Lots of things happen in that excellent TV show Downton Abbey, but there’s not a lot of reference to one major group of women who convulsed England in 1914 – the suffragettes. Yet these women were involved in some of the most dramatic activities any playwright could imagine – often heroic, sometimes comic, occasionally tragic on an almost Shakespearean scale.
Take the most famous of them all – Emmeline Pankhurst. In 1914 she was 56 years old, a widow with two grown up daughters. A pretty woman, frail and petite, by mid 1914 she was almost wasting away. She had been imprisoned ten times, and each time she had gone on hunger strike until she was released. Then, after she had recovered a little, she was rearrested again under the terms of the infamous Cat and Mouse Act.
So what was this Cat and Mouse Act? Officially called the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, it was designed by the Home Secretary, Mr McKenna, to deal with the increasingly embarrassing problem – for the government – of suffragette hunger strikes. Over the past few years suffragettes of Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) had committed a bewildering variety of crimes. Apparently respectable ladies walked into Oxford Street with hammers concealed in their handbags, and smashed all the plate glass shop windows. Others set fire to post boxes, wrote VOTES FOR WOMEN in weedkiller on the greens of golf courses, attacked the Prime Minister with a horsewhip, or tried to set fire to the Home Secretary’s house.
It must have been tremendous fun. These women were having the time of their lives! But of course all these things are crimes and so they were sent to prison.
In prison, however, the story got worse, and darker. The women didn’t accept the justice of the court, so they refused to eat, starving themselves for days until, in common humanity, they were released; whereupon they went straight out and committed further offences. This made the government look ridiculous; and there is nothing men hate more than being laughed at by women.
So instead of releasing the women, the government decided to enforce the law. If the prisoners refused to eat, they must be made to eat. And the method for doing this, in 1914, was barbarous in the extreme. A female prisoner was held down, usually by four or five wardresses, while a doctor – almost always a man – inserted a feeding tube, like a long garden hose, down her throat. When several feet of this had gone through the struggling woman’s nose or mouth into her stomach, he put a funnel into the end of the tube, held it above her head, and poured soup into it.
It was messy, horrible and gruesome. Often, when the tube was removed, the woman promptly vomited up onto the floor. Her mouth and throat would be sore and bleeding. She would feel shocked, violated, raped. And the whole procedure would be repeated the next day.
This was shocking enough when applied to poor working and middle-class girls, but the real scandal erupted when it was applied to aristocratic ladies as well. In those days prisoners from different social classes were divided like train passengers: wealthy prisoners went to the First Division, with relatively comfortable conditions, middle-class prisoners to the Second Division, and the poorest to the Third.
But in 1909 one of the most aristocratic women in England, Lady Constance Lytton, daughter of the former Viceroy of India, threw a stone through a window in Liverpool. Because she had disguised herself as ‘a common ugly seamstress’ called Jane Warton, she was imprisoned in the Third Division. When she went on hunger strike, she was forcibly fed, like a common working class girl. When she was released, she threw another stone, and it happened all over again – four times in all. In 1914 she published a gripping book, Prisons and Prisoners, describing her terrible experiences.
It was to avoid embarrassing stories like these that the Home Secretary, Mr McKenna, introduced the Cat and Mouse Act. The idea was that if women damaged their health by refusing to eat in prison, the government could temporarily release them for a few weeks until their health had improved, but then rearrest them to serve the rest of their sentence. So a six-month sentence might eventually be dragged out over several years.
It was passed by a majority of 296 to 43. But it didn’t really help, because the Act was portrayed by the suffragettes as a new and equally barbaric form of torture. And anyway, force feeding continued, sometimes when prisoners were on remand, before they had even been convicted. Mrs Pankhurst lay on her back on the stone floor of her cell, all day for days until she was released. When her daughter Sylvia was released from Holloway after forcible feeding and hunger strike, her supporters carried her to Parliament and laid her, half–dead, like a sacrifice outside the chamber.
This wasn’t just a battle about politics; it was a war between men and women. The men were the cats; the women, the mice. There were clear elements of sadism in it too. It wasn’t just about the Vote, it was a battle for power in sexual relationships.
Prostitution in London was rife, with all its attendant problems of ‘The White Slave Trade’ in under-age girls, and the transmission of sexual disease. Suffragettes were as angry about this as they were about the vote. Christabel Pankhurst wrote a pamphlet called The Great Scourge and How to End It, which contained the alarming quote:
‘Votes for Women … and Chastity for Men.’
No wonder the male politicians felt so threatened! Especially those who regularly visited ‘up-market’ brothels as a matter of course, before going home to their wives and children.
It was in the midst of all this that a suffragette called Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and committed the dramatic crime which I have borrowed for the opening of my novel Cat and Mouse. With a large kitchen knife she slashed the naked back of one of the most beautiful and alluring portraits of female sexual beauty – the Rokeby Venus.
Why did she do this? To get Votes for Women? Well, yes. But there was more to it than that; and that is what I have tried to explore in my story, Cat and Mouse.