The Suffragettes and The Law

Library for Educators
6 min readJan 17

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In this piece, we will examine the ways in which The Suffragettes were treated by the judicial system, the impact of rules 23A and ‘The Cat and Mouse’ Act and how key figures in the movement attempted to repeal these laws.

Prisoner Classification

Prisons were divided into three divisions, with criminals being placed into each division according to their crime. Suffragettes argued that they were political prisoners, rather than criminal, and therefore should be placed into the first division. Letters from the Pankhurst family cite Russia and Turkey as examples of where militant action has taken place and has been successful in changing the political landscape, and therefore that their militant action should be seen as political too. If the Suffragettes gained acknowledgement as political prisoners, and were placed in the first division, they would be allowed to have visitors, write and receive letters, read books and to see other prisoners. Parliament reports from 1906 show that, at first, this campaign was successful, as supportive politicians Keir Hardie and Lord Robert Cecil were able to get the home secretary, Herbert Gladstone, to agree that a group of women, which included Sylvia Pankhurst, would be treated as political prisoners and placed in the first division.

Those in the second division were often kept in solitary confinement, had no access to reading or writing materials and allowed a visitor and letters only after a month. As the majority of Suffragettes belonged to the middle or upper classes, they were usually placed in the second division. Working class women were generally placed in the third division, and would sometimes undertake work such as the cleaning of cells for women prisoners in other divisions, especially if they were unable to do this themselves following forcible feeding.

Emmeline Pankhurst wrote to C.P. Scott on 7 January 1909 from Holloway prison, following her arrest, and placement in the second division of prisoners. Despite being placed in the second division, Emmeline Pankhurst was still afforded certain rights. Whilst serving her sentence, she wrote about her reading, and visits from Kier Hardie. She mentions that Scott had visited her daughter, Sylvia, and had: Interested [himself] in the treatment of the women political prisoners.

However, these rights were not extended to other prisoners. In a later letter, Herbert Gladstone discusses the privileges given to Mary Clarke, Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, whilst in prison in Holloway. Gladstone wrote that Emmeline Pankhurst’s rights whilst in prison were exceptional, and that Mrs. Clarke would not be allowed the same rights, as this would set a precedent.

As more Suffragettes were imprisoned and their treatment became more consistent, there are letters to Scott asking for his help to pressure politicians to allow greater rights to those in prison, and examples of letters from Scott questioning MPs on the treatment of prisoners.

A letter from Emmeline Pankhurst on 17th February 1909, mentions a visit C.P. Scott made to Holloway. She refers to his being able to get an understanding of the conditions in prison, of why the Suffragettes are using militant action and why their action should be seen as political.

Rule 243a and the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’

In 1910, Winston Churchill, passed Rule 243a which meant that all Suffragette prisoners would be placed in the second or third divisions. They would have much the same comforts as those in the first division, but were not awarded political status and so denied any rights as such. By placing them in the second division, Churchill was trying to ensure that suffragettes would not be able to continue with propaganda for their cause whilst incarcerated, as is discussed in the letter below from Reginald McKenna, who succeeded Churchill as home secretary.

The treatment of Suffragettes in prison would become a notorious and infamous part of the history of the movement, with women subjected to forcible feeding, and the introduction of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, in 1913, where women who went on hunger strike were released and then imprisoned again when their health improved.

The refusal to acknowledge the Suffragettes as political prisoners, to class them in the first division, and to allow them to communicate with the outside world, provide clear illustration of the attempts made by the government to silence the protests of the Suffragettes.

Correspondence with C.P. Scott

One of the letters to C.P. Scott from Emmeline Pankhurst gives an extremely personal insight into the complete and absolute commitment of these women to the cause. The letter, sent on the 27th December 1910 informs C.P. Scott of the death of her sister, Mary Jane Clarke, who died on 22nd December 1910.

Mrs Clarke had been imprisoned three times in Holloway. In 1909 she had been among a group of protestors who had gone to number 10 Downing Street and tried to get an audience with Prime Minister Asquith. She was sentenced to one month in prison and was kept for some of the time in solitary confinement. C.P. Scott had visited her during this time and Emmeline reminds him of this at the beginning of her letter, going on to inform him of Clarke’s most recent incarceration, and of her death two days after her release.

The letter includes her reason for informing Scott:

I write to you not only because you saw her in prison but because I believe you perhaps more than any English man alive out side the Cabinet have the power to bring this dreadful struggle to an end.

In November 1910, a suffragette deputation went to the House of Commons to protest against Prime Minister Asquith after finding out he would not give any more time to the Conciliation Bill which had aimed to give some women the vote. The WSPU had agreed during the reading of the Bill to suspend support for window breaking and hunger-strikes. Mary Clarke was arrested the second time for window smashing soon after the event known as Black Friday.

In her final stay in prison, Mrs Clarke went on hunger strike and was force fed, a procedure the prison authorities had brought in at the end of 1909. It is thought the traumatic effect of forced-feeding may have contributed to her death from a burst blood vessel.

In her letter, Emmeline Pankhust writes:

This year has seen the breaking for me of three of my closest bonds to this world, my boy, my mother and my dearest sister.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s son, Henry had died in January of that year and along with her mother and sister’s death, this seemed to make her more determined to make her voice heard through the militant action she and the WSPU followed.

Can you wonder that today I want beyond all other things to end this fight quickly and get rest?

Mary Jane Clarke’s obituary written by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence stated that Mary Jane Clarke was “the first woman martyr who has gone to death for this cause” but her story is not widely known. This is thought to be because she died at home in the winter holidays at a time where militant action was just beginning after a period of non-action, compared with the later death in 1913 of Emily Davison who was killed very publicly by the Kings horse at Derby, at the height of the WSPU’s fight for Votes for Women. Emmeline Pankhurst wrote about her sister:

She is the first to die. How many must follow before the men of your Party realise their responsibility.

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