When researching the life of Emmeline Pankhurst I came across a very disturbing story. I logged it away in the back of my mind, but have been unable to forget it because my conscience won’t let me. So today, I’m going to write about the suffering of the women who won us the right to vote. I’m sorry if you find this article upsetting.
When the women of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) committed arson, protested or caused a disturbance they were thrown in jail. Many of them went on hunger strike to protest their political confinement. It is interesting to note that while all the women went on hunger strike not all were force-fed. Emmeline Pankhurst was never tortured in this way and the same can be said of most of her upper class supporters, but one woman Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton, disguised herself as a working class woman, using the identity of Jane Warton. She wanted to shed light on the fate of her lower-class companions. She was arrested, and imprisoned in 1910.
Here is her account of her ordeal:
“He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would have to feed me through the nose. The pain of it was intense and at last I must have given way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it 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. The irritation of the tube was excessive. 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. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses, and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out. As the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek, not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval, and he seemed to take for granted that my distress was assumed... Before long I heard the sounds of the forced feeding in the next cell to mine. It was almost more than I could bear, it was Elsie Howey, I was sure. When the ghastly process was over and all quiet, I tapped on the wall and called out at the top of my voice, which wasn't much just then, "No surrender," and there came the answer past any doubt in Elsie's voice, "No surrender."
This humiliating experience left them with untold injuries. Lady Constance was imprisoned four times and never fully recovered from the torture of force-feeding. She had her first stroke in 1912 and after a decade of ill health died in 1923.
June Purvis is professor of sociology, University of Portsmouth wrote this in her 1996 article on the subject of force-feeding.
“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.`
It’s grim and depressing and makes me want to turn away and ignore their suffering, but as I said at the start, to do so just doesn’t seem right. I don’t consider myself political in any way, but I do consider myself a humanist. When we vote in elections, stand up for our rights, or put our names to a petition to prevent another person – man, woman or child – from suffering, I believe the women who were brutalised as suffragettes would be proud.