“They fed me five weeks by the nose and at the end of that time my nose what they called ‘bit’ the tube, and it would not pass into the throat even though they bent it and twisted it into all kinds of shapes. Instead, it went up to the top of my nose and seemed to pierce my eyes… Then they forced my mouth open by inserting their fingers and cutting my gums… and the lining of my cheeks… when I was blind and mad with pain they drove in two large gags. Then the tubes followed and they pressed my tongue down with their fingers and pinched my nose to weaken the natural, and also the purposeful, resistance of my throat.”


This was how imprisoned suffragette Mary Richardson described one of the many times she was forcibly fed in 1914, after going on hunger strike. Her fate was that of many members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in October 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women in Britain.

English suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) making an open air speech. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, delivers an open-air speech in 1908. (Photo by Getty Images)

The WSPU, with its slogan ‘Deeds, not words’, became the most notorious of the women’s suffrage groupings, some one thousand of its members being imprisoned from 1905 to the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914. A women-only organisation, the WSPU sought not just to end the discrimination that barred all females from their democratic right to elect a government but also to press for wider social reforms that would bring equality within the law, education and employment.

Prior to the general election of 1906, which the Liberals were expected to win, the suffragettes engaged in non-violent actions to press their cause – such as assertive questioning of leading members of the Liberal Party and deputations to parliament. When a Liberal government was returned and Herbert Asquith, a renowned opponent of women’s suffrage, became prime minister in 1908, the fight for women’s enfranchisement became much harder. Banned from Liberal Party meetings, the suffragettes, from 1912, engaged in secret attacks on public and private property – including vandalising letter boxes, firing empty buildings and smashing shop windows in London’s West End – as a tactic to force the government to yield to their demand.

Throughout, the aim was never to endanger human life. As Emmeline Pankhurst said on 17 October 1912, “[T]he only recklessness the militant Suffragists have shown about human life has been of their own lives, not of the lives of others; and I say here and now that it has never been, and never will be the policy of the Women’s Social and Political Union to recklessly endanger human life”.

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Although dramatic stories of window-smashing suffragettes have passed into history, it is the haunting picture of the forcibly fed suffragette, alone in her prison cell, that has become the definitive image of the suffragette campaign.

The hunger strike as a political tool was introduced not by the WSPU leadership but by a member of the rank-and-file. On 5 July 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop, a sculptor and illustrator, 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, went on hunger strike. She was protesting against the refusal of the authorities to recognise her as a political offender and, as such, entitled to be placed in the First Division where political prisoners enjoyed considerable privileges. After 91 hours of fasting, she was released.

Believing they had found a powerful weapon with which to fight an obdurate Liberal government, other imprisoned suffragettes began hunger striking too. The government responded by forcibly feeding them, arguing that this “ordinary hospital treatment” was necessary to preserve the women’s lives. So began a vicious circle of events that was to shape the representation of the suffragette movement for years to come.

The image of the individual suffragette, voluntarily on hunger strike in her isolated prison cell, had 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 bruised and battered in various deputations, 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 windows of Swan & Edgar Ltd smashed by suffragettes. Date: 1912 Source: Unattributed photograph
Suffragettes used catapults to smash shop windows, as seen at Swan & Edgar in 1912. (Photo by Mary Evans)

Overpowering force

Forcible feeding as carried out on the hunger strikers was a brutal, life-threatening and degrading procedure, undertaken by male doctors on struggling female bodies. Although the word ‘rape’ was not used by the prisoners to describe their experiences, the instrumental invasion of the body, accompanied by overpowering physical force, suffering and humiliation was akin to it and commonly described as an ‘outrage’. That rubber tubes were not always new and might be dirty inside through having been previously used on those who were diseased or mentally ill, added to the feelings of violation that the suffragettes expressed.

One of the earliest women to be forcibly fed in September 1909 was working class Mary Leigh, in Winson Green gaol, Birmingham. Feeding by nasal tube was “an outrage”, she wrote in an influential pamphlet that was widely circulated. “The sensation is most painful – the drums of the ear seem to be bursting, a horrible pain in the throat and the breast. The tube is pushed down 20 inches… I resist and am overcome by weight of numbers.” The shocked and indignant WSPU leadership soon commissioned a well-publicised poster titled “Torturing women in prison”, which depicted the operation in gruesome detail.

