The Vagenda

New Outrages By Mad Women


In 1908, a year after she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (better known as the militant suffragettes) and became the Birmingham branch’s paid secretary, my great-great-great aunt Hilda Burkitt appeared before a court in Wolverhampton charged with preventing a police officer from entering a political meeting. While onlookers laughed, the judge told her to “Go back to Birmingham and don’t bother us again!”

[Spoiler alert: she didn’t listen to the second bit]

In September 1909 the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith visited Birmingham. As his train waited in the station, a group of suffragettes wreaked havoc. Leslie Hall and Mary Edwards were arrested for disorderly conduct and striking policemen, Laura Ainsworth ‘advanced on a barrow with a hatchet’ and threw stones, Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh climbed onto a nearby roof armed with axes, shouting “No surrender!” and “If you come up here it is at your peril!” whilst throwing the roof slates at the man sent up to get them. And Ellen Barnswell and Aunty Hilda forced their way through the crowd and barrier (suffragette attacks on Asquith when he was in public were common) onto the station platform and threw stones, smashing one of the train windows.

Hilda is reported by the press as having said she threw ‘because it was Mr Asquith’s train. I wish he had been in, all the same. My motive was political. I threw as a protest against women being kept out of Mr Asquith’s budget meeting.’

When the group of women arrived at Winson Green prison, the Prison Governor reported that they “started singing, shew’d defiance, threatened to assault Prison Officials, and said they would not go in cells, or undress until they were placed in the 1st Division”. (Inmates were placed in one of three groups related to the severity of their crime, as the suffragettes felt they were political prisoners, they believed they should have been placed in the ‘best’ one, where prisoners could wear their own clothes and didn’t have to do hard labour whilst they were placed in the same division as thieves and drunkards). Some of them started smashing cell windows. The Chaplain was sent to try and get them to behave. They wouldn’t behave and had to be handcuffed. They then began to hunger strike.

Three days after they entered the prison, a lawyer contacted the Home Office asking to be granted a visit to the Birmingham suffragettes, who claimed they were being illegally force-fed, and was refused a visit until a “Special Meeting” was called. The hospital doctor stated that he had tried to persuade them to eat and when they wouldn’t, he took Hilda away into a room, where she was tied to a chair by female warders and a metal pipe was put up her nose. The doctor claimed it caused so much retching it was removed and she ate voluntarily afterwards, she said they poured in milk and beef tea. After Hilda, Ellen Barnswell, the other half of their stone throwing duo, was led in, shown the equipment and told that Hilda had given in, and she agreed to eat. The others didn’t and were force fed until they gave in. Hilda took up the strike again and was on one occasion held down on her mattress and choked by the doctor until she opened her mouth. She was fed by force three times a day. In the yearly report of the prison it was decided that whilst the women “protested against being forcibly fed” (nasal tube feeding was illegal unless, tellingly, the prisoner was certified as ‘insane’) “some of these prisoners had, in consequence of breaches of prison rules, to be punished”.

All of the newspaper reports and records I have looked at reek of this attitude, like the onlookers in the courtroom, the male powerful laughed at the female powerless, and when they got violent, they tortured them and still continued to dismiss them. The women complained of sore throats, laryngitis and indigestion for weeks afterwards, but this doesn’t make it into any committee minutes and neither do any of the force feedings after the first (the others were reported to the press by the WSPU), as the Home Office refused to interfere with the Medical Inspector’s judgement and let them carry on.

When she was released from prison a month later, Hilda is reported as leaving with a ‘defiant shout of “votes for women!” and afterwards declared her determination to renew the campaign. She did not regret having thrown a missile at Mr Asquith’s train, she said, and believed violent tactics were justified by the refusal of the government to give heed to constitutional agitation.”

