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WSPU poster 1914 - Museum of London
The "Cat and Mouse Act" (officially the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913) was an Act of Parliament passed in Britainmarker under Herbert Henry Asquith's Liberal government in 1913. It made legal the hunger strikes that Suffragettes were undertaking at the time and stated that they would be released from prison as soon as they became ill.

Government use

After the act was introduced suffragettes were no longer force-fed during their time in prison, which had previously been common practice to combat the hunger strikes. Rather, suffragettes on hunger strike were kept in prison until they became extremely weak, at which point they would be released to recover. This allowed the government to claim that any harm (or even death) which resulted from the starvation was entirely the fault of the suffragette. After this, any wrongdoing on the part of the suffragette would see them put straight back in prison.

Background

To attain the goal of universal suffrage, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU, known colloquially as the suffragettes) engaged in acts of protest such as the breaking of windows, arson, and the "technical assault" (without causing harm) of police officers. Many WSPU members were jailed for these offences. In response to what the organisation viewed as brutal punishment and harsh treatment by the government at the time, imprisoned WSPU members embarked on a sustained campaign of hunger strikes. Some women were freed on taking this action, but this rendered the policy of imprisonment of suffragettes futile.

So, the government turned to a policy of force feeding hunger-strikers by nasogastric tube. Repeated uses of this process often caused sickness, which served the WSPU's aims of demonstrating the government's treatment of the prisoners.

Faced with growing public disquiet over the tactic of force feeding, and the determination of the jailed suffragettes to continue their strikes, the government rushed the Act through Parliament. The effect of the Act was to permit the release of prisoners who were suffering illness for them to recuperate; however, the police were free to re-imprison offenders again once they had recovered. The intention of the Act was to counter the tactic of hunger strikes undertaken by jailed suffragettes and the damaging consequences for the government's support among (male) voters by the force feeding of women prisoners. If anything, the Act lost the Liberal government support.

Unintended consequences of the act

The ineffectiveness of the act was very soon evident as the authorities experienced much more difficulty than anticipated in re-arresting the released hunger-strikers, many of whom eluded the police with the help of a network of suffragette sympathisers. The inability of the government to lay its hands on high-profile suffragettes transformed what had been intended as a discreet device to control suffragette hunger-strikers into a public scandal.

This act was aimed at suppressing the power of the organisation by demoralising the activists, but turned out to be counter-productive as it undermined the moral authority of the government. The act was viewed as violating basic human rights, not only of the suffragettes but of other prisoners. The Act's nickname of Cat and Mouse Act, referring to the way the government seemed to play with prisoners as a cat may with a captured mouse, underlined how the cruelty of repeated releases and re-imprisonments turned the suffragettes from targets of scorn to objects of sympathy.

The Asquith government's implementation of the act caused the militant WSPU and the suffragettes to perceive Asquith as the enemy — an enemy to be vanquished in what the organisation saw as an all-out war. A related effect of this law was to increase support for the Labour Party, many of whose early founders supported votes for women. For example, philosopher Bertrand Russell left the Liberal Party, and wrote pamphlets denouncing the act and the Liberals for making in his view an illiberal and anti-constitutional law. So the controversy helped to accelerate the decline in the Liberals electoral position, as segments of the middle class began to defect to Labour.

The ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ is the usual name given to the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Health) Act. The ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ came into being in 1913. It was introduced to weaken the Suffragettes led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The Liberal government of Asquith had been highly embarrassed by the hunger strike tactic of the Suffragettes. Many of the more famous Suffragettes were from middle class backgrounds and were educated. While society as a whole expected certain behaviour from them (which was not forthcoming), society also held certain values on how the government should act with regards to when these women were in prison, and therefore under the jurisdiction of the government.

When some Suffragettes were arrested they would go on hunger strike. This was a deliberate policy to bring attention to their cause and also to embarrass the government. To counter this, the government resorted to force-feeding those women on hunger-strike – an act usually reserved for those held in what were then called lunatic asylums. This simple act greatly embarrassed the government. While it avoided the political disaster of a Suffragette dying in prison – thus creating a martyr for the movement – it simply did not reflect well on the government.To get around this, the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was introduced.

The logic behind this was simple: a Suffragette would be arrested; she would go on hunger strike; the authorities would wait until she was too weak (through lack of food) to do any harm if in public. She would then be released ‘on licence’. Once out of prison, it was assumed that the former prisoner would start to eat once again and re-gain her strength over a period of time. If she committed an offence while out on licence, she would be immediately re-arrested and returned to prison. Here, it was assumed that she would then go back on hunger strike. The authorities would then wait until she was too weak to cause trouble and then she would be re-released ‘on licence’.

The nickname of the act came about because of a cat’s habit of playing with its prey (a mouse) before finishing it off. Research does indicate that the act did not do a great deal to deter the activities of the Suffragettes. Their violent actions only ceased with the outbreak of war and their support of the war effort. However, the start of the war in August 1914, and the ending of all Suffragette activities for the duration of the war, means that the potentially full impact of the 'Cat and Mouse Act' will never be known.

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