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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)