Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cats and Suffragettes

The Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 was the act that ended force-feeding of the Suffragettes who went on hunger strikes in prison.  Today, this curious poster has descended to a humbler use, as an emblem for my blog, with its united themes of Cats and Suffragettes (though I assure you, neither Pindar, Marshwiggle, or Christabel-the-cat-formerly-known-as-Catullus, ever look as fierce as the Suffragette-chewing cat, above!).

Now, I have just finished reading Lady Constance Lytton's book, Prisons and Prisoners:  The Stirring Testimony of a Suffragette, and stirring indeed it was.  Nothing can be more powerful than a first-person memoir of this kind, and Lady Constance, in simple eloquent language, puts us in the picture in a "you are there" way, as she describes her Suffragette and prison experiences. 

Prisons and Prisoners by Constance Lytton

Lady Constance (1869-1923) was an aristocrat, the daughter of Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, Viceroy of India, and Edith Villiers, Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria; the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton was her grandfather. From an early age Constance rejected the aristocratic way of life, and she never married, having been forbidden to marry a man from a "lower social order." She suffered from chronic heart disease, and lived quietly in the country with her mother, no other life seeming possible, until her godmother left her a small bequest, and she decided to use it to combat the inhumanity of industrialism.  It was while teaching working-girls traditional English folk music that she met Suffragettes Mrs. Pethick Lawrence and Annie Kenney, and her life changed. Converted to Suffragism, she offered herself as a member of the next deputation to the Prime Minister.

Lady Constance Lytton

Leaving home, knowing she would be arrested, she wrote a letter of explanation to her mother, who would be appalled by her action. "I must tell you what has decided me to take this torturing step," she wrote. "Prisons, as you know, have been my hobby. What maternity there lurks in me has for years past been gradually awakening over the fate of prisoners, the deliberate, cruel harm that is done to them, their souls and bodies...The moment I got near the Suffragettes the way to this child of mine seemed easy and straight."

Her descriptions of her experiences in Holloway Prison are vivid, but she was aware of being given preferential treatment because of who she was, and her fragile health. "My continual appeals to the authorities to treat me as they did my fellow-prisoners...having proved unavailing, I...decided to write the words 'Votes for Women' on my body, scratching it in my skin with a needle, beginning over the heart and ending it on my face." She got as far as the V, over her heart.

Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in Prison

Constance's second arrest, in 1909, came after Mrs. Pankhurst took her to visit a girl who had been released from prison after undergoing the torture of forcible feeding.  Constance went with a deputation of women led by Christabel, "intending stone-throwers" protesting a speech by Lloyd George. She told a young girl, "You are going to throw a stone. Think, as you lift your arm to do it, of the majority in the House of Commons...Think of the women who work with a sweated wage, who have not the energy to rebel...Think of the women who have been sent to prison for their protest against these things...Then throw your stone and make it do its work."

Constance waited in a hat shop until it was her turn.  "In the shop there was a fascinating little black kitten which it was hard to leave."  Then she stepped out in front of a car in Lloyd George's procession, and shouted out, "How can you, who say you back the women's cause, stay on in a Government which refuses them the vote, and is persecuting them for asking it?" and threw her stone. She was arrested, and in prison wrote her name on the wall with these words:

"To defend the oppressed,
To fight for the defenceless,
Not counting the cost."

She escaped force-feeding on this occasion, and determined, for her next imprisonment, to go in disguise, so as to receive ordinary treatment. Calling herself Jane Warton, she dressed in a disfiguring working woman's outfit, and threw stones into the garden of a prison governor. This time there was nothing preferential about her treatment, and she underwent force-feeding. Her description of this is horrific:

Constance as "Jane Warton"

"He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would have to feed me through the nose. The pain of it was intense and at last I must have given way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet in length. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had got down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses, and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out. As the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek, not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval, and he seemed to take for granted that my distress was assumed... Before long I heard the sounds of the forced feeding in the next cell to mine. It was almost more than I could bear, it was Elsie Howey, I was sure. When the ghastly process was over and all quiet, I tapped on the wall and called out at the top of my voice, which wasn't much just then, 'No surrender,' and there came the answer past any doubt in Elsie's voice, 'No surrender.'"

