THE HUNGER STRIKE by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 125
THE HUNGER STRIKE *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
To the Editor:
SIR, Without going into the question of the lawfulness or the unlawfulness of the actions of the militant Suffragettes (about which even the Doctors of the Law appear to disagree), I would like, as dispassionately as possible, to draw attention to a factor in the case not yet touched upon, not even recognised.
I would first of all remind you that, for several years, women have endured for their political opinion's sake such treatment as is meted out to drunkards and to theives. Suffragettes have endured this for a cause which has been before the country for forty years, a cause to which 420 members of the present House of Commons have given their adhesion, a cause of which a majority of the present Cabinet are in favour. Now, if the traditional avenue through which voteless citizens can carry a grievance (the orderly petitioning of the King's representative)--if that be barred, what are voteless citizens to do?
If they are men, their practice has been either
* Published in the Westminster Gazette, July 21, 1909.
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to make the general public suffer for its apathy (by burning down buildings and by indiscriminate bloodshed), or else they have made their opponents suffer in person.
The women's way has all along been to take the brunt of the suffering upon themselves.
It is this difference which has blinded many men to the force behind the woman's movement. It has led responsible officials to jeer at a "policy of pin-pricks," and to speak with pride of the way in which men forced the door "at which the ladies are scratching."
The time has come when any available light should be shed upon this darkness, especially as a new phase has been entered upon by the fourteen members of the W.S.P.U., who feel that enough Suffragettes have undergone punishment in the Second and Third Divisions. These latest prisoners are trying in their own persons to ensure that the indignities they suffer shall be the last inflicted upon the women of this country on account of political agitation.
My sympathies are somewhat engaged for the luckless persons to whom falls the no doubt repellent task of attempting to carry out the police magistrates' sentence upon the women who "for a sign" broke windows in Government offices on that evening when the thirteenth deputation was forcibly turned away from the door of St. Stephen's. The wisdom that stepped in earlier to extricate the prison authorities from a single dilemma (in the case of
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Miss Wallace-Dunlop) may desert them when they are asked to apply it to fourteen.
I find that no one thing so divides the world as the opinion as to how much may be expected from self-interest. To discover that certain people are ready to lay down what most regard as of paramount importance, that is perplexing enough. Though the story of human fortitude is older than any history that is written in any book, the fortitude that will go any length still wears to the average mortal an air so strange that it runs the risk of not being recognised. Now, sir, my point is that these women know that. They undertake their "hunger strike" realising that it will be supposed they will not go so far with it as to do themselves mortal injury. They know the supposition will be that they are trying merely to frighten authority, and that they will prudently stop this side of a course that will bring them a release for which neither the House Secretary's order, nor that of the King, will be needed.
There are, without doubt, persons so angered against the Suffragettes as to say, "Very well; let them expiate their foolishness with their lives."
But that will not be the public view of the matter. Nor will it be the (intended) policy of the Government. It therefore seems necessary to say that in dealing with these women it will not do to count upon the usual canons of self-interest. There are
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those (whether among the Suffragettes now in Holloway or the thousands outside)--there are those prepared to pay any price that may be exacted for protesting against more women being made to suffer the indignities of the Second or Third Division--for what? For following to its logical conclusion an opinion they share with the majority of the legislators of this country. The prisoners know quite well how it may end for any of them. The people who are not fully informed are those whom the country will hold responsible for the issue. And that seems to me not fair. There should be no avoidable misunderstanding as to the spirit (however reprehensible) in which the "Hunger Strike" is undertaken. The women are laying hands upon a very terrible weapon, but there is no ground for hoping that, if they let if fall, others will not take the weapon up. That this should be so may be fanaticism. But it is also hard fact. Calling it names, good or bad, will not alter it.
I know it is said that if the authorities do not deal stringently with these cases general disorder will ensue in England, and everyone hereafter who has a grievance will think he has only to break a few windows and gather a crowd in Westminster to get his will. But that is childishness. "Anyone" with a grievance hereafter who can get thousands of reputable people to espouse his cause, hundreds to go to prison for it, and the general public to give him fifty thousand pounds a year to spend on it,
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will have reason to be listened to. No cause is fed so fat on air.
But my aim, Sir, in adressing you, is to prevent anyone's having a right, when one of these women succumbs in Holloway Gaol, to call the occurrence "death by misadventure." It will be no accident. But for the Government it would be a misadventure which even their opponents would gladly see them spared, if one of these women (with the memory of the smiling Members of Parliament out for "fun": to see how women meet the nerve-shattering horror of a contest with mounted police)--if, with that memory to nerve her, one of these prisoners forces the gates of Holloway and sets out upon the Great Adventure which even heroes evade as long as they may with honour.
I am, Sir, your truly,
HENFIELD, SUSSEX, July 21, 1909.
WHEN the authorities realised that to keep the Hunger Strikers longer in prison would be to kill them, they were released.
Self-starvation is known to induce sickness of several kinds. So great is the suffering entailed that strong men shrink from facing it. I have been told that seamen sometimes attempt the Hunger Strike as a protest against brutal treatment. My naval authority added that he could
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not remember hearing of a man who had held out longer than three days. There are Suffragettes who have starved for nearly twice as long, and then not given in till the prison gates were opened.
