Categories
Eating Disorders History

The Shut Mouth & Forced Ingestion: Women’s Suffrage

On the 5th of July 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop initiated a hunger strike in Holloway Goal. Suffragettes famously embarked upon this strike in order to protest their confinement for public acts of physical insubordination that included breaking windows and chaining themselves to railings.

Their rejection of food was a reaction to the government’s refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners.1

Rather than taking notice of and meeting the hunger strikers’ demands, however, the authorities responded with forced-feeding. 

Women ought to eat less than men, while certain foods were considered altogether unsuitable

These hunger strikes were not isolated incidents, but were a product of the Victorian debate surrounding female eating habits. Women’s dietary requirements were monitored throughout the 1800s when there was much discussion upon the subject of what was appropriate for a woman to consume. According to newspaper articles and etiquette guides, women ought to eat less than men, while certain foods were considered altogether unsuitable.

These restrictions that were placed upon the female body possessed a moral dimension since appetite was connected with sexuality. Woman’s hunger and consumption were therefore subject to constant regulation.

The suffragette movement campaigned for sexual equality and to alter patriarchal perceptions of women, an agenda to which bodies were central.

The nineteenth-century woman was defined in terms of her body and imprisoned within the domestic space of the home. Her exclusion from the ‘masculine’ social and political spheres was justified by men who pointed to the female body’s natural physical weakness. According to the Victorian patriarchy, a woman’s energy should be preserved for bearing children.

Women’s bodies that had been exploited for their reproductive capacities were thereby reclaimed by the suffragettes, who, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, aimed to achieve emancipation from domestic life.

The suffragettes therefore endured hunger and forced-feeding in order to improve the lives of other women. Their capacity to maintain their fasting, despite the violent force-feeding, glorified them as strong, determined individuals.

While medical practitioners and government officials considered hunger striking to be rebellious or suicidal, in reality its aim was to call attention to the political motive for what were judged as criminal offences.

The reasons for the hunger strike are recounted by suffragettes themselves in fictional and autobiographical writings, such as K. Roberts’ ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’, published in 1913. In her work, Roberts reveals that since petitions proved useless in gaining first division status:

It was determined to make a protest by politely and quietly declining to wear the prison clothes and eat the prison food.2

The narrator does not consider her actions to be ‘an offence at all’, but merely a demonstration against the inequality of government law. Self-starvation was a protest against injustice.

A report published in 1909 states that they are fighting for a political idea:

For this they are being treated as common criminals, in a way that men never are, and forcible feeding is resorted to because that is the only way in which the Government can make the continuance of their punishment as common criminals possible.3

By diagnosing suffragette behaviour as criminal, the government was able to discount women’s appeal for political power. Women’s efforts to challenge the status quo through political protest or by attempting to gain ownership of their bodies were therefore dismissed, and their actions defined as abnormal, dangerous and requiring imprisonment and medical treatment.

Hunger striking was extremely uncomfortable. It was referred to by one suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton, as ‘“the weapon of self-hurt.”’4 The experience is described by Sylvia Pankhurst who speaks of pains in the back, chest and stomach; lack of circulation and palpitations as ‘gradually the feeling of weakness and illness grows.’

Every day she is able to perceive that she:

has grown thinner, that the bones are showing out more and more clearly, and that the eyes are grown more hollow.5

Following release from prison, many suffragettes continued to experience problems with digestive functions and suffered from headaches and nervous symptoms.6

The sacrifice involved in the suffrage campaign did not only include self-starvation, but even extended to suicide. In June 1912 during a mass force-feeding in Holloway Goal, Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself down a staircase. and the following year she cast herself under the King’s horse and was crushed to death.

These efforts were undermined, however, by the introduction of forcible-feeding in 1909. The Home Secretary stated that ‘force feeding was instituted to keep the prisoners in health.’ and assured that it was ‘unattended by danger or pain,’7 yet both were found to be untrue. It was in fact was injurious and painful.

