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The Great War
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The British Suffragettes
Diane Atkinson
"Men and women were very opposed to the Suffragettes.

"One of the problems was the effrontery which people felt that the Suffragettes were behaving. People felt very threatened by them, because they were stepping out of their sphere; and people were very angry and took it as a rather personal challenge. And it wasn't just a male reaction; it was a female reaction, too. And once you have Suffragettes smashing windows, and burning down churches and attacking works of art, a great mass of society had a very negative view of them, which is, perhaps, not surprising.

"But very often the Suffragettes were responding to the treatment they were given by the police. They were responding to the stories they heard about prison, about Suffragettes being force-fed because they were on a hunger strike. So it was a fast-growing response to a very intense and brutalizing situation, which they felt that their sisters in prison were facing.

"When Suffragettes went to prison – and they could be arrested and sent to prison for quite trivial offenses – they went to prison and said: 'We are political prisoners. We demand special treatment.'These were rights, which had been fought for and won, in the 19th Century. So they said: 'We want special prison cells. We want to wear our own clothes. We want freedom of association. We want the rights of political prisoners. We're not asking for anything new, this has been established.'

"The authorities did not want to accept that this was a political campaign.

"They did not want to give them the political status that they were demanding. And so they said: 'No, you are ordinary, common criminals and you can be treated in this particular way,' which involved prison food, prison clothing, and no privileges.

"In response the Suffragettes said: 'Okay, we're going to demand our political rights, and we're going to go on hunger strikes. We're not going to take any food.'

"Now, the authorities at first said, 'Okay.' And they released them early from their prison sentences. Public opinion is not behind them on this. They say: 'Well, you've got convicted criminals in prison, you're letting them go. This will not do.'

"Then the government starts force-feeding.

"Force-feeding was done in three different ways.

"A Suffragette was taken out of her cell, was taken to the hospital ward of the prison. She was held down and often food was just pushed into her mouth, but she could spit it out.

"So the next two measures were the ones that were most used. One was the nasal tube. The nasal tube was where liquid food was poured down a funnel and gradually food trickles down into the back of the throat. Sylvia Pankhurst was rather unusual in the sense that she went on hunger, thirst, and sleep strikes. She wouldn't eat, she wouldn't drink, and she wouldn't go to sleep. She just paced her cell continuously. Of course her health broke down.

"We know that it had a psychological impact on women. Some women's health suffered quite a major breakdown. Very often the food went down the wrong way and the lungs filled with food, and there was pleurisy and pneumonia. There is a serious health risk, apart from the psychological damage, that this kind of experience could have on women."

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