We hear people saying that militant Suffragists are culpably impatient. Such critics ought, in justice to their own intelligence, to review the facts of this struggle. Few who do so will be able to deny that the militants have shown an almost unbelievable patience in accepting, year in year out, without reprisal, the pains and penalties inflicted for those earlier, milder forms of militancy.
In addition to the ceaseless, quieter, less horribly costly work of propaganda, the militants, ever since the summer of 1909, have gone to Ministers' meetings, and have asked that the responsible men of the country should promise to attend to this neglected side of the public business--the side concerned with the status of women. Ever since 1909 women who dared to express publicly their sense of the urgency of this matter, have been set upon by men, gagged, beaten, and worse--and then sent to prison.
This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of history.
In prison these women, often passing through experiences calculated to unsettle reason, have consistently adhered to the grim terms of self-starvation till, on the brink of death, the authorities have set them free. Through injuries received at Cabinet Ministers' meetings (as in the cases of Nurse Pitfield and of Miss Henria Williams), or through the effects of the Hunger Strike (as in the case of Mrs. Pankhurst's sister, Mrs. Clarke), women have died shortly after their release.
If persons who have not followed these events, or who have forgotten them wish to know something of the
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patience with which this grim sacrifice has been carried through, they should consult the last three years' files of "Votes for Women." They will find there names and details, as well as every means of instituting the most rigid examination. Those who think they have not time for that may learn much from a couple of chapters (XXI and XXII) in Miss Sylvia Pankhurst's valuable record, "The Suffragette."
The authorities found out three years ago that there was no end to the number of women ready to payer de leurs personnes (as the proverb has it), the "costs" which a Liberal Government levied upon those who were unwilling to wait indefinitely for the enfranchisement of their sex. The problem which confronted the prison authorities was: how to punish people who were undaunted by solitary confinement, by the rigours of the "punishment cell," by strait jackets, frog-marching, and other forms of personal indignity--people ready, in addition to all this, calmly to starve themselves to death.
That the undermining of the penal system might be arrested, a new deterrent was introduced into the prison treatment of women in September, 1909. An order went forth that prisoners who would not eat were no longer to be released when starvation threatened to set them free. They were to be forcibly fed.
According to an array of medical authorities, this process, even when employed upon an unresisting patient, is painful and dangerous. When fought against it becomes a mode of torture. It can be persisted in only at the cost of reason or of life.
The medical profession behaved well in bringing these facts to the notice of Parliament and of the public. A memorial was sent to the Prime Minister. Letters of pro-
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test bearing names eminent in the world of science appeared in the press.
To their lifelong shame some doctors were found ready to be the tools of the Government in carrying out this abominable expedient. The question of Forcible Feeding was ignorantly debated in the House of Commons to an accompaniment of laughter. But outside, were medical men who cared for the honour of their profession. They denounced publicly the use of a member of a humane calling to execute physical punishment upon defenceless prisoners, overpowered, gagged, bound--for to that depth is the prison doctor degraded who inflicts this suffering.
Moreover, those medical men who protested are proved, at the cost of many a woman's agony, to be in the right. The brutal device does achieve its unavowed end. It tortures political prisoners. It does not achieve its avowed end. Its avowed end is to maintain life. But, as medical men had warned authorities, people who fight against forcible feeding are not nourished and cannot be kept alive and sane. These prisoners for conscience' sake, girls and white-haired women, are merely tortured to the verge of the grave, and then turned out wrecks of their former selves. I have seen a girl go into prison young, blooming, looking twenty years old. I have seen her after her experience of forcible feeding. Not directly after, either, but at the end of some weeks of nursing back to life. And in broad day I did not recognise her. I thought in the bent figure and drawn face I was looking at someone of middle age who was a prematurely old woman.
Many of us, who followed the history of the opposition to Woman Suffrage, learned that what goes by the name of callousness, or cruelty, is often defective intelligence, a
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weakness in the faculty of realising things only heard about, not seen. The mass of people (and we among them) simply cannot make real to ourselves the sufferings of other people unless those other people are our friends or relations. Several of the women who have had most to do with militancy are free from this limitation.
One of them is Lady Constance Lytton. Her power of intense realisation of the burdens other women are carrying compelled her to bear a share. She had already been to prison for the Cause when, in October, 1909, her sympathy with a working-woman then being tortured in a Birmingham Gaol, let Lady Constance to take her place among those determined to make a protest. The occasion chosen was the next public appearance of a Member of the Government. To such a pass had domestic politics come that Cabinet Ministers dared no longer to invite the general public to listen to official speeches about public affiars. Admission was by ticket, and no woman was eligible. But Suffragettes were fertile in devices by which they brought their business before officials who shirked it. So the "protection of Cabinet Ministers" became a growing charge upon the public purse. When Mr. Lloyd George went to Newcastle, in October, 1909, to talk about Liberal policy, he was obliged to go under escort. He found the approaches to the "public" Hall guarded by police, barricades erected in the streets, and the place wearing the air of a city under siege. No Suffragettes being allowed in the hall, their task, as they conceived it, was to make their presence felt outside.