By utilising forcible-feeding, patriarchal authorities refused to acknowledge the political dimension of the suffragettes’ starvation. The prison doctor judged that treatment had been successful and the patient ‘normalised’ when her body no longer displayed signs of emaciation.

Only the symptoms of the hunger strikes were treated, revealing that patriarchal perspectives upon women and their bodies underwent little alteration during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

Authorities only saw emaciated bodies that could die under their supervision

In the struggle against political exclusion, the suffragettes’ bodies were bruised and battered in their arrest; then subsequently imprisoned, starved and force-fed. Yet, the authorities only saw emaciated bodies that could die under their supervision.

The process of force-feeding is graphically described in contemporary journals and works of fiction. In ‘Forcible Feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’ (1912), the authors disclose that ‘[t]he feeding cup method is frequently forcibly administered solely by the wardresses, without the supervision of a qualified medical practioner.’8 This procedure was often carried out by women. Women’s bodies were held down and restrained by other women’s bodies: the very bodies that the suffragettes fought to liberate.

The force-feeding was violent and brutal, a power struggle of physical strength that symbolised the suffragettes’ political and social battle: [d]uring the struggle before the feeding, prisoners were held down by force, flung on the floor, tied to chairs and iron bedsteads. As might be expected, severe bruises were thus inflicted.9

The prisoner’s arms that were ‘held firmly, so that she could not move’10 represent the restraints placed upon women by early twentieth-century society; while the bruises are visible marks of their suffering, both mental and physical.

This process also had many side effects such as headache, earache, neuralgia and severe gastric pain. Choking, vomiting, palpitation, faintness, and cold temperature were common, while in one case food was accidentally injected into the lung.

In accounts of forcible-feeding, the mouth is often the focal point of the procedure:

When the oesophageal tube was employed the mouth was wrenched open by pulling the head back by the hair over the edge of a chair, forcing down the chin, and inserting the gag between the teeth.11

During the feeding the lips, inside of the cheeks, and gums were frequently bruised, sometimes bleeding and sore for days after.12

Instruments used for forcible-feeding

The mouth was therefore stopped up with food in order to prevent speech, its bleeding a symbol of how the female voice was damaged by those who did not heed its words, and instead demanded its silence.

On October 21st 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst delivered a speech in New York entitled ‘Why We Are Militant’, during which she referred to the suffrage campaign and subsequent imprisonment as a ‘battle’.

Emmeline Pankhurst

The battle for control of the female body at the outset of the twentieth century came to involve the diametrically opposed behaviours of female hunger striking and masculine forcible-feeding. Speaking of the ‘joy of battle and the exultation of victory, Emmeline Pankhurst expressed the enjoyment of fighting to reclaim women’s minds and bodies.13

Suffragettes used their bodies to fight for their minds: they were ‘women fighting for a great idea’.14 Their cause was social, aiming ‘for betterment of the human race’, even though the methods that they chose to achieve it were considered anti-social and rebellious.15

The battle for control of the female body was injurious to the bodies of those who fought, yet it was in order to secure a better life, for the minds and bodies of the women who were to follow:

The battle cost the lives of a few, and the health of most of those who went through it: but it has secured slightly better conditions and a different status for political prisoners in the future. It is a thing that we can always be proud that even—even after forcible feeding was permitted, or, rather, ordered by the Home Secretary—not one of our women gave in.16

The suffragettes who engaged in the hunger strikes of 1909 did not act in vain because in 1928, women over the age of twenty one were granted the vote.