Mary Leigh, who was force fed in Winson Green gaol in 1909. She later described the practice as “an outrage”. (Photo by Museum of London)

It was commonly believed by the WSPU that working class prisoners were treated less favourably than their well-known middle class counterparts. Lady Constance Lytton, on hunger strike in Newcastle prison that autumn of 1909, was not forcibly fed but released after just two days, officially because of her weak heart. Believing she had received preferential treatment because of her family background and political connections, she set about proving the point. Assuming the guise of ‘Jane Warton’, a working woman, she rejoined the WSPU under her new name. Arrested outside Walton gaol, Liverpool, Jane Warton was sent to prison and forcibly fed eight times.

“The pain of it was intense”, wrote Lady Constance. The doctor turned the steel gag in her mouth “much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet in length… I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had got down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe.”

Once her true identity was known, Lady Constance was hastily released. Although she had proved her point about the differential prison treatment for women from differing social backgrounds, she never fully recovered from her ordeal. Yet for Lady Constance, as for many others who were forcibly fed, the spirit soared over the inhumane treatment. Men might insist upon controlling women’s bodies, but physical force could never triumph because their cause was just. The point was underlined by the WSPU leadership who presented hunger strikers with commemorative medals “For Valour” in pursuing “to the last extremity of hunger and hardship a great principle of political justice”.

Suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton wearing a prison number badge and hunger strike medal, c1912. Lytton became involved with the women's suffrage movement in her late thirties, and was first arrested for joining a protest demonstration in February 1909. Having been sentenced to four weeks in Holloway, she was confined to the prison hospital with an alleged heart condition, but soon suspected that she was being given preferential treatment because of her social rank. Her treatment in Newcastle prison following a second arrest in October of the same year confirmed her suspicions: after a 56-hour hunger strike she was not forcibly fed, like other suffragettes, but examined by a heart specialist and allowed to go free. The following year, at a protest demonstration in Liverpool, Lytton disguised herself as a working-class woman and gave the false name of Jane Warton when she was arrested. This time she suffered the same treatment as the other suffragettes in prison. In 1912 she suffered a stroke and remained an invalid for the rest of her life. Suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton wearing a prison number Credit: Museum of London / HIP / TopFoto
Lady Constance Lytton wearing a prison number badge and hunger strike medal, c1912. (Photo by Museum of London)

Apart from one week in November 1910, the WSPU suspended militant action for that year, until 21 November 1911, in order to allow the various Conciliation Bills for Women Suffrage to be presented to parliament. But political stalemate continued since the Liberals remained divided on the issue, as did the Tory opposition.

Given the structure of party politics, the bills were doomed. A narrow bill, based on property qualification, would bring propertied women onto the electoral role and benefit the Tories; a wider one that included non-propertied women would bring in working class wage earners for the Liberals.

A vicious cycle

Militant protest, such as window smashing of shops in London’s West End, returned with a vengeance in March 1912 as suffragettes felt betrayed by empty promises and party political manoeuvring. The vicious cycle of hunger striking and forcible feeding returned. Prison life was especially difficult for mothers with young children, like Myra Sadd Brown. Denied writing materials, she wrote with a blunted pencil on dark brown toilet paper a poignant message to them. “Mummy thanks you ever so much… for the letters – they were such a joy & I wanted to kiss them all over – but I am going to kiss all the writers when I see them & I don’t think there will be much left when I have finished.”

What was the 'Cat and Mouse Act'?

The ordeal of forcible feeding became especially cruel and dangerous after the passing in April 1913 of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which allowed a prisoner weakened through hunger striking to be released into the community on a license and nursed back to good health, only to be re-admitted once she was well enough to continue her sentence. Although the new act prolonged the experience, it was also a publicity gift to the WSPU since many ‘mice’ skillfully evaded re-arrest, dramatically appearing at a meeting. A widely circulated WSPU poster of a large ginger cat bearing his bloodied teeth – the limp, injured body of the small suffragette in his mouth – vividly portrayed the brutality of it all.

Suffragette demonstration w. women carrying wands tipped with silver broad-arrows and banner From Prison to Citizenship, each of 617 arrows representing a conviction of a Suffragette. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Suffragettes carrying 617 wands tipped with silver arrows in 1910. Each arrow represented the conviction of a suffragette. (Photo by Mary Evans)

The priority for the imprisoned suffragette now became to find a quicker way to be released, and so Zelie Emerson and Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s middle daughter, initiated a thirst and hunger strike, a form of protest soon adopted by others. By the end of December 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst herself, always in the thick of the action, had also added a sleep strike to her refusal to eat and drink water. She was released, in an emaciated condition, after just four days. While the authorities never dared forcibly feed her, for fear they might have a martyr on their hands, her daughter Sylvia did not fare so well.

