Lady Constance Georgina Lytton
Lady Constance Georgina Lytton
Aristocratic Background. Lady Constance Georgina Lytton’s father was the first earl of Lytton and the queen’s viceroy, or ruling representative, of India. She spent most of her childhood in India and then returned to England with her parents. After her father’s death, her mother was appointed a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. Her brother, the second earl of Lytton, was a Conservative member of the House of Lords and, like his sister, a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1908 Lytton met Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenney, two of the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant suffrage organization. The meeting changed her life. The suffrage movement already appealed to Lytton because of its cross-class alliances. Through the WSPU she found a way to channel that interest and to escape from a life of domestic and charitable caretaking. In her devotion to the militant suffrage movement, she followed, perhaps, in the footsteps of her paternal great-grandmother Anna Wheeler, an early-nineteenth-century feminist and a supporter of the working class.
Demanding the Vote. On 14 January 1910 Lytton disguised herself as a working-class seamstress, assumed the name Jane Warton, and led a suffrage demonstration demanding the vote for women. During the demonstration she hurled a rock wrapped in brown paper at the house of the governor of Walton Gaol. For this act, she was arrested, tried, and sentenced to fourteen days in jail. Like many suffragettes, she refused to eat while in custody and was forcibly fed, which involved forcing the mouth open, running a tube down the throat or through the nose, and pouring liquid into it. The procedure was both painful and dangerous. Lytton’s decision to conceal her upper-class identity was a deliberately calculated act. She was devoted to the cause of female suffrage and was appalled at the class-differentiated treatment women (regardless of their offence) received in jail. In February 1909 she had engaged in a suffrage demonstration without, however, disguising her identity as a member of the nobility. She was arrested and incarcerated, but knowing who she was and that she had a heart condition, the prison officials treated her gently. She was placed in the prison’s hospital ward and given extra food. Opposed to such favorable treatment while her colleagues of other social classes were treated more harshly, she demanded repeatedly to be allowed to join the other prisoners in their cells. The officials refused, and when Lytton engaged in a hunger strike the prison officials simply released her from jail rather than forcibly feeding her. Later that year she was again arrested and released when she went on a hunger strike. Lytton knew she had been given preferential treatment because of her high social standing and was determined to prove it. Thus disguised as Warton, her weak heart was not discovered, and she was forcibly fed eight times before her failing health and reports of her true identity prompted the officials to release her.
A Stroke and Victory. Lytton continued her suffrage activities until 1912, when she suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered. She taught herself to write with her left hand and wrote a gripping account of her prison experiences in Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Spinster (1914). Her personal commitment to universal political rights and her book made her a revered and charismatic figure in the British women’s suffrage movement. Women over the age of thirty in Great Britain ultimately gained the right to vote in 1918, and ten years later the age was lowered to what it had been for men, twenty-one. British women’s right to vote was won largely as a result of the actions by suffragettes such as Lytton.
Betty Balfour, ed., Selected Letters of Constance Lytton (London: Heine-mann, 1925).
Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (London: UCL Press, 1999).
Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Spinster (London: Heinemann, 1914).
Marie Mulvey-Roberts, “Militancy, Masochism or Martyrdom? The Public and Private Prisons of Constance Lytton,” in Votes for Women, edited by June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 159–180.