by Julie Tomlin, WVoN co-editor
the British government apologise for the “torture” of suffragettes who
were force fed while imprisoned during their campaign for the vote for
Brenda Dean, the former head of the print union, SOGAT, said after hearing an interview broadcast on Radio 4 with suffragette Maude Kate Smith that it would be “entirely appropriate” for the government to apologise.
One of around 180 people who were interviewed
by historian Brian Harrison in the mid to late 1970s, Smith was force
fed while imprisoned in the city’s Winston Green prison in 1912 for
smashing windows in London’s Oxford Street.
secretary for the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU)
Birmingham branch described the “anguish” of having a tube forced into
her nostrils or down her throat and food poured in that hadn’t been
properly cooked or softened:
such intense pain, it picked me up once and threw me across the cell,”
she said, adding that she finally gave up resisting and eventually
became “docile” because of the pain.
politicians took the decision of force feeding,” said Dean, now
Baroness of Thornton-le-Fylde, who was one of the guests on Radio 4’s
The Lost World of the Suffragettes.
suffragettes may as a group say we would prefer to see quicker
emancipation of women than perhaps an apology, but nevertheless, you
can’t but listen to that interview and come to the conclusion that this
was not force feeding, this was torture.”
feeding was later abandoned and the government, led by Herbert Asquith,
introduced what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed
for the temporary release of women who were on hunger strike only to
rearrest them when they had recovered.
Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said she was also in no doubt that
the accounts of “inhuman and degrading” force feeding by women amounted
should never forget that even in relatively recent memory our
government was prepared to tolerate behaviour of that kind,” said
Chakrabarti, adding that she could not “be quick to judge the women who
took militant action against a state that was prepared to perpetrate
that kind of cruelty”.
the recordings, which have never been broadcast before and are now
owned by the Women’s Library at the London Metropolitan University, also
revealed the divisions that existed among women about the methods they
in 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS)
focused on recruiting members and winning support of the political class
and members of parliament.
Emmeline Pankhurst became frustrated with the organisation’s lack of
progress, she set up the women-only organisation, the WSPU, in 1903 with
her daughters Christabel and Sylvia.
is thought that Christabel persuaded her mother that direct action was
necessary, and with the slogan “Deeds, not words” began a campaign of
militant action that included attacking ministers, stone throwing,
setting fire to their houses and even a plot to disrupt the canal system
by blowing up part of the canal in Birmingham.
was first used by the Daily Mail in 1906 as a derisory term for the
women who used direct action tactics but they adopted it
enthusiastically as they carried out their high-profile campaign over
the next decade:
Suffragettes understood the power of the media and their stunts aimed
for maximum impact. On 1 March 1912, for instance, women stood in front
of plate glass windows Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road, in front of
shops and offices and government offices along London’s Oxford street,
Bond St, Haymarket and the Strand and at 5 pm took hammers from muffs or
stones from their pockets and smashed windows.
women who took part were flying in the face of convention and many
admitted they were afraid, including Leonora Cohen who described her
“terror” before carrying out her “deed” of smashing the glass case that
held the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.
“It was never done for fun, they had to get the notice of the public and that was their way of doing it,” she said.
over 30 with property were given the vote in 1918 and this was extended
to all women over the age of 21 in 1927. Controversy has continued over
the decades as to whether the militant suffragettes actually helped or
hindered the cause.
Dean argued that although the suffragists were probably more effective in the long term, the militants also played a part:
you look at any major social change within it somewhere has been a
degree of militancy, it has to, in a sense, to focus on it,” she said.
not saying I agree with burning down houses, but at the turn of the
century the whole social order was very different indeed.”
concluded that it was important to judge the actions of the women in
context and remember that they were not living in a democracy:
some extent their struggle is akin to the struggle of black people
living under Apartheid in South Africa – they are not in our current