In short, fuck you. She didn’t give up either. Four years later she was arrested and placed under surveillance for trying to set fire to a football grandstand in Leeds, the next year she and a fellow suffragette called Florence Tunks burned down a pier in Yarmouth and an empty hotel in Felixstowe. Hilda was imprisoned for two years, force-fed again, and released after a month in the 1914 amnesty with the suffragette movement. After the first lot of legislation allowing some women to vote passed, she married, divorced, settled in Lancashire, and never mentioned her activities again.

Literally, like, nobody in my family knew. My grandfather, who would have met her, didn’t know until a historian got in contact with him researching the Felixstowe arson attack. We knew vaguely afterwards that she was the first suffragette to be force fed, but it wasn’t until I began to dig that I found out all the earlier chaos she’d caused.

And the more I dig, the more I’m blinded by the male gaze I’m forced to view her through. In one newspaper, the week’s suffragette activities across the country were reported in a column entitled “NEW OUTRAGES BY MAD WOMEN!” Hilda is often hysterical. There was great scandal caused by her telling the judge who sentenced her to two years to “Put on your black cap and condemn me to death!” (What she actually said wasn’t a hysterical-suffragette-friendly soundbite; she said that he might as well have sentenced her to death by sending her to prison and denying her the vote).

Now I am not telling Hilda’s story as a militant feminist call to arms. The women’s suffrage movement turned militant after decades of fruitless peaceful campaigning. I don’t think we should throw stones at Rupert Murdoch until women’s naked breasts are absent from The Sun or burn down buildings so George Osborne stops taxing tampons. Yet.

But I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable as I read article after article detailing Hilda’s various brushes with the angry patriarchy. The most political activism I’ve done recently is signing a petition on I shared the 50:50 Parliament petition on Facebook. Sure, I’m doing stuff, and what more can I do?

I can do a lot more than Hilda can. I can vote. I can tell people to vote. I can write, and people can read me. I can speak out. OK I can speak out and maybe get an onslaught of male vitriol and rape threats on Twitter but I can still speak a lot louder than she can. I don’t have to assault the Prime Minister to get my voice heard in the press. Admittedly, it’s a press that analyses female politician’s clothes and won’t take tits off page 3 and ignores real violence against and oppression of women unless it wants to condemn Islam, but that just shows how much further feminism still has to go. I can maybe stop letting Internet misogynists pull me into a spiral of bashing my head against their ivory towers of male privilege, and start more literally throwing myself against the patriarchy’s walls, like my great-great-great aunt and all her WSPU sisters did. I’m not sure how, but I’ll start by maintaining eye contact next time the man at the corner shop looks uncomfortable when I rush in for emergency sanitary towels and I really will stop succumbing to Daily Mail clickbait.

P.S. I am of course also telling Hilda’s story because she didn’t.

-Lauren H

22 thoughts on “New Outrages By Mad Women

  1. Brilliant! Tell those stories – I love it when I uncover hidden stories about the women in my family, they spur me on.
    But I wish they hadn’t been hidden in the first place.

  2. What an amazing woman!

    I once read the transcript of a long speech Emmeline Pankhurst had made in America, where she explained why the movement had, eventually, been forced to become violent in their actions to get results. She pointed out that there had never been a successful peaceful revolution in human history, and that it was regrettably necessary. Women who would normally have preferred to not take up arms felt they had no other choice.

  3. That’s excellent! I do wonder sometimes whether I’d be willing to do the same in that situation, and I’m never sure of the answer.

  4. How fascinating to discover this about a relative. Made interesting reading, thanks for sharing.

    However, I will be the one dissenting voice here. Violence is not okay! Whatever your cause, however unjust your treatment, it’s not okay! I’m confused at why you are justifying your great-great-great aunt’s hooliganism. Sorry, but hurling rocks and setting fire to buildings are acts of terrorism. Political bullying, where you seek to force your opinion on others via fear, is not democratic. All terrorists believe their cause is just, fair and right. If Hilda was treated as a mad person it was due to her crimes not because of her sex.