  1. Susan Kingsley Kent, Sex and Suffrage in Britain 1860-1914 (London: Routledge, 1990)
  2. Norquay, Voices and Votes, from K. Roberts, ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’ (1913)
  3. C. Mansell Moullin, J. S. Edkins, L. Garrett Anderson (October 9th 1909) ‘Fasting Prisoners and Compulsory Feeding’ 1098 The British Medical Journal Vol. 2, No. 2545
  4. Lytton, Constance and Jane Wharton, Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences (New York: George H. Doran, 1914)
  5. Marcus, Suffrage and the Pankhursts, Sylvia Pankhurst, 11th April 1914
  6. ibid
  7. Savill and Horsley, ‘Preliminary Report on the forcible feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’
  8. Williams, McIntosh and Sayer, ‘Forcible Feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’, The British Medical Journal Vol.2, No.2701 (October 5th, 1912)
  9. Savill and Horsley ‘Preliminary Report on the forcible feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’
  10. Norquay, Voices and Votes, from K. Roberts, ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’ (1913)
  11. Savill and Horsley ‘Preliminary Report on the forcible feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’
  12. ibid
  13. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘Why We Are Militant’: Speech Delivered in New York, October 21st, 1913 in Marcus, Suffrage and the Pankhursts
  14. Marcus, Suffrage and the Pankhursts, Sylvia Pankhurst, 11th April 1914
  15. ibid
  16. Norquay, Voices and Votes, from K. Roberts, ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’ (1913)

Categories
Dieting Eating Disorders History

Why Women? Theories of Anorexia Nervosa

Cases of eating disorders have risen dramatically over the last decade. Between 1.25 and 3.4 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder.1 The majority of these are women.

This gender bias is especially true of anorexia nervosa, which is one of the most common psychiatric disorders amongst young women.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMV) informs that ‘[m]ore than 90% of Anorexia Nervosa occurs in females.’2 There are also more women diagnosed with bulimia nervosa, the National Eating Disorders Association reporting that 80% of sufferers are female.3

More than 90% of anorexia nervosa occurs in females

While men do suffer from eating disorders, there are significantly fewer reported cases. For more details on this, please click here.

Cases of anorexia amongst males are also believed to have different causes, and are differently expressed to those experienced by the female population. This concept is supported by theorists such as Joan Jacobs Brumberg who writes that men with anorexia ‘exhibit a greater degree of psychopathology, tend to be massively obese before becoming emaciated, and have a poorer treatment prognosis.’4

Historically, anorexia has presented more commonly in women. The reasons for this can be discovered by exploring the origins of this type of eating disorder.

There is evidence of abnormal food-related behaviours throughout the ages: from the fasting female saints of Medieval Europe to the hunger striking Suffragettes.

It was not until the end of the 1800s, however, that anorexia was formally diagnosed simultaneously in England and France. While the French Earnest Lasèque named the condition anorexie hystérique, the term anorexia nervosa was coined by English physician William Gull.

Dr Gull claimed that anorexia resulted from a perversion of the ego

Gull’s description of extreme self-starvation first appeared in a medical journal in 1874.5 He claimed that anorexia resulted from a ‘perversion of the “ego”, and credited his patients’ refusal to eat to psychological affliction. 

Modern medical conceptions of anorexia continue to draw on this work. While the current edition of the DSMV now distinguishes two sub-types of anorexia: binge-eating/purging type; and restricting type which does not involve binging or purging, these behaviours are still attributed to a pathological cause.6

According the modern diagnostic criteria for anorexia, there must be evidence of:

  1. ‘energy restriction leading to significantly low body weight’7
  2. ‘fear of weight gain or behaviour interfering with weight gain’8
  3. ‘disturbance in self-perceived weight or shape’9

In addition, the individual must refuse ‘to maintain, or to reach, 85% of the expected body weight for someone of that age and height.’10

The severity of the condition is based on Body Mass Index (BMI). For an adult, a normal BMI score ranges from 18.5-24.9.11 Mild cases of anorexia are classified as having a BMI score of more than 17, while at the other end of the spectrum, extreme cases have a score of less than 15.12

The term anorexia is misleading, however. This is because the Latin word anorexia literally translates as ‘lack of appetite’; or, in the case of anorexia nervosa, ‘loss of appetite owing to nervous causes’.

Women diagnosed with anorexia, however, are not necessarily lacking in appetite. On the contrary, most individuals who engage in self-starvation experience incessant hunger and are constantly preoccupied with food; resulting in a desperate battle to suppress these urges.

