Thursday, 19 January 2017

Militant Women and the Cat and Mouse Act

A suffragette called Marian Wallace Dunlop (1864-1942) was the first woman to go on hunger strike while in jail in July 1909. She was force-fed, a horrible, painful process involving gags and nasogastric tubes. Soon, other suffragettes were also subjected to this humiliating process. The Bishop of London visited the women in prison and claimed there was no cause for concern and that the whole thing was done in a spirit of kindness!

The suffragettes had been frustrated by lack of progress, which they addressed by employing more militant tactics. Continuous disappointment only fuelled the anger of the Women’s Social and Political Union who embarked on even more explosive action, causing some ministers to harden their attitude to the indiscriminate violence. For example, the most militant women resorted to damaging National Gallery paintings and setting buildings alight as well as biting and scratching policemen whose job it was to apprehend them.

It was in this bitter maelstrom that the women began to retaliate by refusing to eat and hostility towards them increased. They were frequently represented as ugly, wizened, unpleasant old spinsters. In 1912, Sir Almroth E. Wright, the bacteriologist, wrote to The Times saying the women’s frustration was due to the excess of the female population over the male – it’s said there were over a million more women than men. They should go abroad to seek mates,” said Sir Almroth E. Wright. They should be kept away from politics, he claimed, because of their physical and intellectual deficiencies as well as their lack of moral standards.

According to Great Events of the 20th Century, Mrs. Winston Churchill retaliated with an ironic reply, reflecting back to the hostile gentleman his own ridiculous accusations: “After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them, the question seems no longer to be, “Should women have votes?” but “Ought women not to be abolished altogether?”

The “Cat and Mouse Act” Becomes Law

In 1913, the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Health Bill was passed, and became known at the “Cat and Mouse Act.” The forced-feeding stopped, but the act allowed the authorities to release a woman when she became weak and ill, so she could recover and then be re-arrested when she was well. In this way, the Government, under Asquith, could not be blamed if she starved to death because it would be her fault – on the other hand, if she did wrong, then she would be hauled back to prison. In this way, the possibility of martyrdom would be avoided.

The act became known as the “Cat and Mouse Act” because it symbolised the way a cat plays with a mouse, torturing it for a time without actually finishing it off. Worryingly, class also came into the equation according to a suffragette, Jane Wharton, who wrote a book claiming that working class women were more likely to be force-fed than upper class women. Women were, in those days, defined very much in terms of their gender and their class.

In the end, the act actually undermined the Government’s position. The suffragettes who were released to get well, did their best with the help of friends and sympathisers to elude capture by the authorities. The Government lost face and it was seen as a violation of human rights, as indicated by the naming of the Act as The Cat and Mouse Act. Prime Minister Asquith was regarded as the enemy.

The philosopher and philanthropist, Bertrand Russell, left the Liberal party and wrote pamphlets against the Government and in support of the suffragettes. Someone wrote this extremely patronising short verse about him:

Although we may oppose the plan
Of giving womenfolk a vote,
Still to the ordinary man
Few things are more engaging than
The Russell of the Petticoat.

Sensibly, the poet preferred to remain anonymous, and finally suffragette activities ceased with the onset of War in August 1914.

Great Events of the 20th Century, Multiple Contributors, The Automobile Association, 1989.

LGBT Brighton & Hove, Janet Cameron, Amberley Publishing, 2009.


  1. Thank you for posting, Janet. Stories like this need to be brought to light...

  2. It's easy to forget - and to remind young people what we owe. Thanks for your comment, John.