In the early 20th century, British women were demanding the right to vote in new ways. The gloves had come off, and they were willing to do whatever it took – even go on hunger strikes, which photos of suffragettes document. In response, the British government and prison guards resorted to force-feeding suffragettes in a ghastly display of state cruelty.
Why did the suffragettes go on hunger strike? They knew that only through resistance could they be taken seriously and legitimize their cause in the eyes of a sexist government and public. "Suffragettes" were, specifically, militant suffragists in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organization whose sole aim was to agitate in order to expand the vote to British women. The WSPU and its suffragette members believed that direct action was necessary in order to secure the right to vote. From their perspective, they were locked in a battle with the British government, and suffragettes were foot soldiers who must be willing to make sacrifices in the battles for women's suffrage. They targeted private property by smashing windows and vandalizing the Prime Minister's car in order to make their voices heard. For that, they were thrown into prison and undertook hunger strikes in protest.
The heroic hunger strikes and horrific force-feedings that followed captured the public's imagination. Photos of suffragettes being force-fed soon circulated in newspapers and pamphlets, and they served as lasting evidence of what some members of the women's movement endured in order to secure the right to vote for all.
Between 1908 and 1914, over 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned for acts of civil disobedience. When they were thrown into prison alongside petty criminals, suffragettes strongly objected: they were political prisoners, they argued, and should be treated as such. The distinction was important; if they were political prisoners, then the government would have to acknowledge that their acts of civil disobedience were political – and not simply women acting hysterically.
In 1909, suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop was the first one to engage in a hunger strike.
Going on hunger strikes meant that suffragettes voluntarily refused all food. There was a real danger, then, that they would ultimately starve themselves to death. As a result, officials feared that the hunger strikes would lead to death, and death, in turn, would transform the disobedient suffragettes into full-fledged martyrs. Rather than risk making martyrs of suffragettes, officials decided to force them to eat instead.
When confronted with the possibility of being force-fed and having their own will undermined, suffragettes put up a strong resistance. But the strength and number of guards overwhelmed them. Leader of the WSPU Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, recalled that it took six female guards to restrain her. Suffragettes were then strapped into a chair or to their beds so that they could not resist. Their wills were forcibly undermined.
Force-feeding was not a pleasant experience – guards did not gently spoon-feed porridge or pre-sliced meat into suffragettes’ mouths. Instead, the experience was intrusive, painful, and traumatic. Officers and doctors would have to literally pry open suffragettes' mouths with a screw, stuff a rubber tube down their throats, and pour liquid food directly into their stomachs. It was a painful procedure, both physically and emotionally, and prisoners usually vomited the food back up. According to one suffragette:
“You cannot breathe, and yet you choke. It irritates the throat, it irritates the mucous membrane as it goes down, every second seems an hour, and you think they will never finish pushing it down… I forgot what I was in there for, I forgot women, I forgot everything except my own sufferings, and I was completely overcome by them.”
Tubes were not only inserted orally. Sometimes, suffragettes were actually force-fed through their nose, rectum, and vagina. And, sometimes, they were re-used without being cleaned first.