A good cause force-fed by militants

June 7, 1996

The extreme actions of suffragettes not only delayed votes for women, they also permanently tainted the movement with violence, argues Brian Harrison

Forcible feeding seemed "like hell with the lid off" to at least one of the suffragettes who endured it. Rape is the analogy which June Purvis (The THES, April 26) correctly draws, for the suffragettes themselves drew it in their periodicals. Its full horror, which was as much social and psychological as physiological, does not emerge from Purvis's account. To be trapped within one's cell; to be compelled three times a day to hear the doctors coming ever closer as they forced food into much-loved friends; to know that this violation of one's own person was steadily approaching - all this was a nightmare. "I heard the most awful screams and yells coming from the cells,'' wrote one suffragette. "I had never heard human beings being tortured before and I shall never forget it." Decades after her ordeal a horrified Mary Richardson had to hurry out of the cinema as soon as a film unexpectedly introduced the sound of the trolley that had carried the dreaded equipment to her cell. Add to this the steely determination that self-starvation entailed, and the anxiety about the future that flowed even from joining the suffragettes, let alone from being forcibly fed. "You'll never get married, my dear, with that behind you," Joan Dugdale's aunts used to tell her after she became a militant.

Yet the government responsible for these horrors operated within a parliamentary system, was elected by an overwhelming majority in 1906 and was twice re-elected in 1910. Furthermore this was a Liberal government whose patently humane outlook led it to introduce old-age pensions and national insurance, and to work so closely with the Labour party that it had come near to assimilating it by 1914. How ever did such a government get itself into so grim a confrontation? A serious scholar might be expected to resolve such a puzzle. Purvis, a sociologist, claims that her "in-depth study of prison life" reveals "a rather different picture from that presented so far". Yet she does not even begin to rise to the intellectual and imaginative challenge.

For Purvis, it is all a question of female suffragette versus male politician, aided and abetted by "hostile male historians" - despite the fact, which she ignores, that men as well as women were forcibly fed while supporting this cause. Two of her male historians (George Dangerfield and Roger Fulford) are now dead, but this one survives to speak up for them.

Energetically distributing red herrings, Purvis ascribes to historians the patently implausible view that suffragette prisoners "were single rather than married women", and that the suffragettes "were middle-class, educated and well-to-do women". More importantly, she busily sets up straw men. Disparaging Fulford for saying that forcible feeding "was not dangerous", she ignores the context of his remark, which was to acknowledge the bravery involved in resisting forcible feeding, to point out (correctly) that it was "a familiar form of treatment in lunatic asylums" for both sexes, and to see the forcibly-fed Lady Constance Lytton as illuminating "the rather wild years of militancy with the radiant colours of courage and devotion". Purvis attributes to Dangerfield the view that forcible feeding was "no more than extremely unpleasant". His remarks deserve to be quoted in full: "It has occasionally been maintained that, if the victim does not resist, forcible feeding is no more than extremely unpleasant. But the suffragettes were determined to resist. And the consequences of resistance were apt to be revolting in the extreme." Purvis gives no inkling that Dangerfield's book is, allowing for the political climate in the year it was published (1935), remarkably sympathetic to the suffragettes.

To view these events in terms of a sex war is entirely unhelpful. There is ample evidence that home secretaries and their officials detested what government policy required them to do. Home secretary McKenna privately told the king's principal private secretary that forcible feeding was "one of the most unpleasant public duties that can fall to anyone's lot". So why did the government promote it? For several reasons. First, the Liberal government of 1906 (unlike the Thatcher government of 1979 when confronted by IRA hunger-strikers) gave overriding priority to saving the prisoner's life, though McKenna's correspondence suggested that the government would be more popular if it allowed the hunger-strikers to die.

In this the government was influenced by something more than humane values. The ardent suffragist Sir Harry Johnson privately told the anti-suffrage leader George Curzon that Mrs Pankhurst's death from forcible feeding is "what I ardently hope for". The suffragette society, the Women's Social and Political Union, was in search of martyrs, and the Liberal government was determined that the union should not find them - for more than mere publicity reasons. Purvis claims that WSPU militancy aimed only "to damage property, not life". But we can now take the union's claims at face value only because we know that militancy did not cause any fatal accidents and did not escalate beyond breaking windows and burning houses. But at the time, the government feared that militancy would escalate, as on earlier occasions, through spontaneous rank-and-file suffragette initiatives rather than through their leaders' commands. By June 1914 the king was regularly getting letters threatening assassination, and both he and his ministers feared that a suffragette death in prison would mean "that they would take life for life".

Why could the government not concede the WSPU's demands, then? Purvis's identification with WSPU tactics prevents her from supplying the answer I believe is the correct one. The suffragette campaign for the vote "on equal terms with men" failed completely to allow for the fact that no Edwardian franchise reform could get through Parliament without the support of a political party which could command a parliamentary majority. Yet the suffragette demand, let alone suffragette methods, made that peculiarly difficult. Merely to attain the equal franchise through duplicating the anomalies of the existing property-based franchise would render the political system even less democratic than it then was. Some Conservatives might be prepared to go along with this, though many would oppose it on anti-feminist grounds. It was, however, an option that no progressive Liberal government could possibly endorse. But what of adult suffrage, the more progressive alternative equal-franchise route to votes for women - the route eventually taken in 1918 and 1928? This was favoured by some Liberals, but it could not hope for much Conservative support before 1914, and there was no energetic public pressure for it. Furthermore suffragette militancy presented anti-feminists with a prize distraction from the main issue. Conservative traditionalists and authoritarians were obviously put off by such exploits, but so were Liberals. For at the heart of Liberalism lay a belief in reason and in peaceful persuasion, together with some shrewdness in assessing public opinion. When confronted with the emotional blackmail and intimidation offered by the WSPU's tiny minority of women, Liberals were understandably disinclined to respond.

Suffragette militancy not only delayed votes for women. It ensured that the women's victory was permanently tainted by the suffragette attempt to mimic the violence hitherto associated with the campaigns to get votes for men. It was a strategy that many women (including the mainstream among feminist women) regretted. Nonetheless, the sensationalism of militant tactics nourished in the general public a simplistic and shorthand analysis that portrayed votes for women as flowing naturally from the suffragettes' undoubted courage. Not even the WSPU's leaders intended such an outcome, which offered a precedent to all minorities who, impatient with their fellow-citizens, tried to coerce elected governments with threats of martyrdom. To that extent, the suffragette myth undermined the value of the vote that the women were seeking to win - an undemocratic outcome that is still being nurtured by the uncritical and the sentimental. The general public are understandably too busy to grasp the complexities of any more penetrating analysis. But in universities there is the opportunity for something better. If university people cannot offer a more objective view of these tragic events, the general public may begin to wonder what universities are for.

Brian Harrison is fellow and tutor in modern history and politics, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

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