For Sylvia, the sense of degradation endured when being forcibly fed was worse than the pain of sore and bleeding gums, with bits of loose jagged flesh, or the agony of coughing up the tube three or four times before it was successfully inserted. Such harrowing personal accounts, published in the suffrage press, helped to strengthen the bond of comradeship and purpose among the WSPU membership. The forcibly fed suffragette knew she was not alone. The operation that had been intended to silence her became a platform from which she could speak about the injustices to her sex.

By 1914 the government’s response to hunger strikers had become more brutal, with stories emerging of imprisoned suffragettes being drugged to make them docile, as well as more tales of accidents when feeding by tube. Ethel Moorhead, in Calton prison, Edinburgh, developed double pneumonia after her eighth forcible feeding when some ‘foreign substance’ entered her lungs. Under such a repressive state policy, many of the women feared not only for their health but their sanity. Kitty Marion experienced such pain during the 232 times she was forcibly fed that she thought she was going mad and begged the doctor to give her some poison.

The situation could not continue. Increasing numbers of doctors, as well as members of the general public, were speaking out against forcible feeding, saying it contravened the rules of medical practice and that those doctors performing the operation were punishing, rather than treating, their patients. Even The Times, well known for its anti-suffragism, was suggesting a review of policy. By mid-July 1914, a few women, such as Fanny Parker in Perth prison, were writing of how they were fed by the rectum and vagina.

The cat and mouse act passed by liberal government. The Prisoner's Temporary Discharge for III - Health Act of 1913 meant that imprisoned Suffragettes on hunger - strike could be released because of ill - health but be re-imprisoned once they had recovered. This 'letting them go; then catching them again' earned the measure the popular title of 'The Cat and Mouse Act'. Part of the collection of objects relating to the Suffragette Movement, given by the Suffragette Fellowship, 1950. This poster first appeared in May 1914.
This WSPU poster, condemning the Liberal government’s ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ – which prolonged the hunger striker’s suffering – first appeared in May 1914. (Photo by Museum of London)

The outbreak of war the following month enabled both the WSPU and the authorities to retreat. Emmeline Pankhurst called a temporary suspension of militancy while the government granted an amnesty to all suffrage prisoners.

Thus ended the most shameful episode in the history of the British women’s suffrage campaign. The hunger-striking suffragette laid bare the sexual divisions in Edwardian society, exposing a deep flaw in an all-male Liberal government that claimed to be ‘democratically’ elected yet tortured those women who challenged its legitimacy. Although partial enfranchisement for certain categories of women over the age of 30 was not granted until 1918, the forcibly fed suffragette had won the moral high ground. Through her courage and endurance, she had showed that physical force could never overcome the justice of her cause. In the battle for women’s equality, she had politicised her body in a way that those who came after her would never forget.

Force-feeding: an abuse of women’s bodies

The forcible feeding of hunger striking suffragette prisoners between 1909 and 1914 was an abuse of women’s bodies. The prisoner was usually held down on a bed by female wardresses or tied to a chair which wardresses then tipped back. Two male doctors carried out the operation, pouring a mixture of milk, bread and brandy through a rubber tube that was either forced up the nostril or pushed down the throat into the stomach. The latter was the more painful method since a steel gag was inserted 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.

When forcible feeding of suffragettes began in 1909 there was widespread condemnation, not only from the WSPU leaders, but also from prominent public figures, such as George Bernard Shaw and the Labour MP, Keir Hardie. The Liberal government justified their action as ‘ordinary hospital treatment’ for those prisoners who refused food, a line supported by most newspaper editors. Henry Nevinson and Henry Brailsford, influential leader-writers for the Daily News, resigned in protest against their editor’s support for the policy. Although 116 doctors sent a memorial of protest to the prime minister Herbert Asquith, most medical practitioners failed to condemn the practice, due to their cosy relationship with the government and their anti-suffragism. The discredited procedure was finally stopped on the outbreak of the First World War.

June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth. She is the editor of Women’s History Review, and the author of Emmeline Pankhurst: a Biography (Routledge, 2002).


This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine