New Criticals

Breasts: Suffragists, Suffering and Cecily McMillan

"Constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowd passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example. I was also pummeled on the chest, and my breast was clutched by one constable from the front. As a consequence, three days later, I had to receive medical attention from Dr. Ede as my breasts were much discoloured and very painful.… Consequently, several men who, I believe, were policemen in plain clothes, also endeavoured to lift my dress.”

The anonymous woman who reported these acts of police brutality was one of 300 British suffragists peacefully marching before the House of Commons on November 18, 1910. Journalist Henry Noel Brailsford and Dr. Jessie Murray took 135 statements from activists and eyewitnesses describing how police beat the suffragists with batons, punched, kicked, dragged, choked, stripped, and sexually assaulted them. One officer hurled a woman at a lamppost, loosening two of her teeth. Brailsford and Murray wrote:

“The action of which the most frequent complaint is made is variously described as twisting round, pinching, screwing, nipping, or wringing the breast. This was often done in the most public way so as to inflict the most humiliation…The language used by some of the police while performing this action proves that it was consciously sensual.”

At least two women died because of this six-hour campaign of police brutality, now known as Black Friday.

Cecily McMillan, sentenced on May 19 to 90 days at Rikers and five years of probation, is only one more woman activist to state that, while she was exercising First Amendment rights, a cop assaulted her breast. (She was convicted of the felony charge of second-degree assault, for elbowing police officer Grantley Bovell in the eye.) Nearly a century after the passage of women’s suffrage in the U.S. and U.K., we remember the photos of decorously hatted ladies; we see them patiently, politely bearing banners, until their efforts were met by constitutional and social recognition. On the contrary, the suffragists’ nonviolent tactics were often met by police and mob violence. Opponents released rats at rallies, threw eggs, and used bellows to blow cayenne pepper into the women’s faces, presaging the contemporary use of pepper spray. Suffragist Hannah Mitchell wrote of a 1906 Manchester rally, "The mob played a sort of Rugby football with us...two youths held on to my skirt so tightly that I feared it would either come off or I should be dragged to earth on my face.”

After Black Friday, the Daily Mirror published a photograph of suffragist Ada Wright, knocked to the ground by police and shielding her face from blows. The government attempted to suppress its publication, then tried to buy the entire print run, and ordered the destruction of the negative.

Seven years later in the United States, American Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party initiated the very first instance of a now-hallowed political act: a picket of the White House. Starting in January 1917, 200 suffragists picketed—and also lit bonfires at the gates. Perhaps five hundred were arrested on charges of obstructing sidewalk traffic, while 168, including Paul, were imprisoned for terms of up to seven months. Then, on November 15, 1917, the “Night of Terror,” the superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse ordered forty guards with clubs to beat the 33 suffragists in custody.

“They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed, and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate Alice Cosu, who believed Mrs. Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. According to affidavits, other women were grabbed, dragged, beaten, choked, slammed, pinched, twisted, and kicked.”

When Paul led the women in a hunger strike, following the example of the British suffragists who demanded recognition as political prisoners, they were torturously force-fed. Paul was shut in solitary confinement and committed to a psychiatric institution. Woodrow Wilson wrote to his daughter that the suffragists "seem bent upon making their cause as obnoxious as possible.”

Once a social justice movement, like women’s suffrage, has succeeded in enshrining its goals in law and social acceptance, it is all too easy to dismiss the state violence against it as a relic of less enlightened times. But such violence often looks the same with each recurrence:  wildly disproportionate; reifying racial, gender, class, and other biases; and trampling civil liberties. The rhetoric also looks similar, delegitimizing activism as frivolously idealistic, a distraction from “real” issues, and, simultaneously, dangerously irresponsible. The word “violent” has a sneaky way of attaching to protest, even—perhaps especially—when the protesters are the ones being bloodied; state violence, on the other hand, is supposed to be hygienic, orderly, responsible, sane, and necessary.

So it went with Occupy Wall Street, where protesters worked so hard to exercise passive resistance in the face of police brutality. Cecily McMillan attributes her elbowing of Grantley Bovel’s eye to an automatic reaction to the grabbing of her breast from behind: self-defense, not assault. Supporters know her as the “queen of nonviolence.” What if those of us who believe her story—and more particularly, those of us who don’t—compare her actions to those of the suffragists, who had fewer scruples about fighting fire with fire?

After London’s Black Friday, the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, abandoned peaceful protest.

"[O]n two separate days, at a preordained time and with no warning, hundreds of smartly dressed women from Oxford Street to Whitehall, all along Piccadilly and Bond Street, produced hammers from their muffs and laid waste to hundreds of square feet of shop frontage. Emmeline was arrested along with a total of 220 other protesters."

The WSPU vandalized mailboxes. They smashed vitrines in the British Museum. They cut telegraph wires, chained themselves to the Prime Minister’s Office, and carried Saturday Night Clubs: knotted, tar-dipped ropes, weighted with lead, to combat police truncheons. And…they burned the homes of unhelpful Members of Parliament to the ground, in several acts of arson. They planted bombs in railway stations, the Bank of England, and the home of Chancellor Lloyd George. Cecily McMillan would probably not condone their tactics, although she might approve of the WSPU’s Bodyguard, women trained in self-defense by jujutsu instructor Edith Margaret Garrud.

The official response was predictable. It expected the suffragists to be patient, high-minded, and morally superior to their enemies, even in matters of life and death. Lloyd George complained that "the action of the Militants is alienating sympathy from the women's cause in every quarter." Sir Almroth Wright wrote the 1912 pamphlet Militant Hysteria: "Is it wonder if men feel that they have had enough of the militant suffragist, and that the State would be well rid of her if she were crushed under the soldiers' shields like the traitor woman at the Tarpeian rock?"

Even if it might have been public outrage after the Night of Terror, and not the pickets or bonfires, that spurred the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, still, civil rights are not always won by peaceful protest. (See, also, the American Civil War.) More importantly, we must consider what the history of women’s suffrage can tell us about the chilling effects of state violence on even the most peaceful forms of dissent.  By contrast, there is no doubt that the militant suffragists committed acts of terrorism. What if we imagine a world where a feminist bomber’s actions might be validated by the passage of laws—constitutional amendments!—affirming her civil rights and liberties? It’s the world that our foremothers imagined, a hundred years old and hatted.

Imagine Sojourner Truth, suffragist, baring her breasts to her white male hecklers to prove that strength, rhetorical genius, and black womanhood were entirely consistent. Imagine Constance Bulwer-Lytton, suffragist, protesting her suffering in Holloway Prison by carving a “V” for “Votes for Women” into her breast. Imagine Cecily McMillan free.