The Hunger Strike
January 31, 1910 — Queen’s Hall, London UK
I am grateful for your kindness, and I appreciate it as fully and as deeply as any human being can, but let me remind the strangers here that thought what I have done is something rather different perhaps to what other women have done, because the circumstances concerning me were different, and because there was something to lay hold rather freshly of the imagination of outsiders; yet they must remember this fact, that thirty-five other women have been treated as I have been treated, and of these women I have suffered almost the last. Before I tell you my story I want to impress that fact on the stranger and the outsiders. I am one of thirty-five to whom this has been done, and of this number there are two women in the prison from which I come, who are now being treated like that; two women who, as I did, are watching the waning of the light, and knowing that when the light faces it is only a question of minutes before this torture — one can call it by no other name — is inflicted on their helpless bodies at the bottom of a prison cell, where there will be no witnesses and no appeal.
Since I have been released I have had many letters not only from strangers, but from personal friends, who try to show sympathy, but who say in a curious, blind, and ignorant fashion: “But, after all, what is it all about? Why do it? It is all unnecessary.” Therefor I want to give as briefly as I can a little sketch of my experiences during the last year. When first I joined this movement my life was literally transformed by contact with the four great leaders, who in these brief years have framed and created a movement which, I think, even in the history of the whole world will ever be considered as remarkable.
When I first came across those great forces I stood as an absolute outsider, an impartial critic. Let me tell a little incident which occurred in the country town where I was. One day I came on a great crowd forming a ring round a sheep being taken to the slaughter house. It looked old and misshapen. I suddenly saw a vision of what it should have been, on its native mountain side, when all its forces were rightly developed, and there was a hideous contrast between that vision and the creature in the crowd. It seemed to be an ungainly thing. Presently it was caught again, and one man gave it a great cuff on the head. At that I felt exasperated. I said, “If you have got this creature in your power, don’t you know your own business? If you were holding it properly it would be still. You think that insult is the proper thing at this moment?” Over and over again I have thought of that incident, of how women have been thought unwomanly, unnatural, held in contempt, a thing outside the pale, and laughed at and then insulted, because of conditions which they had not produced, but which were the result of mistakes and injustice of civilisation. When one joins this cause one must expect derisive misunderstanding, and misinterpretation of all one’s motives. A friend told me recently that her brother, who had an important post in South Africa, condemned the movement when first he heard of her joining it. Presently, he came back from South Africa, and said he was a complete convert to Woman Suffrage. His reason was that as he moved among the aboriginal tribes he found that the status of the tribe was exactly gauged by the status of the women in that tribe. Where they were honoured and respected it was the same with the tribe, and where it was otherwise the tribe was dishonoured. I think that is a very good instance of what happens in all countries, civilised as well as uncivilised. Only the very day before I went into Liverpool prison as Jane Wharton, I met at one of my meetings a factory inspector. She seemed what you could describe as a “red tape” official, an unimaginative, official woman. Yet she said this: “If only one of these well-to-do, happy women could sit in the police-court, as I have to do, there would be no need to argue with them about the position of women in this country at the present moment. She told me she was in a police-court the other day when three prisoners were brought before the magistrate, a man and two women. The man and a woman were arrested for being together in the public street at night, the other woman for mounting guard. The facts were clear — the man had bribed the woman and had paid her money — and yet this was the verdict: The two women were sent to prison and the man was allowed to go free. People talk of sex war. Is not that sex war? It is sex peace we want.
People say, what does this hunger-strike mean? Surely it is all folly. If it is not hysteria, at least it is unreasonable. They will not realise that we are like an army, that we are deputed to fight for a cause, and for other people, and in any struggle or any fight, weapons must be used. The weapons for which we ask are simple, a fair hearing, but that is refused us in Parliament, refused us by the Government, refused us in the magistrates’ courts, refused us in the law courts. Then we must have other weapons. What do other people choose when they are driven to the last extremity? What do men choose? They have recourse to violence. But what the women of this movement have specially stood out for is that they will not kill, they will not harm while they have other weapons left them. These women have chosen the weapon of self-hurt to make their protest, and this hunger-strike brings great pressure upon the Government. It involves grave hurt and tremendous sacrifice, but this is on the part of the women only, and does not physically injure their enemies. Can that be called violence and hooliganism? But it is not good taking a weapon and being ready to drop it at the very first provocation, so when the Government retaliated with their unfair methods, with their abominable torture and tyranny of feeding by force, did you expect the women to drop their weapons? No, of course not. I had been in this movement many months, and although I absolutely approved of the method of getting in our messages by means of stones which did nothing but convey our meaning to the Ministers and to the world, still I felt I could not throw a stone myself. However, as I have told you here before when I saw the first of these women released — a mere girl — from Birmingham Gaol, I took another view. I went to Newcastle for a protest, meaning to share what these women endured. I went in my own name, and, as you know, I was released after a very short hunger-strike, a heart specialist being called in, who examined me for something like a quarter of an hour. I made a tremendous protest. I said that in that same prison where I was, there was a woman, a first offender, who had done much less violence than I had, and she was fed by force without having her heart tested at all. “Whatever you think of the subject,” I said “Whatever you think of the militant movement, surely you can see that justice is done between one human being and another!” I tried all I could, when I came out, and I got others whom I know to fight that question with truth and exposure, and what did they give us back?
Lies, and nothing but lies!