Women diagnosed with anorexia are not necessarily lacking in appetite

Even though they were initially identified as predominantly medical conditions, eating disorders have subsequently been viewed using a variety of non-pathological discourses.

In their attempts to ascertain a cause, theorists have developed several concepts of eating disorders including:

  • psychosexual
  • familial
  • sociocultural

PSYCHOSEXUAL THEORY

At the end of the nineteenth century, a new diagnosis of anorexia emerged that used psychoanalytic technique.

Equating lack of appetite with loss of sexual desire, the psychosexual model was propounded by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He conceived the idea that food refusal derived from a desire to maintain the body in a state of pre-sexual adolescence.

In 1895, Freud wrote that anorexia was ‘“a melancholia where sexuality is undeveloped.”’13 His theory relating loss of appetite to disturbed sexual development was reiterated in his report of 1918, where he states ‘“[i]t is well known that there is a neurosis in girls…which expresses aversion to sexuality by means of anorexia.”’14

Freud believed that his patient’s rejection of their bodily appetite was communicated through self-starvation. This resulted in an extremely slender figure, whose postponement of womanhood symbolised a lack of physical desire for both food and sexual interaction.

Food refusal was interpreted as expressing anxieties and and fantasies of a purely psycho-sexual nature, such as fear of pregnancy

This psychoanalytic model continued to be drawn upon throughout the twentieth century. In the 1970s, food refusal was once again interpreted in terms of Freudian theory ‘as expressing anxieties and fantasies of a purely psycho-sexual nature, such as fear of pregnancy or of attracting the sexual attention of men.’15

In 1978 feminist writer Hilde Bruch described ‘genuine anorexia’ as ‘characterized by the avoidance of any sexual encounter, a shrinking away from any bodily contact.’16 Fearing sexual maturation and impregnation, at the onset of bodily changes during puberty ‘[t]he girls react with severe anxiety to what they sense are indications of losing control.’17

Lack of sexual desire is also associated with anorexia nervosa in the modern DSM which states that ‘[w]hen seriously underweight, many individuals with Anorexia Nervosa manifest depressive symptoms such as…diminished interest in sex.’18

Contrary to Freudian theory, however, I would argue that this reduced sexual desire is a result of self-starvation and greatly reduced body fat. It is a symptom of starvation, rather than a cause.

In order to address the sociocultural dimensions of disorderly eating, new concepts were developed throughout the 1970s and 80s. During this period, there was a resurgence of interest in eating disorders, and the psychosexual model was joined by Family Systems Theory and various feminist interpretations

FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY

This theory regarded self-starvation as ‘a sign of disturbed structure and interactions within the family.’19 It is unclear, however, whether this disturbance was considered to be a cause or an effect of self-starvation.

 Amongst feminist accounts of Family Systems Theory, focus is often upon the mother-daughter relationship. Hilde Bruch ‘argued that the anorexic’s home was often “too good” because her mother often anticipated her daughter’s needs.’

This ‘led to the development of dysfunctional feeding practices and the child’s self-awareness of hunger and satiation did not fully develop.’20 Anorexics therefore remained dependent upon their families, particularly upon their mothers. 

A decade later, Susie Orbach (1986) confirmed Burch’s argument, stating that anorexics have difficulty ‘with developing an independent identity that is separate from her mother’s.’21

SOCIOCULTURAL THEORY

Feminist analyses of the late 1970s were therefore amongst the first to challenge dominant pathological interpretations of eating disorders. Departing from traditional medical conceptions, they proposed alternative theories that focused on women’s social position within the Western world.

External pressures and judgement of the body came into consideration as possible causes of female anxiety. It is possible to argue that disorderly eating originates in the patriarchal subjection of women and the pressure to accord with an ideal vision of the female body.

