September 17th, 1912
FROM THE ARCHIVES:George Bernard Shaw supported votes for women but thought the attempt by two English suffragettes to burn down Dublin’s Theatre Royal was a step too far, according to this letter he sent to Mary Gawthorpe of the Women’s Social and Political Union. – JOE JOYCE
DEAR MISS Gawthorpe, – The case of the suffragists in Mountjoy Prison is one which may compel the Government to make up its mind at last on the subject of voluntary starvation by prisoners.
Until the Dublin incident, the offences for which the suffragists were imprisoned were so trivial that nobody seriously believed that women should be severely punished for them, though a good many people believed that women ought to be punished for daring to demand a vote, which is quite another matter. But the Dublin incident was not trivial. To set fire to a theatre is beyond all question a serious crime. If the suffragists may commit arson with impunity because their motives are public motives, then they may assassinate, throw express trains off the line, blow up the Houses of Parliament with dynamite, or, in short, do anything mischievous or murderous.
[W]omen who are prepared to go to such lengths must clearly be restrained. I do not say they should be punished, because I do not believe that anybody should be punished; but restrained they certainly must be. Now the only method of restraint at present available is imprisonment. I think it extremely unfortunate that a prison should be a place of punishment; but, even if the idea of punishment were given up and a prison were made as comfortable as a country house in a park, [...] people could always, by the expedient of voluntary starvation, force upon the community the alternative of either removing the restraint, or seeing them die. And this is the dilemma in which the suffragists have placed the Government.
Hitherto the Government has stupidly and angrily attempted to escape from the dilemma by the illegal and abominable expedient of forcible feeding. It has been guilty of violence and torture in its prisons, and it has tried to excuse itself by lying and insolence in Parliament. At that game it has been ignominiously beaten. It has had to release the women.
[...]An attempt to [force feed] the Mountjoy prisoners for three and a half years’ penal servitude would probably end either in killing them or driving them mad. In that case, what would the Government do? [...]
f the prisoners in Mountjoy are determined to commit suicide by starvation, they must be allowed to do so, and that the Government could not be held responsible for their deaths if it could convince the public that the prisoners had plenty of food within reach. This is the cold logic of the matter, and it has been evident to intelligent observers for some time that the moment the suffragists overstepped the line which separates what I may call pardonable ructions from offences against public safety they would drive the Government back on this cold logic.