Force-feeding unruly women at the turn of the 20th century

Brain Pickings recently re-posted some anti-suffragist “valentines”—Valentine’s Day postcards from the turn of the last century that mocked the suffrage movement’s push for votes. They’re all pretty terrible, but this one was stomach-turning:

In the image, a woman lies prone with a funnel marked SOUP in her mouth; one man (who looks a bit bruised) holds her feet, while another man gleefully pours liquid into the funnel, one foot on her chest and one hand on a box labeled 1CWT (which I think means 1 hundredweight). This is a celebration of force-feeding, which until 1913 was commonly practiced on suffragettes in the UK  and US who were imprisoned for public disturbance. The imprisoned women might go on hunger strike as a form of nonviolent protest; the legal system, unwilling to either release the women or allow them to die (perhaps thence to become martyrs), opted to keep the prisoners alive by more or less the same means that geese are fattened for foie gras.  Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood, voluntarily underwent the procedure and published an article describing her experience.

One wonders if the similarity of this practice to the gavage method might be the inspiration for another of those valentines:


In her book The Hunger Artists, Maud Ellmann loops together the experiences of hunger strikers in Irish prisons, Clarissa of the novel by the same name, and starving artists exemplified by Kafka.  What they share is a dramatic refusal, a condemnation that can be read as a political text: Clarissa and the hunger strikers choose to waste away than to be kept alive on the terms of imprisonment; Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” makes the rejection broader and refuses nourished by a culture that commodifies and misunderstands art.  For Ellmann, the clash between the need to eat and outrage of forced feeding is a primal scene: she writes, “Our first experience of eating is force-feeding: as infants, we were fed by others and ravished by the food they thrust into our jaws.” To look at it from a less psychoanalytic perspective, this is a visceral figuration of interpellation: we don’t get to choose the culture or ideology we swallow along with our earliest nourishment. Ellmann suggests that any act of eating (or refusing to eat) could become an opportunity to restage or revenge this early irreversible infraction; more so, perhaps, when the conflict between drinking the cultural soup and refusing it becomes a matter of life and death.

The force-fed suffragist is not permitted to choose life–at least, not in the active sense of choosing or living–but as Djuna Barnes notes in her article, she is also not permitted to choose death.  The existence of a colorful postcard cartoon to celebrate the triumph over her resistance should illustrate what was at stake for the jailor/feeder: it is not enough that she be contained; she must also become a container.

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