Visible Women

Groped, imprisoned and force-fed: what the suffragettes really went through

Posted by
Lizzie Pook
Published

As we celebrate 100 years since some women first won the vote, we should also remember the harrowing truth about what the suffragettes endured in their battle for equality. 

Imagine there’s a large man striding purposefully towards you, his eyes fixed on your face. As he gets closer, he raises his arms to neck height, hands in a choking position. When he makes contact, he pushes you violently to the ground, his hands scurrying across your clothes, seeking out your breasts, grasping and twisting them. You struggle to push him away but his hands move down, finding their way under your dress and up to your groin. You kick out and he yells in frustration, reaching to pick up his police helmet and baton that have clattered to the floor. Calmly he turns back, raises his arm and punches you, square in the face.

While it may sound nightmarish and fantastical, it isn’t. This violence and humiliation is what the suffragettes faced at the hands
 of the police on ‘Black Friday’, 18 November 1910. More than 300 women assembled to protest after missing out on the right to vote; 200 were assaulted by the police.

It’s the sort of brutality that would make global headlines today, even if the officers were pushing back violent crowds. But these were respectable women – nurses, teachers, mothers – who were campaigning for their right to vote. And this cruelty was just the start. As the campaign intensified, suffragettes endured imprisonment, hunger strikes and force-feeding. Many carried the scars, physical and mental, for the rest of their lives. Some died.

We all have an image of the suffragettes seared into our minds. Perhaps it’s a well-dressed woman with a placard raised, green, white and purple sash slung across her chest. Perhaps it’s the body of Emily Wilding Davison, lying lifeless after hurling herself in front of the King’s horse. We’re aware that Emmeline Pankhurst led rallies on the streets; we know of the heroics that finally earned (some) women the vote in 1918.

But less is known about how horrifically these campaigners were treated and how much they sacrificed for the cause – losing dignity, jobs, marriages, children, even lives. It’s even more poignant that they kept fighting for the vote despite not knowing if it would ever be granted in their lifetime. 

The scene at Epsom Derby in 1913, after Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse

Paving the way

The women’s suffrage movement (campaigning for the right for women to vote and stand in elections) was already in full swing in 1903 when people started to take notice of Emmeline Pankhurst. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had been quietly established in 1897, under the leadership of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, who believed the way to effect change was through peaceful, legal means.

But Pankhurst, a widow and women’s rights activist, vehemently disagreed. She argued that ‘Deeds Not Words’ was the way forward and – along with her daughter Christabel – set up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, calling on passionate, like-minded women to take militant action to get their point across.

This militancy was divisive. The suffragettes and their supporters argued that acts of violence kept the cause in the minds of politicians and the public. But more moderate campaigners thought public opinion would turn: the suffragettes were accused of hindering the cause they believed in so strongly.

“Nothing could indicate more plainly their lack of fitness to be entrusted with the exercise of political power,” said The Morning Post newspaper in 1912, at the height of the WSPU’s window-breaking.

Still, thousands clamoured to join them. But contrary to some of the glossier representations that abound today, not all of these women were white, affluent sorts who could afford to forgo jobs to campaign. Although many of those able to dedicate time (and money) were well-off, the actions of non-white and working women were also key. Not least that of the Asian women who organised and marched with the WSPU, but also the trade-union activists in the mill towns of the north and the socialist suffragettes of east London.

“People often think of the suffragettes as only fine ladies who could afford to go to prison, but that wasn’t the case and is, actually, quite belittling,” says Krista Cowman, professor of history and director of research at the University of Lincoln. “This wasn’t just a middle-class movement, but it wasn’t a working-class movement either. These women all worked together, side by side.” 

A suffragette struggling with a policeman in London on ‘Black Friday’, 18 November 1910

Street fighters

Until 1912, the suffragettes’ campaigning was largely within the law, mainly chaining themselves to railings and disturbing the peace. But their activism soon expanded to more extreme measures and eventually evolved to include rowdy demonstrations, arson and window-smashing campaigns.

Emmeline Pankhurst defended their actions by saying, “The condition of our sex is so deplorable that it is our duty to break the law in order to call attention to the reasons why we do.”

These actions polarised public opinion. They were celebrated by many Edwardian women (and men), yet the suffragettes were described as ‘fanatics’ by some and humiliated in unflattering postcards, cartoons and propaganda, which depicted them as neglectful, unfeminine and hysterical – some even suggested the ‘spinsters’ should be drowned like witches. Their demonstrations were often met with violence from male bystanders who would throw stones and rotten eggs.

“Like a lot of extreme political movements, the suffragettes provoked mixed reactions from the public – they were divisive,” says Cowman. “Some of the women’s husbands were incredibly supportive and understood their motivations, whereas others would abandon them, try to have them declared insane or have their children taken away in secret.”

One of the most shocking cases is of suffragette Helen Archdale, who was married to an army officer and imprisoned several times for her campaigning. Her mother-in-law disapproved of her actions so much that she (unsuccessfully) planned to kidnap Archdale’s children.


It was not uncommon for children to be wrenched from their suffragette mothers because their husbands or other family members disagreed with their actions. And because of the legal framework at the time, once these children were taken away, the devastated women often had no legal claim to their sons and daughters, some of them losing their children forever. 

Suffragettes Flora Drummond, Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst in the dock, October 1908. They were accused of conspiracy during the struggle for votes for women 

Life in prison

More often than not, suffragettes were fined for their more militant acts, but refused to pay, a show of defiance that landed them in the local prisons. From 1900 to the beginning of WWI, almost 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned – which sometimes lost them their jobs and, for the higher-class women, certainly cost them status.

