All Quiet On The Wench Front

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Food, Revolutionary Food

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Doctor: “What will you eat for dinner?”

Marion Wallace-Dunlop: “My determination.” July, 1909.

The following contains descriptions of invasive procedures with a sexual overtone which some readers may find upsetting.

Maria “Masha” Alyokhin, 24 year old Pussy Rioter, has ended her hunger strike after eleven days. She renewed interest in the band and their cause last week when she was hospitalised with low blood pressure as a result of her stand against prison authorities. She stopped eating because she was denied permission to attend her parole hearing where prosecutors refused her and fellow anti-Putinist band member, Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, early release.

Last August, Masha, Nadya and Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich – were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for a performance in a Moscow cathedral, although Katya successfully appealed her conviction. Masha and Nadya are recognised as political prisoners by the Union of Solidarity with Political Prisoners. The court dismissed the fact that the two women have young children as grounds for their release. “They are simply hooligans,” the court chairman told journalists. Masha and Nadya are due to be released in March 2014.

Hunger strikes first occurred in India, where the practice dates back to 400BC, and the protestor would sit on the doorstep of the person who’d wronged them and fast. It was outlawed by the government in 1861, but eventually came to be used and known as a means of nonviolent political protest – particularly in the early part of last century by the Indian Independence Movement. Gandhi hunger striked each time he was imprisoned, and it was pretty effective, as he became so high-profile that the British authorities were loathed to let anything happen to him. Others weren’t so lucky. Jatin Das, another activist who opposed British rule in India, famously died from fasting. But it remained popular among political activists, even after India was granted its sovereignty. Ireland has similar depictions of hunger striking. The doorstep trick was prevalent among pre-Christian Irish, which historians now believe is because of the strong, cultural emphasis on hospitality that both countries possessed – letting someone starve outside your front door would have been really dishonourable. Again, in the early twentieth century hunger striking saw a resurgence when it was adopted by those opposing British rule, this time Irish Republicans, and became a great way for activists, particularly those who were incarcerated, to complicate British metropole-periphery relations.

Professor Sharman Russel, author of Hunger: An Unnatural History, believes that hunger strikes are invaluable to prisoners for two reasons; the first is a rehashing of the old doorstep philosophy – when you’re in prison, the authorities are responsible for your wellbeing, therefore any threat to your wellbeing, even if it’s self-inflicted, is the responsibility of the authorities. The second is that there really isn’t any other way of protesting in prison. With your freedom limited such as it is, how much food you eat is one of the few things you can still control.

The idea that hunger could be used as political clout came to India and Ireland some years after it was coined by the Suffragettes. Marion Wallace-Dunlop wasn’t just the first Suffragette who went on hunger strike, in actual fact, we can credit her with setting a tactical precedent among radical, militant movements in the early 1900s. Hunger strikes produced some of the most iconic imagery of the suffrage movement, the mishandling of them directly accelerated the decline of the Liberal government and genderised a form of protest that continues to inspire and fascinate a hundred years later. In 1909, Marion was arrested for public disorder and sentenced to one month in prison. The day she arrived at Holloway, she told wardens she would not eat until she was recognised as a political prisoner. It wasn’t a gimmick, she’d had no encouragement from the Pankhursts, it wasn’t premeditated, she could probably have murdered a bacon sarnie – but that was it. She’d done it. And all that was to follow came from that one moment of solitary defiance.

In Hunger: A Modern History, James Vernon supports the idea that the Suffragettes were the first to use hunger strikes to gain leverage against the powers that be;

“Never before used as a vehicle of political protest in Britain or its empire, the hunger strike was a tactic designed to highlight the illegality and violence on which women’s political subjection rested – a point driven home by the Liberal government’s dependence upon the decidedly unliberal measure of force feeding… {it} exposed the contradictions between ostensible rule of law and the violent realities… Frequently a grotesque spectacle of brinkmanship ensued: the brutal inhumanity of a state prepared to allow its subjects to die was contrasted with the willingness of the strikers to risk their own lives.”

Vernon goes onto say that while hunger striking is now synonymous with nationalist movements worldwide, circa 1920, in the wake of the Suffragette’s immediate legacy, many considered the actual act of starving oneself as a “womanish thing”.

Numerous theories have been offered to explain this. The indirect nonviolence; the emphasis on the body and health; the manipulation of protective instincts; the visible frailness of women corroborates the cultural perception that they’re the weaker sex; notions of middle class properness; erosion of femininity; vague resemblances with eating disorders.

That being said, it’s undoubtedly the language and imagery of force feeding that have come to be so gender specific.

For decades, historians writing about the Suffragettes were unsympathetic to the pain and trauma forced feeding caused. George Dangerfield’s illustrious The Strange Death of Liberal England describes it as “no more than extremely unpleasant”. While histories of Irish Republicanism and the Indian Independence Movement recognise, not only the importance of hunger striking in gaining leverage in marginal or iconoclast pursuits, but the considerable danger of starving and medical intervention, academics were often dismissive and misogynistic when it came to recording similar experiences of Suffragettes. In 1982 Brian Harrison claimed that if the prison doctor got a bit clumsy during the procedure, he risked ruining a woman’s greatest asset, “her looks”. Other historians are reluctant to comment because there’s very little medical evidence to confirm that forced feeding caused lasting, bodily damage. Roger Fulford “dismisses the Liberal government’s force feeding of Suffragettes as a harmless procedure that had been in use for years with ‘lunatics’.”