    Peaceful protest ultimately achieves more, and does not inflict suffering on the innocent. The best example being Christ, whose peaceful actions still resonant with millions millennia later. (Disclaimer: as an irreligious agnostic, I should mention that I have mentioned Christ as the most glaring example, not to extoll the virtues attributed to him in the New Testament which I reject, anyway I digress).

    How does arsonism and stoning convince those that repress you that they are mistaken in their thinking? These men believed women to be incapable of rational thought, did your relative’s actions convince them otherwise? I don’t think so.

    • I disagree, I very much think it was partly because of her sex. That was the point of being treated and being thought of unequally and unfairly, women were thought of as unbalanced and unstable because of their sex and were committed to asylums far more regularly than men. Did you not know?

      • I don’t disbelieve you, however, striking policemen, throwing stones and setting fire to buildings, then refusing to cooperate when (quite rightfully) arrested and held in custody, would lead to questions being asked about anyone’s sanity, male or female regardless.

        I am not disputing the patriarchy of the days (that endues to the present in a lesser form) but merely the assertations made that some causes call for violence. I disagree, vehemently.

        How can you miss the irony that these women were campaigning for equal rights by acting in exactly the ‘hysterical’ (from the medical diagnosis hysteria, the name incidentally stemming from the Greek cognate of uterus, for which many of these women you mention were sectioned) that these mysognists expected them to. You get your point across better by proving these men wrong rather than just conforming to the stereotype they believe and throwing a petulent tantrum.

        • Hysteria as a bucket diagnosis, although it was also applied to men, was more often a way of putting a controlled diagnosis on women who were behaving in ways that were outside the control of the patriarchy. When you write “the name incidentally stemming from the Greek cognate of uterus”, that’s misleading. There’s nothing incidental about it – doctors believed that women were predisposed to hysteria, which was caused by changes in the uterus.

          After thousands of years of oppression, I don’t think you can refer to this violence as anything but a last resort. I think the (quite extreme) violence that these women were subjected to whilst they were in prison shows the kind of hatred that was felt towards them and towards the empowered female body. Somebody posted this comment above:

          “I once read the transcript of a long speech Emmeline Pankhurst had made in America, where she explained why the movement had, eventually, been forced to become violent in their actions to get results. She pointed out that there had never been a successful peaceful revolution in human history, and that it was regrettably necessary. Women who would normally have preferred to not take up arms felt they had no other choice”

          Whether or not you believe that the situation warranted it, the violence that these women committed seems to me nothing compared to the physical, social and political violences that were inflicted on them both before and after their actions. I think that referring to the efforts of these women as a “petulant tantrum” is pretty uncool and buys into the same discourse that was used against them at the time. It sounds, to me, like you’re writing the desperate struggle of a seriously repressed section of society who hadn’t even got the vote yet off as hysteria.

  5. Did you even read this?
    “Now I am not telling Hilda’s story as a militant feminist call to arms. The women’s suffrage movement turned militant after decades of fruitless peaceful campaigning. I don’t think we should throw stones at Rupert Murdoch until women’s naked breasts are absent from The Sun or burn down buildings so George Osborne stops taxing tampons. Yet.”
    The UK suffragette movement started in the mid 1800s and was peaceful for a number of decades. I don’t think it’s fair to say that violence is not the answer when women now have (to a greater extent than those a century ago) relative democratic equality. Imagine being legally a second-class citizen to your male counterparts? It’d drive me to do shit to get my cause noticed and bring it into the public sphere.

  6. Also feel it’s necessary to point out that the WSPU caused NO fatalities as a result of their actions (not counting Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who threw herself in front of the king’s horse)

  7. @ JB, y’know it’s incredibly hard to indicate irony online (perhaps there’s an icon that in my old age I don’t know about) however, I am in absolute agreement with your point. My line about the origin of the name ‘Hysteria’ was in order to point out what an absolutely sexist diagnosis it was. Indeed, the ancient Greeks attributed all sorts of mischief to that pesky uterus (they believed the womb traveled the body leaving trouble in its wake. Sore throat? That’ll be that pesky wandering womb up to no good again).

