretty primitive; the nasal tubes used in force feeding were quite crude, and often left scarring. Lytton, in her memoir of the experience of being repeated force-fed, suggests her digestive tract was permanently damaged by this. (See a bit more here)

Soon, the government would start putting imprisoned suffragettes in first class women's prisons. They also stopped force-feeding suffragettes on hunger strikes (some continued to do so), but shortly after the beginning of World War I the movement largely went into hibernation, reemerging after the war.

So -- as I mentioned, I'm not an expert in this area, and much of what I describe above is new to me. Do any readers have suggestions about either feminist historians or literary critics they think are particularly insightful on these topics? Favorite suffrage (or anti-suffrage! we're interested in both) novels? Suggestions on digital archives or collections we should look at? 


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