On the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, when some British women were given the right to vote, we take a look at some of the inspirational women who dedicated their lives to the fight for equality. First up, Michelle Birkby tells the story of suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton.
Lady Constance Lytton was shy and weak, and treated kindly by the authorities when imprisoned for being a militant suffragette. Jane Warton was poor and angry, and was treated badly. But they were the same woman.
Constance Lytton, born in 1869, was the daughter of the Earl of Lytton. She was very private, and almost certainly suffering from depression. Constance was a delicate woman, with a weak heart and rheumatism.
‘I had been more or less a chronic invalid through the greater part of my youth. An overmastering laziness and a fatalistic submission to events as they befell were guiding factors in existence.’
In 1908, she became converted to the militant suffragette campaign, and in 1909, whilst taking part in a Deputation to the Prime Minister this shy, quiet, sick, forty-three year old woman was arrested with all the other suffragettes, to her joy.
‘I felt taken hold of by the movement … For the first time in my life I felt of some use.’
She was sent to Bow Street Magistrates Court, refused to keep the peace, and was sentenced to one month in prison.
Constance seemed to almost enjoy her time behind bars. She had an interest in female prisoners, and this gave her a chance to see the system from the inside. And, she liked cleaning. She thoroughly appreciated all the cleaning tips she learned.
‘I was an amateur scrubber and laundry-woman, in the same spirit as other unemployed females dabble in water-colour drawings or hand embroidery.’
Constance was aware that she had special treatment because of her status. She had been kept in the hospital ward, and treated gently. When she was arrested again, she decided to go on hunger strike. A doctor was called in, examined her and found she had a weak heart, so she was released. It made her furious to see how badly others were treated when her title helped her.
‘The altogether shameless way I had been preferred against the others…made me determine to try whether they would recognise my need for exceptional favours without my name.’
She cut her hair short. She wore glasses and a cheap dress. She called herself Jane Warton – Jane after Jeanne D’Arc. She joined a deputation, threw a stone, was arrested and sent to Walton Jail as plain Jane Warton.
She announced that she would go on hunger strike. She was threatened with forced feeding, but she refused to give in. The Senior Medical Officer did not examine her at all.
Two wardresses held her down. The doctor leaned on her knees. She refused to open her mouth, so a metal gag was forced in, breaking her teeth. It was opened very wide. The tube was shoved down her throat and into her stomach, though she choked on it. The food was poured down it in a constant torrent. Constance immediately threw up.
‘The horror of it was more than I can describe.’
The doctor slapped her once on the cheek as they left, and Constance lay in her own vomit all night, too weak to move.
It was done over and over again, night after night. Constance begged that the tube not be pushed so far down her throat, or that the food be given to her in small quantities to give her time to digest it. They refused, and she threw up. She got weaker. In the midst of one session, a doctor came. He listened to her heart for barely two beats.
‘Oh ripping, splendid heart! You can go on with her.’
So they did.
Constance almost died. She was only saved when her sister, who had been looking for her, found her, and she was released. She went home an invalid, her heart permanently damaged.
Constance continued to fight the cause. She went to prison again, though the Suffragette leaders agreed she should not go on hunger strike this time. She had a stroke but learned to write with her left hand and wrote Prison and Prisoners, of her time in prison. She died in 1923.
In Prisons and Prisoners, Lady Constance Lytton wrote of upper-class women;
‘A maiming subservience is so conditional to their very existence that it becomes an aim in itself, an ideal.’
Constance chose to break free of this subservience to become the fiery, independent working class woman Jane Warton, and risked her life to reveal the class prejudice at the heart of the treatment of suffragettes. That is why she is my personal suffragette heroine.
Michelle Birkby is the author of The House at Baker Street, the first in a series written from the point of view of Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, that follows Mrs Hudson and Dr Watson’s wife, Mary, as they team up together to do some detective work of their own. The second in the series, The Women of Baker Street, is out now.