Suffragette hunger strike medal
In recent months the museum has acquired a rare and important new suffragette item: a hunger strike medal belonging to British woman Charlotte Blacklock. In early March 1912 Charlotte was fifty-six years old when she joined dozens of other suffragettes in the streets of London for a brick-throwing raid on some of the city’s smartest shops. The women smashed shop windows and were arrested in large numbers, prompting outrage and publicity for their cause, which was to gain the vote for women. Charlotte, like many of the women involved, was sent to prison for her efforts and went on a hunger strike. Prison authorities’ response to this action was force-feeding, with Charlotte being physically restrained while a large feeding tube was forced down her throat, a painful and dangerous practice. She was released four months later and given the medal pictured here by the militant suffragette group, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), in recognition of her efforts.
By the early 1900s many women in the United Kingdom were becoming frustrated at the reluctance of their government to give women the vote. The WSPU was formed in 1903, principally by Emmeline Pankhurst, with militant action and violent protest its main forms of operation. Women would deliberately flout the law in order to be sent to prison, drawing attention to themselves and forcing members of parliament to address their concerns over the vote. Initially women who went on hunger strike in prison were immediately released, so that they would not become martyrs to their cause. By the time of Charlotte Blacklock’s arrest, however, force feeding had become standard practice. Many women who received this treatment were permanently injured and some died. The WSPU began to award hunger strike medals in 1909 in recognition of the hardship these women were subjected to.
It is estimated that only one hundred hunger strike medals were made and awarded to suffragettes. The fact that the WSPU treated their cause for women’s suffrage like a military campaign is reflected in the words ‘For Valour’, which are inscribed on the ribbon bar of the medal. These words, of course, are the same as those inscribed on the Commonwealth’s highest award for military bravery, the Victoria Cross. Most women who were force-fed had the dates of their arrest inscribed on bars on their medal, with Charlotte’s arrest date of 1 March 1912 indicated on hers. Only two other hunger strike medals are known to be held in Australian institutions, while there is a handful on public display in the United Kingdom. The medals are a potent symbol of the efforts women in Britain were prepared to go to in order to obtain the vote, and are a valuable addition to the museum’s collection of suffragette items.
The museum will have the Charlotte Blacklock hunger strike medal on display during its conference Women, Leadership and Democracy in Australia, being held at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House this December.