Saturday, April 14, 2012

To the Brave Women Who Today...

Suffragettes, 1912, from Pankhurst's 1913 autobiography.

As I write Diary of A Confirmed Spinster, the follow up to Threshold Girl (a free ebook about a college girl in 1911/12, the Titanic era) I am reading Votes for Women, the magazine of the Women's Social and  Political Union, or WSPU, and one issue in particular, the issue for April 19, 1912, published a few days after the Titanic sank.

I will have this issue drop into Edith Nicholson's hands, and that will partly explain why she takes Flora to a suffrage meeting in early May 1912. It's described in Threshold Girl.

This issue is perfect for my needs. It has an article on Teachers and Suffrage and a letter to the editor from an Alberta Minister, defending St. Paul - but in a pro-suffrage way.

And it also has some first hand accounts of the Suffragettes being Tortured in Jail... for breaking windows and going on a hunger strike.

In May 1912, Edith is also organizing her fellow teachers at Westmount Methodist, in a mass strike - or exodus. This following article will be her inspiration.I'm going to have her read it out to her fellow teachers. (I have written a play about my grandmother's trials as a Prison of War in Changi Prison during WWII. She was tortured in an infamous incident called the Double Tenth. All true, she wrote it in a diary.Looking for Mrs. Peel. I wonder if reading accounts like this, as a teenage girl, inspired. But she did not believe in female solidarity, as her prison diary shows.


Here's the testimony of one Dr. Ede. Just like in Changi, doctors were given special status.


I was put straight into a ‘room’ which remained mine thenceforward. This room had a many-paned iron-framed window, and four panes open, given about eight inches by eight inches for ventilation. These cells are a little larger, and much superior to those in Holloway, where I had just previously been roomed for twelve days.  Arriving late, most formalities were left till next day, when the doctor listened to my chest (with my consent0 and the Governor told me that we were just ordinary prisoners, without the privilege under Rule 243a (Mr. Winston Churchill’s vaunted clemency), but we were allowed to wear our own clothes. The pillow I had brought (a most essential comfort, not a mere luxury) was taken away, all books, knitting, even one’s brush and comb and many small possessions we taken and I began ‘to do time.’

But I was thankful for the sight of real country, fields and looked out of the window, the fresh country air which we all revelled in at exercise time and the songs of the birds.
The food was ample in quantity, and the vegetarian diet, which I had, was in quality and variety sufficient, though not quite satisfactory for a healthy person. Whether I should have said the same after four months, I do not know. 

We ten exercised by ourselves at first, but were soon allowed exercise in common with those who had arrived before and came in after us. Chapel was also common ground. Associated labour was deferred for several days till we had settled in and knew better what was allowed and what forbidden. Then it was for two hours every afternoon. We did coarse needlework, each in her cell, in the mornings after chapel and exercise. During this time our doors stood open and the Governor and Doctor went their rounds. Once or twice a week a Lady Visitor paid us a very welcome short visit, and once to local Justices came and asked if we had complaints to make. They were not red-tape officials, but seemed quite human.

We all, I believe, sent up the formal humble petition for the privileges Mr. Winston Churchill had given and Mr. McKenna had withdrawn, but the earlier arrivals had done this without success and we did not get an answer up to the time we were released.

After allowing the Home Secretary a week and carefully deliberately discussing matters, twenty five out of the twenty eight suffragette prisoners decided to begin a Hunger Strike as a means of getting these privileges. Thursday’s supper was to be the last meal:

With Good Friday we began. We had thought out how to keep it quiet for a few days , and about the usual amount of waste bread, fragments and so forth appeared on our plates which we always washed ourselves.  We drank an amount of water that might have drawn attention, but apparently it did not. Chapel, exercise work, associated labour, all went as usual. We showed cheerful faces, hid up the pangs of hunger, endured sleepless nights, various forms of pain, and we shrank daily visibly in face and body. It was curious to note the marked contrast in the step of one (for adequate reasons) was not striking, and any of us walking with her. The spring was quite gone out of our step. Our clothes became loos, then began to slip down around us. Still nothing seemed to be noticed by the Governor or the Doctor in her daily rounds. We expected the weakest to faint in chapel, but though the Chaplain, as it happened, hold forth on the duty as well as the pleasure of man that it is to protect women, he also seemed oblivious of what was going on.