Many would go to prison under different names to spare their husbands ‘embarrassment’ (some wrote impassioned letters to assure their spouses they were still clear of “lice and flies”). Others would hide their actions from their employers, use false aliases or, if they were teachers, only campaign in the school holidays so they wouldn’t lose their jobs.

It wasn’t uncommon for whole families to demonise and disown their suffragette daughters, cutting off any support and inheritance they may have had claim to, leaving them destitute. Jessie Stephenson, a suffragette who worked as a barrister’s clerk, was imprisoned in 1910, losing the support of her family. In her memoir she wrote: “My married-to-a-clergyman sister never sent me a line since I was in gaol. She said not only would she never have me in her house again, but several times that she would never speak to me again.”

These women were often given administrative roles by the WSPU so they could get back on their feet, or were looked after by the movement’s wealthier members, who would ‘see them right’ for future situations. 

But perhaps the harshest brutalities came when these women were behind bars. Emmeline Pankhurst described her own time in prison as “like a human being in the process of being turned into a wild beast”, and accounts from other women at the time can make for tough reading. Many imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strike to protest against the terrible conditions they were kept in: they contended they should be treated as political prisoners, not as criminals. Their hunger strikes were as much a part of their campaign as their actions on the streets.

Initially, the hunger strikers were released after a few days by the authorities who didn’t want to take responsibility for their deaths, but they were later force-fed with rubber tubes pushed down their throats while their mouths were held open with sharp steel clamps (Sylvia Pankhurst admitted that the sense of degradation was worse than the pain of her gums, which were “always sore and bleeding, with bits of loose, jagged flesh”). It was also recorded that working-class women had feeding tubes inserted into their vaginas and anuses, often without washing between uses.

The 26-year-old Sylvia Pankhurst detailed her experiences of force-feeding in American literary magazine Mclure’s. “I struggled as hard as I could, but they were six and each one of them much bigger and stronger than I,” she wrote. 

“They soon had me on the bed and firmly held down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees and the ankles. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open, his fingers trying to press my lips apart — getting inside. I felt I should go mad; like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap.” 

Lady Constance Lytton (centre) and fellow suffragette Leslie Lawless (right) at a demonstration outside Bow police station, date unknown 

Classes apart

The official line of the prison authorities was that everyone was treated the same, irrespective of their class or background. But Lady Constance Lytton, who was upper-class, became suspicious of this claim when she was released from Newcastle Prison in October 1909 after only two days – and, most notably, without being forcibly fed.

Cutting off her hair and disguising herself as a seamstress called Jane Warton, she rejoined the WSPU and protested against forcible feeding outside Walton Gaol. She was quickly arrested, but this time the humble ‘Jane Warton’ received none of the courtesies shown to the aristocratic Lady Lytton.

“Warton was held down by wardresses as the doctor
 inserted a four-foot-long tube down her throat,” writes June Purvis, emerita professor of women’s and gender history at the University of Portsmouth.
 “A few seconds after the tube was down, she vomited all over her hair, her clothes and the wall, yet the task continued until all the liquid had been emptied into her stomach.”

As the doctor left, he gave Lytton a slap on the cheek. “Not violently,” Lytton recalled later, “But, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval.”

“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,” says Purvis.

These forcible-feedings injured many of the suffragettes, such as Twickenham-born Lilian Lenton. Imprisoned after being
 accused of arson, she was force-fed through a tube in her nose, and contracted septic pneumonia as a result 
of the liquid entering 
her lungs.

Others
 never fully recovered 
from the issues that resulted from these feedings and some had strokes. Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, Mary Clarke, was force-fed in prison and died in 1910, two days after her release, as a result of a burst blood vessel on the brain. Pankhurst blamed her death on the force-feeding. 

An illustration of suffragettes being expelled from Westminster after demonstrating for the right to vote, published in the Italian newspaper La Domenica del Corriere in 1906

The time is now

As Pankhurst stated in her famous ‘Freedom or Death’ speech in Connecticut in November 1913: “Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.” These women were self-sacrificing. Pioneers. So did they really deserve to be treated like animals?

Labour Party politician Baroness Brenda Dean believes the government should issue a posthumous apology to the suffragettes, because of the physical and emotional abuse they received at the hands of the state.

“If you look at any major social change, within it somewhere has been a degree of militancy,” she says. “You’ve got to throw yourself back to the turn of the century when the whole social order was very different. Their actions have to be seen through the prism of their inability to use normal means to advocate their views. These were pretty desperate measures by people in a desperate situation.”

And so we find ourselves, a century later, still dealing with inequality, situations that some might describe as similar to these suffragettes.

“It’s a fortunate coincidence that the centenary has come up at the same time as the #MeToo campaign,” says Cowman. “This is part of what the suffragettes were campaigning for. They wanted to be treated like adults and this is the message that still exists today. Don’t treat us specially, but don’t abuse us or dismiss us either. We are your equals.” 

But are we making the most of the freedom and autonomy that these women fought to secure for us? Perhaps not enough. They sacrificed their families, marriages, jobs and their lives to afford us the right to place our mark in the ballot box. However, as recent statistics show, 36% of eligible female voters failed to take part in the 2015 general election. That’s 9.1million women. This has to change.

It was the ultimate in selfless acts for these women to fight so long and so hard for a goal that there was no guarantee would even benefit them. We should thank them for that and be determined to continue their work.

“In 2018, it feels like we are at a tipping point,” says Sam Smethers, chief executive of gender-equality charity the Fawcett Society. “Women, girls and their male allies are standing together to reject misogyny, violence and sexism and to demand change.

“The truth is, equality won’t happen on its own. So we have to fight on and find the next generation who will step forward to drive change.”

It’s crucial for us to look 
forward and keep fighting. We owe it to these women. 

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.

Images: Bogdan DadaRex Features