Well, I thought, you choose your weapons, I will fight with the same weapon, and you shall take my life, and do with it what you will! So I disguised myself; I changed my personality, and I went and made my protest outside that very gaol where these hideous, abominable things were being done. It was easier than I thought. I merely cut my hair. I bought clothes of a different type to my own, I removed the initials from my underclothes, I put on glasses, and that was more than sufficient I had one rather unhappy moment. They had taken my belongings, brooches, handkerchief, etc. I saw in the first bundle a reel of cotton with “Lytton” on it, and a handkerchief from which I had omitted to remove the initials. I thought the game was up, but they were so little suspicious that I simply placed my hand upon these two things and put them in the fire. The prison world is so used to Suffragettes doing strange things that they were not at all surprised.
I was always on the alert for being discovered, but the first day of the hunger-strike went by, the second day went by, and the third day went by, and it was quite obvious from the way they treated me they did not suspect my identity. It was the first time I had been to prison without my name, and I can assure you it made a great deal of difference. Perhaps it is only human. I do not complain of position influencing people like wardresses or policemen, but when it comes to law and the Home Office, surely one can expect something more like justice? On the fourth day of my hunger-strike the doctor came to my cell and said he must feed me at once. I was so desirous of gaining my object — I knew that if I was only fed once it would be a test — that I did not look upon it with horror — I welcomed it. To my surprise and to my great relief they did not examine my heart, which I had managed for two days, but which by the fourth day of starvation was becoming difficult.
Then, one evening, as I lay on the bed on the floor of my cell, I looked up. There were three panes of clear glass, and on them as the light fell there came shadows of the moulding that looked like three crosses. It brought to my mind the familiar scene of Calvary with its three crosses, and I thought: What did they stand for? One for the Lord Christ who died for sinners, and one for the sinner who was kind, and one for the sinner who had not yet learned to be kind, and behind those rosses I saw those hateful faces, the self-righteous, all those hateful institutions of superior goodness and moral blindness of officialdom, of all the injustice done, not only in prison, but in the world outside, and I thought surely it was for those that Christ died and is dying still and will have to die until they begin to see. When I thought that my blind hatred should be standing between these people and their better selves, I felt the hatred and the hell-like surroundings to from me. I was grateful to those panes, and the next day I put the table and the chair together and roused myself to wash the three windows cleaner, and as I looked through the glass, I saw, in the waning evening light, suffused by a pink glow, a scene which was to me more beautiful than the most beautiful picture I had ever seen. Outside was a little exercise yard, into which I had never been. Wandering round and round in the evening light, quite alone, was a slight figure of a woman, and as she turned the corner I saw that in her arms, under her shawl, she had another little prisoner, a baby, and she was happy and talking and singing to it; she seemed the very symbol of what we are fighting for, fighting to restore what has been lost — and I looked at that woman, who seemed so helpless, and I thought of the parson’s words, “Bad as bad can be.” And I felt as strong as Samson! A strength which no stories of heroic people had been able to give to me came to me.
After each time the hideous process of forcing feeding was repeated it meant a ghastly kind of washing up. Two or three times I was so completely unmanned that I was not able to do it myself, and an ordinary prisoner came in to do it. She was a new hand, and the wardresses said contemptuously in her presence, “Just look at that; look at the way she is doing it.” But the woman’s face never changed, there was no resentment and no anger. I ventured to say, “At any rate, she is doing the work I ought to do myself, and I am very grateful to her.” And from that woman there came to me an immense strength, and I felt I could fight on and live on to the end. As I was taken out to be weighted I passed a little girl, she was not more than a child. She may for aught I know have been taken straight off the streets, but she had at that moment the face of an angel, and she looked down on me with a smile which you can never see out of prison. She gave me that angel’s smile, and it positively touched my very soul. When I went out of the prison, I felt m resentment and anger were gone. In a way my physical courage was no better than before, but at least I could go on. I knew that I should last out.
The you come out of prison, and you hear people say: “You have gone in as a practical joke to do the Hoe Secretary,” or “You went in for a piece of hooliganism,” and so on. What are these people made of? Is that what we want? No. We want that from those helpless officials who are only blindly doing what they are told to do, there should be removed these hideous orders from high quarters that it should become impossible for orders of that kind to be carried out on women who can in no sense be compared with ordinary criminals. It must not be left to the magistrates and the law, but in public opinion it must be made impossible.
Even now there are many people to-day who kindly extend their personal sympathy to me. What are those people? Everyone counts immensely. Do not, at any point where you touch this movement, think you are of no account. Do your part and leave the rest. We want your sympathy, and are glad of it. We want your money, and I will tell you a story about that. One woman, a poor working woman, wrote to the Union, and enclosed a postal order for half-a-crown, and she said: “Will you take this and use it in any way Constance Lytton would like best.” Another said: “I should have liked to send you flowers, but I thought you would like the money better.” With this I mean to start a fund simply for educating this blind world, for trying to take the scales from the eyes of those who do not yet understand. We want your help for that, and we want your money for that, but we want, even more than that, that you should stand by us. Let me tell you one more personal anecdote. When the doctor first came into my cell I said: “Will you shake me by the hand?” And what I had been going to say to him if he had granted me my request was, “I want to shake hands with you for you have taken service on the wrong side. Those who back the Government in this matter are on the wrong side, and when they discover it they will have a very black moment, so let us shake hands over it now.” Well the doctor, being a prison official, could probably do nothing else; he did not shake hands. But do not let it come to you — that black moment when you will find you have taken service on the wrong side. This is the most glorious fight that has eve been. Become a member of our Union. It is so easy to do that> Before you leave this hall, say: “I will stand by you whatever the world says, whatever public opinion says, I am for you now, before another minute goes by.”
Source: Suffragette Sally, by Gertrude Colmore (i.e. Gertrude Baillie-Weaver), ed. Lee, A. (Toronto: Broadview Press), pp. 326-332.
Also: Speeches and Trials of the Militant Suffragettes: The Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1918. ed. Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), 1999, pp. 107-113.