On Easter Monday, I thought matters had become so serious that  with some of us it was medically wrong to allow it to go on unobserved. Several had become so utterly exhausted that I feared grave permanent injury and their condition at this time would have, in my opinion, justified anyone in asserting that their offence had been dearly paid for. However, there seems to be absolutely no bottom to the supply of courage and endurance in our women, and they refused consent. I had often admired the pluck of our members, but I now saw such heroism in frail and tottering bodies, such forgetfulness of self in the interests of the Cause, as amazed me once more. Next morning I took the responsibility of telling the Governor and we were thenceforward confined each to her cell and kept strictly apart, chapel and exercise being stopped. Those who had not struck, and one or two who absolutely could not keep on any longer, were exercised together. The relief of having  these trying meals off our hands was great, and the feeling that we need no longer keep up.



But when Tuesday’s dinner had been refused by us, and the tea, we became anxious as to what the next step would be, and when it would be taken. About five o’clock we began to hear sounds of struggling in cell after cell, pleadings and remonstrances, sounds of choking and gasping, moans and distressful cries. I have never head, in all my professional experience, anything so agonising. And we had to hear this, recognising which our comrades was being tortured and waiting for our own turn to come. Let no one pretend that to be fed forcibly is either safe or free from suffering; it is neither, and it is inexpressibly revolting. Many were fed by tube through the nose and one at least by tube through the mouth, and others by feeding cup forced between teeth , the mouth pulled about, the nose held nearly to suffocation.


The Suffragettes throw Flour at Asquith's car

My turn came. Some half dozen wardresses, in a body, came quickly into my cell. But I had thought out how best to resist, and I was standing on a table with my arms out of two upon panes, elbows bent and hands well up the sleeves of my coat. I refused to come down so a wardress on each side of me tried through the other two open panes to get at my hands. The small openings made this impossible and they had to give it up, and went away. I remained on my table, for a frequent eye at the spy slit in the door shoed that once I drew in my arms, I was done for. I had put a strap round my body and up both sleeves, buckling it outside the window, and I got some rest by leaning back on it. After two hours of this they came in again, tried as before, in vain, and said men were coming with ladders to undo my hands from outside. 

My cell was on the first floor. Two men and two ladders appeared, my sleeves were with difficulty pushed up so that my wrists could be grasped, the strap was cut and I was seized, lifted down into a chair , bound down with towels and a sheet and firmly held. I then saw the Governor and the doctor waiting to feed me. I was by this time gasping deeply for breath and was allowed a minute in which to recover it and then, refusing to accept food from a cup, I had the rubber tube passed through my nose and on and on until the loathing and feeling of insult injury and foul wrong was inexpressible. 

When it was over, withdrawal of the tube was nearly as distressing, and one felt as if a bruised and degraded body had been in the hands of fiends. I do not think the wardresses had used unreasonable force, and one even pitied them for having to do such hateful work. But one could not feel that a man who could inflict such horrible cruelty at the bidding of any human authority, our offence being merely that we claimed our political rights, must be wholly blind to divine law and justice. Indeed, I could not help asking the doctor, “Are the thirty pieces of silver worth it?”

I was very sore in mind and body next morning and for reasons not told me, the tube was not used on me again, but wardresses tried their best, morning and evening, to force food down from a feeding cup. I think they got down about a tablespoonful in an hour, and they were nearly as tired as I was.
On Wednesday evening a special Medical Inspector of Prisons came round to five of us; asked questions and made observations. After his visit, all water was taken away from our cells and a mug of milk left instead, fresh means of breaking down the strike, for we were very thirsty. The milk went promptly out of the window, and I heard a voice say, “This is the last straw.”
After this they may grind me to powder and I won’t give in. “ In the morning, we had access to water as usual.

On Thursday afternoon, ostensibly for reasons of health, five of us were sent out of the prison. How were the five selected? Two were really seriously ill, but it struck me as remarkable that the other three were sound, strong, medical women, who of course, knew too much and were too determined for easy victimization.

A woman about shoe identity and relationships they had shown themselves puzzled and curious- neither of those having reached the limits of their strength, and a nurse.

There were others in greater need of release, in my opinion.

And the whole of this suffering could have been stopped instantly by restoring to use the privileges under Rule 243a, and giving us the status of political prisoners instead of that of ordinary criminals.

Frances Edes M.D.