By 1912, the treatment of women imprisoned for taking part in militant action was causing a national stir. The nation was split as to whether suffragettes should be treated as ordinary criminals or as political dissidents.
The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) engaged Professor George Sigerson to give his views about the status of suffragette prisoners in this pamphlet. He was a distinguished academic and member of the Royal Commission on Prisons.
‘Custodia honesta’ or ‘simple detention’
Sigerson argues that suffragette prisoners should receive special treatment as political dissidents. To make his point, he draws on historical cases from the late 18th and early 19th centuries when political prisoners were detained under special conditions. He cites several cases, including that of William Cobbett, who was imprisoned for incitement to mutiny, and Leigh Hunt, imprisoned for libel against the Prince Regent – both of whom were detained in comfortable living quarters with many privileges, including contact with friends and family. This method was known as ‘simple detention’, or ‘custodia honesta’.
The introduction to the pamphlet is written by Henry W Nevinson, one of the founders of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. Like Sigerson, he draws the distinction between political offence and ordinary crime which, he asserts, is ‘prompted by personal gain or some merely private motive’. He argues that the offences of the suffragette prisoners are undeniably political as no allegation of personal interest was made against them. ‘Their motive’, he argues, ‘has invariably been the extension of the franchise, usually considered a Liberal object, and unquestionably a political one’ (p. 4).
Were the Suffragettes always treated as ordinary criminals?
Until 1908, suffragette prisoners were given ‘first division’ treatment which meant that they had the status of political prisoners. They were allowed to have contact with friends and family, to wear their own clothes and receive food parcels, among other privileges. After 1908, however, their status changed. As ‘second division’ offenders, they were regarded as criminals and treated like ordinary prisoners. They were locked up in separate cells, had to wear prison uniform, had limited contact with the outside world and experienced the daily degradations of a harsh prison routine. Commentators have noted that the suffragettes were treated in this humiliating manner in order to undermine their cause and erode their sense of self.
Hunger strikes and force feeding
In protest against the authorities’ refusal to recognise them as political prisoners, many suffragettes went on hunger strike. The first woman to do this was Marion Wallace Dunlop, imprisoned in July 1909 for printing an extract from the Bill of Rights on the wall of St Stephen’s Hall in the House of Commons. At first, the hunger-strikers were released from prison, but the government soon introduced force-feeding, a brutal practice which caused the women great suffering and long-term damage to their health.
The pamphlet draws attention to several cases of violent treatment of suffragettes in prison, including those of working-class women Selina Martin and Leslie Hall, one of whom was ‘beaten unmercifully, flung on the floor, thrown handcuffed into a cold punishment cell, dragged by the frog-march to the operating or torture-room, her head bumping on the steps, and forcibly fed with great violence’. The other was ‘forcibly fed with extreme pain, the doctor cheerily remarking that it was “like stuffing a turkey for Christmas”’. Both women were on remand and under English law were assumed innocent (pp. 5–6).
Poor suffragettes were treated more harshly than their wealthy, well-connected counterparts. This is clear from the case of Lady Constance Lytton, who ‘was speedily released on the supposed discovery of some physical weakness … but was kept in prison … and was exposed to the full barbarity of forcible feeding when she was [later] arrested for a similar offence under the assumed name and character of Jane Warton, a working woman’ (p. 5).