Suffragette medals

When British suffragettes were released from prison, they got medals.

I’ve written about the quest for women’s right to vote and the British suffragette movement a few times already: arson, jujutsu, and human mail. I’ve mentioned the hunger strikes and their consequences before, but today I want to go into that in a little more detail.

Many early protests by the “militant” wing of British suffrage, the Women’s Social and Political Union, involved property damage. In some cases this went as far as lighting fires, but this part of the story begins with graffiti.

In 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop made a stencil of a quote from the 1689 Bill of Rights:

That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.

English Bill of Rights 1689

And she then proceeded to mark that stencil on the walls of parliament. What a badass. She was arrested for damaging the stonework and sent to a notorious women’s prison for a year. Dunlop responded to this injustice by going on hunger strike. She refused food and drink for nearly four days before the authorities caved and set her free. Following her example, hunger strikes became a popular form of non-violent protest for imprisoned suffragettes.

The response, when it came, was pretty brutal. People on hunger strike were strapped down and force-fed, and this violent retaliation led to broken teeth, choking, vomiting, and (I imagine) something very close to waterboarding torture. That force-feeding eventually stopped because of a public outcry, and was replaced by a new law that allowed the prisons to release hunger striking prisoners and then arrest them again as soon as they started eating (the “cat and mouse” act).

The act of hunger striking was brave, difficult, and admired among the suffragette community. If the struggle for the vote was a war of hearts, minds, and bodies, the Women’s Social and Political Union wanted to acknowledge their commitment in the same way as any other soldier for the cause. They issued medals.

The hunger strike medal was modelled after the Victoria Cross, inscribed with “for valour” and “hunger strike,” and included metal bands for each recorded incident of force-feeding. The related Holloway brooch, named after the women’s prison at the centre of these incidents, was awarded to veterans of its horrors. It came in the shape of a silver portcullis. Suffragettes wore both with pride.

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