The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act (3 & 4 Geo. 5 c. 4), popularly known as the Cat and Mouse Act, was passed by the Liberal government of Herbert Henry Asquith in 1913. It was intended to deal with the public outcry resulting from the force feeding of women who had been convicted of public order offences while campaigning for their right to vote, who had gone on hunger strike while in prison.
Men who were convicted and sent to prison for obstructing the police in the course of their political campaigning were treated as political prisoners, which allowed them to wear their own clothes, associate freely with their fellow prisoners, have their food sent in from outside, and exempted them from prison work. Women convicted and imprisoned for the same offence during a campaign for the right to vote, however, were treated as common criminals and subjected to much harsher conditions. On 5 July 1909 Marion Wallace-Dunlop became the first suffragette to go on hunger strike in protest against that inequality of treatment. She had been sentenced to a month in Holloway Prison for causing wilful damage,[a] but after refusing food for ninety-one hours she was released on 8 July.
Other suffragettes began to emulate Wallace-Dunlop’s example, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) quickly recognised how effective hunger strikes could be. Faced with the obvious determination of many suffragettes to starve themselves even to death, the authorities had three choices: release them, feed them, or allow them to starve to death and risk making martyrs of them. Initially they opted to do as they had done with Wallace-Dunlop, but concerns began to mount that common criminals, even murderers, might also go on hunger strike, and so be released early.
By 1909 force-feeding – or artificial feeding as it was often known – was already well established in asylums, where doctors considered the refusal of food to be a condition in need of therapeutic intervention. It therefore seemed a logical choice for the authorities to force-feed hunger-striking suffragettes, which they did, although an increasingly vocal body of opposition saw it as a form of torture. The Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone nevertheless expressed his opposition to the idea of force-feeding, believing that “It would be a new and picturesque grievance which would be a fine advertisement for these people.” One suffragette, Mary Leigh, took legal action against Gladstone and the prison doctor who had force fed her, accusing them of unlawful assault.[b] That most victims of force-feeding were females only added to the volatile mix.
In response to the mounting public outcry against force-feeding, in 1913 parliament passed what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. It specified that fasting prisoners should be released upon falling ill, but then re-arrested to complete their sentences once they had recovered. If they became ill again through hunger striking, then they were once again to be released, and so on.
Rearresting those suffragettes released prematurely was not always as easy as perhaps the government had anticipated. In response to the Act, the WSPU set up a 30-strong all-female bodyguard unit to protect their leaders from arrest. The women were trained in the martial art of jujutsu by Edith Garrud, one of the western world’s first female martial arts instructors and only 4 feet 11 inches tall. They also carried Indian clubs concealed under their dresses, as a defence against the truncheons of the police.
The period of suffragette militancy ended abruptly with the onset of the Second World War in 1914, so the impact of the Cat and Mouse Act is difficult to assess. The WSPU was dissolved in 1917, so there were no more hunger-striking suffragettes. But before the war had ended, the Representation of the People Act (7 & 8 Geo. 5 c. 64) , passed in February 1918, allowed women over the age of 30 and men over the age of 21 to vote.[c]
- Wallace-Dunlop’s offence was to have stencilled a passage from the Bill of Rights on a wall of the House of Commons which read: “It is the right of the subject to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal”.
- Although Leigh was unsuccessful, her case continued to be cited in other cases of force-feeding throughout the rest of the 20th century.
- It was not until 1928 that everyone over the age of 21 was granted the right to vote.