Self-starvation was a form of protest in response to oppressive social structures

Early feminist interpretations drew on social theories. Susie Orbach (1978) argued that eating disorders, particularly self-starvation, were a form of protest in a response to oppressive social structures.22

I would say, however, that patterns of disorderly eating are not a protest against these structures, but are symptomatic of their internalisation.

The story of the cultural ideal regarding women’s bodies over the past century is deeply political. Women’s increase in power throughout history correlates to an increasingly slender ideal. The thin ideal serves as a backlash against the feminist movement: it an ideal that aims to keep women thin, frail and weak.

This backlash has been expressed through society’s efforts to influence and control the shape of women’s figures and consequently, their eating behaviours. This therefore results in a power struggle over the female body.

Disorderly eating and food obsession is so culturally widespread that it has become a normal part of female existence. These requirements of body shape and weight are imposed for the purposes of female subordination and socio-economic gain.

While eating disorders are a product of external oppression; women are themselves the agents of its enforcement, moulding their own bodies in a desperate attempt to accord with sociocultural ideologies. Why do we adopt society’s vision that thin is better? Because of its physical and social rewards: because we want to belong.  

Why do we adopt society’s vision that thin is better?

One critic, however, argues that the ideal of slenderness can also be a source of female power. This theory is proposed by Hesse-Biber in her work, Am I Thin Enough Yet? Here she writes that ‘dieting and physical fitness are not methods for the subordination of women, but ways that women can feel powerful’.23

Yet, other feminists, such as Susie Orbach, argue that while women who conform to the slender ideal perceive themselves as powerful, they are in fact subordinating themselves to a masculine ideal which connotes thin with attractive and ‘good’, and fat with unattractive and ‘bad’. These associations are internalisations of patriarchal forms brought about by the prevailing norm of representation.

Orbach continues to argue that fat is feminist because it opposes social and cultural norms of the attractive, slender body.

The feminist approach to body size lies in women’s ability to choose to shape their bodies according to their own volition

However, uniting Hesse-Biber and Orbach is the belief that whether fat or thin, the feminist approach to body size lies in women’s ability to choose to shape their bodies according to their own volition.

NOT ALL WOMEN DEVELOP ANOREXIA

Women within the Western world are exposed to the same cultural environment, yet not all women develop an eating disorder. Some are more vulnerable to social influence than others. The extent to which a woman is affected by ideologies of bodies and female beauty depends upon the individual.

There is no institution solely responsible for creating patterns of disorderly eating: they arise from various factors, including economic, psychological, familial and biological.

Eating disorders are embedded in a discourse of femininity

The fact that women are more affected by eating disorders than men suggests that these disorders are culturally, rather than pathologically created. Eating disorders are embedded in a discourse of femininity, arising from the pressures upon women to accord with a physical ideal.

From a cultural standpoint women are more judged in terms of their physical appearance and, according to Susan Bordo are ‘more tyrannized by the contemporary slenderness ideal than men are.’24

Therefore, until we are able to resist the social ideal of thinness, as women we will continue to be more obsessed and dissatisfied with our bodies.


  1. https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/how-many-people-eating-disorder-uk
  2. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  3. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/anorexia-nervosa
  4. Bruch, Hilde, Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia (Vintage: 2000)
  5. E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960)
  6. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. http://www.b-eat.co.uk/about-beat/media-centre/facts-and-figures/
  11. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/assessing/bmi/adult_bmi/
  12. Abraham M. Nussbaum, M.D., The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  13. J. Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. 1, Pre-psychoanalytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts (London, 1996), pp.200-201, in Brumberg, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls
  14. Jacobs Brumberg, June, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls
  15. Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)
  16. Bruch, Hilde, The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA, 2001)
  17. ibid
  18. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th Edition, Text Revision (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2004)
  19. Jacobs Brumberg, June, From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls
  20. Julie Hepworth, The Social Construction of Anorexia Nervosa (Sage Publications, 1999)
  21. ibid
  22. ibid
  23. Hesse-Biber, Am I Thin Enough Yet?
  24. Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)