The Suffragettes and the Cat and Mouse Act #WomensHistoryMonth #Suffragists #MillicentFawcett
Updated: Mar 5
It can only be estimated that the number of women who went to prison was more than 1,000 because many were imprisoned under public order offences and so are not easy to identify.
Neither is it certain how many went on hunger strike or were forcibly fed.
But it is certain that the Suffragettes refused to bow to violence against them.
They were quite happy to go to prison. And, from 1909, women demanding the status of political prisoners began to refuse food. The government was extremely concerned that they might die in prison thus giving the movement martyrs. So prison governors were ordered to force-feed Suffragettes even though this caused a public outcry as forced feeding was traditionally used to feed those who were then called lunatics…as opposed to what were mostly educated women.
Force-feeding was a serious problem. The force-feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes was invasive, demeaning, and dangerous, and in some instances it damaged the long-term health of the victims, because it should also be remembered that women were given disproportionately long sentences for minor offences such as protesting, resisting arrest, or smashing a window.
There have been many studies of the letters, diaries and autobiographies written by prisoners indicating the horrors of force-feeding and the particularly harsh treatment of poor or working-class women. One describes the experiences of Lady Constance Lytton, who disguised herself as a poor woman named Jane Warton in order to gather evidence of differential treatment.
Jane Warton was “held down by wardresses as the doctor inserted a four-foot-long tube down her throat. 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 me a slap on the cheek’, Constance recollected, ‘not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval’.”
She was forcibly fed seven more times before her true identity was revealed and she was released. Constance never fully recovered from her ordeal – she suffered a stroke in 1912 and died in 1923.
Forcible feeding was humiliating, especially so for poor women fed through the rectum and vagina. The knowledge that new tubes were not always available and that used tubes may have been previously inflicted on diseased people undoubtedly added to the feelings of abuse, dirtiness and indecency that the women felt.
The government of Asquith responded with The Cat and Mouse Act When a Suffragette was sent to prison, it was assumed that she would go on hunger strike as this caused the authorities maximum discomfort. The Cat and Mouse Act allowed the Suffragettes to go on a hunger strike so they became weaker and weaker. Force-feeding was not used. When the Suffragettes were very weak they were released from prison. If they died out of prison, this was of no embarrassment to the Government. However, they did not die but those who were released were so ill that they could take no part in violent Suffragette struggles. When the women who had been arrested and released had regained their strength, they were re-arrested for the most trivial of reason and the whole process started again.
This, from the government’s point of view, was a very simple but effective weapon against the Suffragettes.
The move for women to have the vote had really started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.
Millicent Fawcett believed in peaceful protest. She felt that any violence or trouble would persuade men that women could not be trusted to have the right to vote. Her game plan was patience and logical arguments. Fawcett argued that women could hold responsible posts in society such as sitting on school boards yet were not trusted to vote; she argued that if parliament made laws and if women had to obey those laws, then women should be part of the process of making those laws; she argued that as women had to pay taxes as men, they should have the same rights as men
And one of her most powerful arguments was that wealthy mistresses of large manors and estates employed gardeners, workmen and labourers who could vote……..but the women could not regardless of their wealth…..
Dame Millicett’s legacy continues today through the women’s rights charity, the Fawcett Society.
At the age of 19, she organised signatures for the first petition for women’s suffrage, though she was too young to sign it herself. She became President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (the NUWSS) from 1907-19. With 50,000 members it was the largest organisation agitating for female suffrage at the time. Her powerful and peaceful mass campaign was instrumental in securing the first extension of voting rights for women in 1918.
Millicent worked alongside the Suffragettes, who employed different, and more militant tactics in their campaign. From the beginning, Millicent took an interest in women’s empowerment in its broadest sense; the suffragette colours were green, white and violet which stood for Give Women Votes. The suffragist colours, by contrast, reflected their broader movement: green, white and red or Give Women Rights.
In 1913 she was awarded a brooch engraved with “For Steadfastness and Courage”, which The Fawcett Society till has today. Millicent Fawcett died in 1929, a year after women were finally given equal voting rights. Her work has continued ever since, with The London Society for Women’s Suffrage renamed as The Fawcett Society in her honour in 1953.
The Fawcett Society campaigns to:
Close the gender pay gap. Secure equal power. Challenge attitudes and change minds. There must be no turning the clock back.
THEIR VISION: A society in which the choices you can make and the control you have over your life are no longer determined by your gender.
THEIR MISSION: We publish compelling research to educate, inform and lead the debate. We bring together politicians, academics, grassroots activists and wider civil society to develop innovative, practical solutions
They campaign with women and men to make change happen.