On October 10 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter, Christabel, founded the Women's Social and Political Union. The aim of this women-only organisation was to campaign for the vote for women on equal terms with men. It became the most notorious of the groupings campaigning for women's suffrage since it engaged in "unladylike" activities, including window-breaking, setting fire to empty buildings, destroying mail in post boxes, as well as heckling male politicians and participating in demonstrations. Throughout, the aim was to damage property, not life.
From 1905 until the outbreak of the first world war, about 1,000 "suffragettes", as they became known, were sent to prison where, from 1909, many used the hunger strike as a political tool. Rather than concede to their demands, however, the government responded with forcible feeding. Under the notorious "Cat and Mouse" Act, rushed through parliament in April 1913, the vicious circle of hunger striking and forcible feeding became even more of an ordeal since prisoners who had damaged their health through their own conduct could be released into the community and then, once fit, rearrested to continue their sentence.
An in-depth study of prison life reveals a rather different picture from that presented so far. If we read the letters, diaries and autobiographies written by the prisoners themselves, we find many of the assumptions made by historians must be challenged.
The statement that WSPU prisoners were single rather than married women is not borne out by the evidence, although it is difficult to quantify the number of married women since some registered in fictitious or maiden names, often to avoid embarrassing their husbands. For wives and mothers, especially those with small children, the sexual politics of home, prison life and political activity intermeshed in myriad ways. Minnie Baldock, a WSPU organiser and wife of a fitter in Canning Town, was sentenced to one month's imprisonment in February 1908. Her anxieties about her small son, left at home with his father, were somewhat alleviated by the knowledge that union members outside would offer help. The wealthy Mrs. Maud Arncliffe Sennett, for example, sent the child some presents, much to his delight. "Thank you very much for the toys you sent me, " wrote the young Jack. "I am proud of my mother. I will be glad when she comes out of prison. But I now (sic) she is there for a good cause. I am saving up all farthings to put in that money box you was kind enough to send me."
It is commonly assumed too by historians that the suffragettes were middle class, educated and well-to-do women. Obviously, working-class women would have less time and money to give to "The Cause" than their wealthier sisters, but a number of poor women served prison sentences. Indeed, even by 1912, when there was a marked decline in new recruits to the WSPU, Ethel Smyth, the composer, found in Holloway jail more than 100 women "rich and poor I young professional women I countless poor women of the working class, nurses, typists, shop girls, and the like". These working-class women would have to rub shoulders with their more elevated sisters, such as Miss Janie Allan, a millionairess of the Allan Line and Lord Kitchener's niece Miss Parker.
The official line of the prison authorities was that all prisoners were treated alike, irrespective of their class background, a claim about which Lady Constance Lytton, an upper-middle-class spinster, became suspicious since she was released from Newcastle Prison in October 1909 after only two days - and without being forcibly fed. When some two months later two working-class women, Selina Martin and Leslie Hall, on remand in Walton Gaol, Liverpool, were forcibly fed, despite the fact that it was contrary to the law to treat remand prisoners in this way, Lytton became convinced she was right.
Disguising herself as a poor woman called Jane Warton, she joined the WSPU in her new name, protested against forcible feeding outside Walton Gaol - and was arrested. This time Jane Warton enjoyed none of the courtesies shown to Lady Lytton. Warton was held down by wardresses as the doctor inserted a four-foot-long tube down her throat. A few seconds after the tube was down, she vomited all over her hair, her clothes and the wall, yet the task continued until all the liquid had been emptied into her stomach. As the doctor left "he gave me a slap on the cheek", Constance recollected, "not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval". She was forcibly fed a further seven times before her true identity was discovered and she was released. Although the point about the differential prison treatment of women from differing social backgrounds had been proved, she never fully recovered from her ordeal, but suffered a stroke in 1912 and died in 1923.
To claim, therefore, as George Dangerfield did in his popular The Strange Death of Liberal England, first published in 1935 and reprinted up to the 1970s, that forcible feeding was "no more than extremely unpleasant" was a gross distortion of the truth. Yet this myth has been perpetuated by hostile male historians, keen to discredit the WSPU and ridicule its politics. Roger Fulford, for example, asserted in 1957 that forcible feeding "was not dangerous", while Brian Harrison facetiously pointed out in 1982 that "clumsiness" in the prison doctor during forcible feeding could destroy a woman's greatest asset, "her looks".
The words of the women prisoners themselves reveal that they were less concerned about any damage to the face ruining their marriage prospects than with the "public" violation of their bodies. Nell Hall spoke of the "frightful indignity" of it all, while for Sylvia Pankhurst the sense of degradation endured was worse than the pain of gums, "always sore and bleeding, with bits of loose, jagged flesh" as a sharp steel gag was used to force her jaws open. Although the word "rape" is not used in these accounts, the instrumental invasion of the body, accompanied by overpowering physical force, great suffering and humiliation was akin to it, especially so for women, such as Fanny Parker, fed through the rectum and vagina. The knowledge that new tubes were not always available and that used tubes may have been previously inflicted on diseased people undoubtedly added to the feelings of abuse, dirtiness and indecency that the women felt.
June Purvis is professor of sociology, University of Portsmouth.