Perhaps I have given an impression that the women were quite alone in this struggle, but for Mr. Pethick Lawrence. That was not the case. Men friends of the
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Cause had already done and suffered much, and were both to do and to suffer more.
In this Newcastle meeting, as in others from which women were excluded, men stood up and called on the official speaker to apply Liberal principles to the treatment of women. But in Newcastle, as elsewhere, though men might interrupt and "heckle" with impunity upon any other ground under heaven, the man who dared so much as mention the one thing taboo was thrown out of the hall. When several men had been ejected from Mr. Lloyd George's Newcastle meeting, the Minister made his contribution to the flood of obloquy let loose upon those who believed in showing Liberalism towards women as well as towards men. While his supporters applied physical force, the Minister's contribution to the moral aspect of the struggle was to call those men "hirelings" who dared to be genuine Suffragists. The press reported Mr. Lloyd George as saying: "There are many ways of earning a living, but this is the most objectionable of them all." The speaker made clear that from his point of view any man who should insist that Woman Suffrage be amongst the important issues considered at a Liberal meeting must be "hired" to hold so far-fetched a theory of public duty.
In England the standard of official character and the ideal of public service are, in the main, as I believe, the best the world yet knows. Nevertheless in these now familiar charges that selfish aims inspired the sacrifices made by Suffragists; the cry of "bribes" and "Tory gold," (when the sixpences and shillings of working-women have shown so fine a total); the taunt of "hireling" sent after beaten and bruised protesters at Ministers' meetings--these things seem to argue a conscious mean-
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ness in the spirit which still animates many a public servant. He seems in his heart to know that he could not face such treatment as is meted out to Suffragists unless he were "hired." And he cannot help betraying his true character as less servant of the public welfare than slave of his personal ambition. But in the Liberal rank and file, as well as in the Unionist, Irish, and Labour parties, was genuine championship of the Suffrage Cause. A notable example had just been given by Mr. Nevinson and Mr. Brailsford--who both resigned from the staff of the leading Liberal paper on account of the policy adopted against the best interests of Woman.
Mr. Brailsford's wife was, with Lady Constance Lytton and others, "protesting" in the streets of Newcastle on the night of October 9th, while Mr. Lloyd George talked Liberalism in the guarded hall. A good many women were arrested, and among them Lady Constance and Mrs. Brailsford. The authorities felt that to imprison and maltreat the wife a a Liberal journalist, and the sister of a peer, might be inconvenient. These ladies were released after two and a half days. Thereupon inconvenient questions were asked in the House. The House Secretary emphatically denied that either influence with the press, or social position, had anything to do with letting these ladies off so lightly. They had been released, he assured the world, on "purely medical grounds."
The other women, not being wives of well-known journalists, or sisters of peers, were detained in prison and forcibly fed. This was before the temper of the rank and file was hardened, and presumably these prisoners did not add to the misery of forcible feeding by violent resistance.
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Lady Constance Lytton knew quite well to what to attribute the fact that she was at liberty, whilst her companions and others who had joined them were being subjected to treatment which the authorities shrank from applying to Lord Lytton's sister.
In January, 1910, Lady Constance determined to offer a test case in her own person. She cut off her hair, put on spectacles and working clothes, and led a party of women to the gates of the provincial prison where some of the Suffragettes were confined. She told the public what was being done to the women inside, and demanded their release.
She was instantly arrested, and sentenced to fourteen days' hard labour. In prison she was forcibly stripped and dressed in prison clothes. When she had fasted for several days four wardresses entered her cell at the heels of the prison doctor. He did not so much as go through the form of testing that heart which had been an object of such solicitude in Newcastle Gaol, in the Home Office, and in the House of Commons. "Jane Warton," as the prisoner called herself, was bound and gagged. Under the disguise of the borrowed name, Lady Constance went through that "living nightmare of pain and horror and revolting degradation"--forcible feeding.
In a few days' time the Gaol officials became convinced that this prisoner was not a working-woman, and probably not even Jane Warton; that she was, in any case, a woman suffering from grave heart trouble, and likely to die on their hands. So they allowed her to take out of prison a broken body, and such a case against the conduct of the business of the Home Office as made its chief think South Africa preferable to Westminster.
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Meanwhile the experiences of the Suffrage prisoners were made known through the W.S.P.U. paper, "Votes for Women." Each arrest widened the little circle of enlightenment as to women's true position in the community.
More and more of the better-off women were impelled to inquire into the foundation for the unshakable conviction that lay underneath all this sacrifice.
What was the reason some people were ready to endure so much for the sake of the right to choose the Nation's law-makers? What was amiss with the laws, the fortunate women began to ask? One lady, a member of the aristocracy, wrote to the papers to say that, for her part, she was quite pleased with things as they are.
Some of the women who had least cause to be pleased with things as they are, were not in a position to ventilate their views. Others were called on to do this for them.