We welcome back, Olivia Metcalfe who writes about the suffering inflicted on the Suffragette activists in a patriarchal Britain. Olivia graduated with a BA Honours in English Language and Literature and is now studying an MA in English Studies.
In British history women were rarely given equal status, their voices often unheard over the loud roars of men. The suffragettes changed this ideology, transforming Britain forever. The suffragette movement was the campaign for the right to vote for women, aiming to obtain equality for women in political representation. By challenging archaic patriarchal views the suffragettes would have been viewed as monstrous women, those who transgressed the boundaries of how a woman was expected to behave. They left the domestic sphere, caused a commotion in public and fought for change in a time of conformity. This article will discuss the suffragettes in relation to the anxieties they represented to the patriarchy. It will also focus on the adverse treatment these women experience at the hands of our government and law system, fighting for rights that women in the twenty-first century generally take for granted. It is vital to not just remember their accomplishments but their suffering too.
Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) attacked the domestic homely image of women ‘the weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel’ (p.76). Wollstonecraft, an early influential activist, believed that women should share the same rights as men due to their common humanity. The suffragettes, both women and men, have been immortalised in both media and literature, remembered for acts of valour and courage, paving the way for equality. By achieving this, women were given a voice in not just the political sphere but in the domestic environment too. Angela Smith of the University of Sunderland speaks about the inspirational legacy the suffragettes have left us, ‘What I was left with was a very strong sense of admiration for the courage these women must have had to campaign publicly for these rights.’ They reshaped the identity of women by becoming strong and empowered, encouraging others to follow, modernising archaic views in a pursuit for equality.
The spheres of society were now changing, women were realising that they were not confined to the domestic household and were exploring new ventures. However this did not come without a price, suffragette activists were brutalised by the authorities and subjected to inhumane methods of torture, this included being beaten and squalid prison conditions. Perhaps the most common was the method of force-feeding; this was to limit hunger strike casualties and to discourage the image of a suffragette martyr. This method was seemingly medieval, the individual was strapped down and force fed through the nostrils or the stomach. This caused short-term damage to the circulatory system, digestive system and nervous system and long-term damage to the physical and mental health of the suffragettes. Geddes (2008) states the long term effect this brutality had on some women, ‘Some suffragettes who were force-fed developed pleurisy or pneumonia as a result of a misplaced tube.’ This method was carried out with little consideration for health or comfort, thus resulting in further injury or death.
Lady Constance Lytton was an influential British suffragette activist, writer and campaigner for votes for women, prison reform and birth control. Her account of her experiences as a suffragette is instrumental in understanding the horrific treatment many were subjected to. She gives her shocking account of her experiences as a suffragette. Within this, she includes her medical report revealing the extent of her injuries received while in Holloway prison. ‘The patient’s look of extreme illness, malnutrition and bad colour led me to examine her heart carefully’ (p.301). The concern of her examiner warranted a final examination, which revealed sinister news: ‘The most superficial examination of the heart cannot fail to reveal the grave risk to health and life to which the patient was exposed during the forcible methods of feeding’ (p.302). Women who challenged the patriarchy were in danger of losing their lives, thus gives a disturbing message from the British authorities: fight for reform and be silenced. These women were seen as monstrous females, those who transgressed the boundaries of society in order to obtain a fairer future. We owe our freedom to these activists, those who created a fairer Britain and expose the horrors of the patriarchy. Society was the monstrous force, not the women who opposed it. Lady Constance Lytton’s premature death was most likely caused by the trauma she experienced at Holloway Prison, however, her passion captures the spirit of the suffragette movement. This is clear in her account which describes her self-mutilation ‘I had decided to write the words “Votes for Women” on my body, scratching it in my skin with a needle’. Like many other suffragettes, she was willing to wear her pride not just in her heart but on her skin, proudly on display to show her passion could not be broken under mental or physical torture. The future of Britain was carved through the admirably resilient spirit of the suffragettes; these remarkable characters disregarded their own safety in order to ensure future generations. In a society where free thinking and wild passion were limited to only one sex, change was inevitable, we thank these women for the opportunities our mothers, ourselves and our children have been given.
Geddes, J. F. (2008). “Culpable Complicity: the medical profession and the forcible feeding of suffragettes, 1909–1914”.
Lytton, C. L., Lytton, L.C. and Warton, J. (1976) Prisons and Prisoners: Experiences of a Suffragette. Wakefield, England: Charles River Books.
Smith, A (2016)
Wollstonecraft, M. (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Women. London. J. Johnson.