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'Deeds not words'

Imprisonment for their actions became an important tool for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and led to another important tactic, hunger striking.

Hunger strikes

The first hunger strike was undertaken by Marion Wallace Dunlop in 1909 as a protest when she was not given political prisoner status in prison. She had been arrested for damaging a wall in St. Stephen's Hall in the Houses of Parliament.

When imprisoned, suffragettes would go on hunger strike, leading to the authorities force-feeding women in prison, a dangerous and humiliating treatment which provided the suffragettes with powerful propaganda.

'Cat and Mouse Act'

The Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act, also known as 'The Cat and Mouse Act' was passed in 1913. This permitted the early release of women who had become so ill as a result of their hunger strike that they were at risk of death but required that they return to prison when their health was better to continue their sentence.

The hunger strike/force feeding process then began all over again.

Conciliation Bill

In 1910, a Conciliation Bill was read in Parliament. The bill was written to extend voting rights to women but failed to become law. Following its failure there were violent clashes outside Parliament. There were further Conciliation Bills proposed in subsequent years but they failed to resolve the situation.

Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Wilding Davison was particularly committed to 'deeds not words', notably hiding in the House of Commons on a number of occasions, including on Census night in April 1911 when she spent the night in a cupboard in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in order to state 'House of Commons' as her address on her census return.

She was imprisoned eight times for offences including assault and stone-throwing. Her final, and most dramatic, act was to step out in front of the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in June 1913. It is unclear whether she intended to commit suicide, but she died soon afterwards of her injuries.

Find out more at: Emily Wilding Davison and Parliament


You can access biographies of

Marion Wallace-Dunlop
Emily Wilding Davison

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

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