September 29, 1912, To the Editor of The Sunday Times
In the letters she writes during the month of September, Davison repeatedly calls
upon her own personal experience to refute seemingly “easy” solutions to the vexing
question of how suffragettes should be treated, what constituted decent treatment,
and what constituted inhumane treatment. She argues her case in the pages of “anti”
papers like The Pall Mall Gazette, and The Sunday Times, which disseminate simple
solutions for complex problems, because they discount the pain and suffering the
suffragettes have undergone. In this letter she uses strong language to rebut the idea
that forcible feeding is “easy and harmless,” pointing out the physical trauma that
accompanies it, the risk of infection, of pneumonia or pleurisy, and the incredible
pain both somatic and mental that the process inflicts—on men and on women. In
another topical reference like the one to the Japanese count Nogi [Sept. 17, 1912],
she concludes by describing forcible feeding as akin to the atrocities then being
suffered by the Armenian people at the hands of the Turks who wished to exterminate
them. Forcible feeding was a threat to women’s bodies and women’s minds, a way of
torturing them under the guise of protecting them, a brutal and sadistic treatment
designed to rob women of their agency, humanity, and perhaps of their lives. But
suffragettes like Emily Davison saw beyond the pain, transforming their suffering into
a powerful tool to expose the illogicality and inhumanity of the government’s position.
Sir, –In your issue of September 22 you have an article on forcible feeding
which you term ‘a misunderstood process’ and ‘easy and harmless.’ In this
article an elaborate description is given of the forcible feeding of a gentleman
who evidently was subject to delusions, the delusion in this case no doubt being
that he had passed over to another life and was being fed by a ‘divine’ process!
But his being so, the case of this poor deluded gentleman and the cases now
before the public differ in one very important essential. The article says ‘he did
not discuss the matter when the tube was suggested, but acquiesced quietly (the
italics are mine). Thenceforth for the space of nine months he took food in no
other way.’ Naturally, he would not refuse ‘the food of the gods’! But this point
removes the value of the whole case and makes all the difference. Even Mr.
McKenna had to own in the House of Commons that the great danger lay in the
resistance of the prisoner. And this is the crux of the whole matter—that we do
resist and intend to resist, and even if some of our more delicate women in the
horror and upset of the operation are so affected as to be almost paralysed for
the moment, still the mental resistance is there.
Moreover, the whole operation is carried out under totally different
conditions from those which hold good in hospitals and lunatic asylums, where it
is necessary. The differences are so considerable that nobody could possibly
claim that the cases are analogous.
(a) Proper precautions are not taken to sterilize the tube before it is used
for another prisoner. This may be occasionally done, but it is not general,
especially when the number of Suffragists to be fed is large. The risk from such
a neglect is incalculable, for the microbes from consumption or any other disease
can easily be passed from the throat of one prisoner to that of another or others.
(b) The liquid administered has to be of a proper temperature. If it is not,
there is danger of the added discomfort of severe indigestion to all the other
injuries and indignities. As far as my own experience goes, the liquid was almost
invariably cold, and I certainly had severe indigestion in addition to other trouble.
(c) If the operation is carried out with much force, or the ‘patient’ has
delicate mucous membranes in the nasal passages and throat, these are liable
to injury and must certainly in time become inflamed and sore. In the case of
any of our members who are singers severe injury has been done and those who
speak have had their voices ruined for a time.
(d) Then there is the still more terrible risk if the tube is passed into the
wrong passage, a thing that can quite easily be done. If any of the liquid passes
into the lungs the victim is certain to die, unless the quantity is of the smallest
amount and the prisoner of the strongest physique. This danger has already
happened among our Suffragist prisoners (vide the Lancet, August 24), the
prisoner was hurriedly released and suffered a severe attack of pneumonia and
pleurisy. I, personally, have often felt that the tube was in the wrong place,
although in my case the fact was discovered.
(e) Lastly, there is the risk from the mental shock due to the operation,
done without the prisoner’s consent. This is the most serious and lasting of all.
Some of the women will never entirely recover from what they have undergone.
May I just remark in passing that it is a testimony to the excellent nervous system
of women, due to the way they have learnt to endure, that the mental effects
have not been worse. May I remind you that the only case where forcible
feeding has had a fatal mental result has been that of a man who had been
trained in his youth as a fine athlete.
The case against forcible feeding is now before you. The question is how
long will the British nation allow such atrocities (not much inferior to those of the
Armenian type) to go on in its midst rather than do justice to women? Yours,
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
13, Victoria-Road, Brighton