Forcible feeding

After many such experiences, her health was broken, and in the months after her release she suffered several heart attacks and strokes. Yet she managed to write her book, which was influential in prison reform. She died in 1923, the Suffragette colors being placed on her coffin. Her book is available online:

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/lytton/prisons/prisons.html



The Suffragette colors were purple, white, and green.  Their banners were made in those colors, and jewelry too, badges and pins and necklaces.  It was Mrs. Pethick-Lawrence of the WSPU who started the idea, and explained in the newspaper Votes for Women (1908):  

"Purple as everyone knows is the royal colour. It stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity...white stands for purity in private and public life...green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring...The colours enable us to make that appeal to the eye which is so irresistible. The result of our processions is that this movement becomes identified in the mind of the onlooker with colour, gay sound, movement, and beauty."

The Holloway brooch, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, who was an artist, was the "Victoria Cross" given by the WSPU to members who had been jailed.  The Holloway brooch doesn't show its colors here, but was enameled in the Suffragette colors.

There was also a Hunger Strike Medal, a bar pin, inscribed "For Valour."  Two of the three that still exist belonged to Mrs. Pankhurst and Lady Constance Lytton.




Some Suffragette jewelry still survives.  Here are two antique examples, a gorgeous brooch of 1910:



And a lovely necklace that inspired my own design:
Wanting a Suffragette necklace of my own, I designed this one, from amethysts, freshwater seed pearls, and Venetian green glass beads:





It is in the shape of V for Votes, and may be worn to commemorate such women as Lady Constance Lytton (I would say over the heart, but let's not go there!).  I have enough beads left, if anyone else would like me and Beatriz to make you one.  Now, the closing cat thought:

In 1911, Constance Lytton, carrying hammer and stones, was on her way to the House of Commons and to her fourth imprisonment, and was joined by some of her "active" friends in Victoria Street.  She wrote:

"We turned into a 'Lyons' for some tea, the whole place was full of our friends and a detective or two. A cat was there; she came to lie on my lap and I had to turn her off when we left."

My gentle cat Marsh-wiggle, on my lap.


Cats do not need votes, as they have full power.  Marshy's golden eyes have been known to hypnotize.

8 comments:

Vic said...

We take so much for granted today. Thank God for the women before us.

The colors in the jewelry are lovely, as is your necklace.

Ellen said...

I've bought the book on your say-so and have it on my reading table on the top of a pile.

The description of force-feeding is important and it's good you put it on your blog. I've never come across one before.

Repeatedly I've though that the force-feeding done to anorexic women is a final cruelty. It's presented as being done to save them. Oh no -- it's part of the hatred and fear anorexic women provoke.

There is something strange about determined revolutionaries -- as when they immolate themselves in fire. Constance didn't go quite that far, but she exhibits the same extremis for death.

Ellen

nichola said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Lucy

http://businesseshome.net

偉子生誠 said...

Unable to give you a heart. so have a reply to push up your post. ........................................

christy somer said...

Diana~~~~

Very sobering thoughts of History when contemplating our Suffragette *Sisters* experiencing such levels of self-sacrifice so horrific and mind numbing~~~~and what a gift they gave with their lives filled with such devotion ~~~and how much We have to be thankful for~~~~

Christy

christy somer said...

P.S.

That is a Lovely Necklace~~amethyst is my birthstone and the green and white contrast are perfect~~~

Christy

Laura said...

Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing.

Your necklace is lovely.

Luvvie said...

What a powerful post Diana - almost too much to bear to read and yet here I am sitting on my tush while these women suffered for my suffrage. And a beautiful necklace. Green is my colour this year. It's popping up all around me...new beginnings....I do love amethysts though and don't get me started on pearls!!!