    However, the vibrator was invented in pursuit of a cure for this particular malady, so swings and roundabouts eh? (Inserts imaginary sarcasm icon).

    No, sorry, but you cannot justify violence, no matter what your cause. Every single group that employs violence makes this exact same argument. In fact, here’s an idea, take your quoted text and insert the name of any terrorist organisation of your choice, then ask yourself if you still agree with the sentiment.

    Whilst striking policemen, throwing stones, setting fire to buildings and causing as much trouble as possible when in custody are effective for getting your cause noticed, I maintain that when used to argue that I am your equal in every way, these actions would in fact have the opposite effect. You do not seem to be questioning my logic on this point, why is that?

    @ Lauren H……yes, I did read it. The most imperative word of your quoted text is the last one “yet”! Now, again this is perhaps where that aforementioned irony icon would come in handy, however, as it was included in the denouement to a piece celebrating the violence and anarchy of one woman in the name of feminism, you have to wonder just how much tongue was in the author’s cheek with that cheeky little ‘yet’.

    As for the rest of your post, I refer you to the latter part of my answer to JB above…..go on pick a group, any group, see if you still agree that violence is the answer.

    Yes, Emily Wilding Davidson died of her injuries. Do we know what became of the jockey? Or the horse for that matter? Were any other horses and jockeys injured as a result of her actions? If not, that was down to pure chance wasn’t it?

    Okay, I don’t claim to be an expert on Jesus, I’ll take your word for it that he flipped tables. I only picked him because he’s, without doubt, the best example of the power of peaceful protest.

    Seriously, why on earth is violence being glorified on here? Stop and think please.

    • Lauren H who wrote the article and this Lauren H are one and the same.
      It was tongue in cheek. It was a reference to the fact that the suffrage movement was peaceful for decades before it turned violent. Come back to me in fifty years time and if things are still the same as the way they are now I may be being less sarcastic.

  8. Incidentally, we do know what happened to the jockey. He lived until 1951.
    I repeat, nobody died as a result of WSPU action

  9. Glad to hear it.

    Excuse my ignorance for not identifying you as the author, but I’m not going to apologise for being an advocate for peaceful protest and anti violence.

    If more people took my stance, then this world would be a much safer place to live than it is today.

    • Ghandi, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Jimmie Lee Jackson: how many others can people name who took a stand in the name of peace and were killed for it? The USA has managed to kill over eight million people in its effort to spread the American way of democracy and peace. What you [sic] call a terrorist is someone fighting for their own freedom. Yes, there is no justification for violence, but we live in a violent society because it is a patriarchal society. If we want peace, that has to change.

  10. Angry Bird is not alone in thinking violence for any cause is unjustified. Maybe if Pankhurst could have seen the success of the peaceful civil rights movement headed by Martin Luther King, the Indian independence lead by Ghandi or the end of apartheid under Nelson Mandela (where violence would have shattered the process of building trust), she might have thought differently. Violence often snowballs into more violence and hate, leading to destruction rather than progress.

    I also thought there were many factors leading to the success of the women’s suffrage movement, including changing attitudes during the war when women took on some jobs usually done by men, and persuasive sympathisers in parliament. It is therefore hard to tell what the impact of the militants’ efforts alone were.

  11. Actually I’m pretty sure Nelson Mandela accepted that apartheid would not have ended without the violent movement that occurred, no one was listening to the peaceful protests and so they had enough, and stood up with violence.
    I think they key is not actual violence, but more of a ‘violent’ take – press harder, fight harder, don’t accept ANY discrimination, shout louder, protest more. None of this slow burning, be-nice-to-the-poor-men approach.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>