Hunger strikes are a political device. Since the early 20th century, they have frequently provoked debate on the individual’s right to self-determination and the limits of the state’s duty to protect the well-being of its citizens and ensure their survival. When we read present day news reports on hunger strikes, the suffering body is in the focus of camera lenses and at the center of our imaginations. Unsurprisingly, questions on normative body ideals, fitness, and food seem to be rather absent.
But in the Progressive Era (~ 1890s-1920s), they arguably played a vital, maybe even a formative role in establishing hunger strikes as a form of protest. Back then, British and American activists for women’s suffrage not only drew public attention to their cause, but in refusing to eat and enduring force feeding, they also claimed what many contemporaries denied: women’s capability of self-mastery.
The militant women’s rights activists were among the first to make use of hunger strikes in Europe and the US. Between July 1909 and 1914, imprisoned suffragettes, among them Americans Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, frequently employed hunger strikes in Britain. Despite the fact that some commentators and the suffragettes themselves knew of earlier examples in Russia three decades prior, most contemporaries perceived and presented hunger striking as a new form of protest.
A few years later, during the US involvement in World War I in the fall of 1917, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns again made newspaper headlines in the US. Along with many other suffragists of the National Woman’s Party, they were arrested and imprisoned for picketing outside the White House in Washington, DC. As inmates in the District’s prison, some of them, including Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, decided to embark upon another hunger strike. As in Britain, government officials, commentators, and even supporters of the suffragists’ cause criticized the hunger striking women heavily.One of the reasons why hunger strikes became such a controversial form of protest was that questions of food and nutrition were omnipresent in the Progressive Era. At the turn of the century, the diet and health of the population increasingly became a concern of experts, reformers, and the government. To fight hunger remained crucial in conflicts about labor and poverty, and while the middle-classes did not need to worry about their access to food, they became preoccupied with what and how to eat in order to slim down and reshape their bodies.
Nutritional sciences blossomed, popular magazines discussed how to eat right, and voluntary fasting emerged as a dietary practice. Being able to reduce food intake and to temporarily go without food by choice was frequently presented as a sign of strength and self-control. This new fascination with (partial) food abstinence probably found its most spectacular expression in the ”hunger artists”, whose public performances on the stages of American and European metropolises were met with great interest.
However, the quest for a slender body initially was a fantasy predominantly of the white and male middle-classes throughout the 19th century. In contrast, the ideal female body had to be curvy and well-fed. A patriarchal society reduced the role of a woman’s body to childbirth and denied that women had the capability of self-determination. But in the late 19th century, as the women’s rights movement fought for women’s control over their own bodies, (white and middle class) women utilized losing weight and fasting as a practice of dissent against the prevalent body regime. However, not without legitimizing and perpetuating privileges of race and class, as Katharina Vester has pointed out.
Without question, this served as a discursive foundation for the suffragists’ protest. But whereas fasting and dieting, as propagated by the middle-classes, primarily aimed at producing healthy bodies and productive citizens, the body in hunger strikes was a body at risk – an endangered body that provoked the question of whether the individual or the state would be held responsible for its possible demise. It was thus of fundamental importance how the suffragists made their voices heard and their suffering visible. First of all, they were part of a well-known political movement and able to access transnational networks to bring their case to public attention. But their ability to craft a narrative that linked their hunger strike to well-established tenets and tales of self-control and self-determination in American culture was arguably equally important.
In their accounts, they exhibited the female body’s ability to endure hunger and hardship as well as a woman’s capability of self-mastery. This demonstration of a particular kind of physical and mental fitness emphasized the legitimacy of their demands. Their British counterparts actually awarded so-called hunger strike medals to suffragettes, utilizing the symbolism of sport and competition. To politically radical audiences, acting against the instinct to eat was proof of an absolute will to overcome existing constraints. In the words of anarchist Alexander Berkman, hunger strikers “demonstrated that the determination and will power of the strong personality […] is more potent than the strongest government.”
Thus, as prison authorities resorted to force-feeding, it was arguably even larger a scandal than the hunger strikes themselves, not only because of its violent character, but also because it was directed against the choice of individuals to refuse eating, against their right to self-determination. In 1917, Lucy Burns recalled the violence she endured in a piece for the magazine The Suffragist:
“I was held down by five people at legs, arms, and head. I refused to open my mouth, Gannon [the physician; MB] pushed tube up left nostril. I turned and twisted my head all I could, but he managed to push it up.”
The country was outraged. While it was fighting authoritarianism abroad in Europe, the Wilson administration itself suddenly faced accusations of treating the women prisoners with barbarous and despotic methods.
The controversy about whether women had the right and the ability to take their lives into their own hands, and as a consequence, whether they should have the right to vote, culminated. After almost four weeks on hunger strike, the suffragists were released from prison. Only a few weeks later, President Wilson and a majority of the House of Representatives publicly supported woman suffrage for the first time. In the end, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had successfully campaigned for women’s right to vote in two countries.
The historical conjunction between hunger striking, fasting, and fitness is possibly lost to history. But to this day, hunger strikes provoke a tension between the right (and the capability) to pursue individual self-determination and the state’s interest in its citizens’ bodies. Political self-starvation still is presented and perceived as a feat of astonishing commitment, determination, and strength. A feeling expressed by Lucy Burns in 1918 probably reflects the hope of hunger strikers today, too. In the socialist magazine The Liberator, she wrote, that a “hunger strike makes the prisoner stronger against his oppressor, the weaker the body grows.”