In her 1996 essay, Sociologist June Purvis argues that these “gross distortions” originated from male historians trying to discredit the WSPU. She adds that by brazenly ignoring the diaries, letters and autobiographies of women who were really fucking traumatised by forced feeding, these untruths have gradually become historical “assumptions”. She cites several gruelling accounts;

“Constance was held down by wardresses as the doctor inserted a four-foot-long tube down her throat. A few seconds after the tube down, she vomited all over her hair, her clothes and the wall, yet the task continued until all the liquid had been emptied into her stomach. As the doctor left “he gave me a slap on the cheek”, Constance recollected, “not violently, but, as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval”. She was forcibly fed a further seven times before she was released. She never fully recovered from her ordeal, suffered a stroke in 1912 and died in 1923.”

Both Purvis and Vernon agree that the violent intrusion of women’s bodies at the hands of male doctors during sessions of forcible feeding added to the femaleness of hunger striking;

“Although the word ‘rape’ is not used in these accounts, the instrumental invasion of the body, accompanied by overpowering physical force, great suffering and humiliation was akin to it, especially so for women, such as Fanny Parker, who were fed through the rectum and vagina.”

Vernon adds that the imagery of “phallic tubes”, “sadistic glee” and “the use of force feeding as a disciplinary punishment” have sculpted the emotive delineations of male-on-female abuse which was largely responsible for the initial discomfort towards using hunger strikes in the aftermath of the Suffragette’s campaign.

What’s interesting is that while some historians have been quick to dilute the ramifications of forced feeding, the media of the time were often much more sensitive when reporting on the issue. The Manchester Guardian published this in April 1914;

“Miss Kitty Marion, who was rearrested early in January under the “Cat and Mouse Act”, was released from Holloway yesterday. The Women’s Social and Political Union state that Miss Marion is in a terribly weak and emaciated condition, having lost 2st. alb in weight. She has been forcibly fed 232 times, and has been very sick all the time. She states that so great did the repeated physical and mental agony become that she felt she would have to put an end to it by hanging herself. On one occasion she broke the glass protecting the gaslight and set the bedclothes on fire. Miss Marion is now in a nursing home.”

While the journalist doesn’t expressly voice sympathy for Miss Marion, they’re sympathetic in their tone and make no attempt to lessen her experience. Professor Russell thinks that the media attention of a hunger strike is a projection of how well the striker’s cause has withstood public scrutiny. But if anything, public scrutiny of the Suffragette’s cause lessened once the public caught wind of the situation for those on hunger strike. Vernon believes that the Suffragettes took full advantage of this;

“These prison narratives helped establish the hunger strike as the tactic of the Suffragettes. No reference was ever made to the masculine and Russian genealogy of the hunger strike, other than to equate the “unconstitutional” treatment of hunger strikers by the Liberal government to Russian tyranny”.

For example, in July 1914, Christabel Pankhurst penned “Militant Women Tortured – Militant Men Received By The King” on the front page of The Suffragette paper accompanied with a graphic, gothic looking illustration of a gaunt woman being forcibly fed. It was desgined to make readers uncomfortable, and capitalised on the very real pain that women who were forcibly fed had felt.

While Suffragette hierarchy clearly used accounts of forced feeding to provoke sympathy for the cause, Vernon believes that these accounts are genuinely and uniquely horrific, and mirror language that would have only been used in reports of sexual crime. Again, the unconsenting penetration of a woman’s body becomes the focus of both the media’s and Suffragette community’s vernacular. The feelings of violation were typically coupled with shame and a desire to be praised by the other strikers;

“The analogy of forcible feeding with rape explains the prominence Suffragettes gave to resistance in their testimonies, for failure to do so would have implied complicity and moral weakness.”

But though the explicit descriptions of forcible feeding dominate the narrative of hunger striking Suffragettes, sharing a cell with women living lives completely unfamiliar to the narrator, is also a reoccurring theme in these accounts and added a new dimension to the relationship between hunger and politics;

“Several imprisoned Suffragettes recorded their horror at discovering that for some of their fellow prisoners motherhood had been criminalised, that they had been incarcerated for stealing food for their children or for failing to feed them.”

The strikers were genuinely appalled, and the Suffragettes used the hunger strikes of their inmates to highlight these cases, stories of starvation wages for women working in “sweated trades”, infant mortality and food adulteration. Relatively privileged women were opting to starve alongside poor women who’d been arrested just for being hungry, food soon became a metaphor for all the things denied to women in their everyday lives.

Writing on the centenary of Marion Wallace-Dunlop’s stand, Purvis says,“The hunger striking suffragette politicised her body.” And maybe that’s the crux of it. Men’s bodies were physically politicised in battle, in revolution and rebellion, in martyrdom, things that by and large women hadn’t been afforded before. Maybe the association between women and fasting simply marks the first time women were able to acknowledge their bodily presence in political discourse.

Whatever the reason, the legacy of the hunger striking Suffragettes isn’t without its complications, its tragedies. And the affinity for many young women, like Masha, who’ve been imprisoned for political reasons to Marion and the hungry women of 1909-1914, is palpable. Over a century later and women are still hungry for change.

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Wench

/wenCH/ noun Origin Middle English: abbreviation of obsolete wenchel, meaning child, servant, prostitute; perhaps related to Old English wancol, meaning unsteady, inconstant. Definition Girl, woman, probably a right stand-up bird.

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Herstory

her·sto·ry /ˈhərstərē/ noun Shit hot history from a female or feminist perspective.
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