10 Famous People Who Went on a Hunger Strike

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October 4th, 2010

Hunger strikes are nothing new: the practice is recorded in Indian writings dating back to 750 B.C., including Valmiki’s epic poem Ramayana and have been used all throughout history. The practice of using a hunger strike to bring debtors to justice was abolished by India’s government in 1861, which means that it was happening often enough before then that the government felt a need to step in. Yet hunger strikes have never gone away, in India or anywhere else. The use of self-inflicted starvation, often to the point of death, is a gruesome spectacle that underscores just how serious the men and women are who resort to this level of protest. For the first three days on a hunger strike, the body lives on glucose; after that, it begins to start processing body fat. After three weeks, you’re officially starving, and the body continues to mine its vital organs for nutrients. Hunger strikers have died after seven weeks of fasting. As the people on this list have proven, it’s a hard protest to ignore.

  1. Mohandas Gandhi: The modern-day pioneer of civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi went on several hunger strikes in his life. In the fall of 1924, he underwent a three-week fast in an attempt to reconcile warring factions of Hindus and Muslims that had grown apart since he’d been in prison. In 1932, when the Indian government established separate electorates for “untouchables,” Gandhi underwent a six-day hunger strike that led to better and more equal arrangements. He also performed a three-week hunger strike for purification in spring 1933. He used fasting liberally as a way to make a political statement and call attention to his crusade for political equity.
  2. Marion Dunlop: Hunger strikes were a popular tool for suffragettes in the early 20th century, but the first woman to undertake one was Marion Wallace Dunlop. A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Dunlop was charged with willful damage for throwing rocks through the windows of 10 Downing Street and sent to prison in July 1909. Inside, she went on a hunger strike that ran for 91 hours — just shy of four full days — before she was released because of failing health. As a result of her actions, the British government introduced a force-feeding policy that fall for their prisons that aimed to prohibit hunger strikes. In 1913, the government passed the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act, which allowed hunger strikes and discharged sick inmates but brought them back after recuperation to finish their sentences.
  3. Alice Paul: An American suffragette, Alice Paul fought to get women the right to vote with passion and tenacity. Hunger strikes were a powerful tool for suffragettes, and Paul went on one while imprisoned in 1917 at Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse to protest the poor conditions. (She’d been arrested for “obstructing traffic” with a protest.) Her hunger strike got her a ticket to the psych ward, where she was force-fed raw eggs, but her protest served a larger purpose by helping fan the flames of public opinion. In 1918, President Wilson spoke of the need for suffrage, and women earned the right to vote in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment. Paul also wrote an Equal Rights Amendment, though a version of the ERA wouldn’t show up until 1972.
  4. Thomas Ashe: More than a few famous hunger strikers hailed from Ireland, like Thomas Ashe. A founding member of the Irish volunteers, Ashe fought in the Easter Rising of 1916 to protest British rule. They won a major battle but ultimately lost, and Ashe and others went to prison. He led a hunger strike of other prisoners in May 1917 and was freed in June under a general amnesty after reports got out about prisoners being abused. His freedom was short-lived: he was arrested in August for giving a seditious speech, and he went on another hunger strike when reimprisoned. He died September 25 after prison officials force-fed him. His death warranted an inquest at which a jury found the prison staff for performing “acts of unfeeling and barbaric conduct.”
  5. Terence MacSwiney: One of the men who took their cue from Thomas Ashe, Terence MacSwiney was another Irish leader thrown in prison for protesting the British. He was first arrested in November 1917, not long after Ashe died, for wearing an Irish Republican Army uniform. He went on a hunger strike for three days before his release. He was elected Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920 but jailed that August for possessing seditious materials (there’s definitely a pattern to these incarcerations), and he immediately went on another hunger strike to protest his unfair trial by a military court. He was joined by eleven other men in the hunger protest. That strike got him worldwide press and earned scorn for the British government. Prison officials tried in vain to force-feed him, and on October 20, 1920, MacSwiney fell into a coma. He died five days later; his hunger strike lasted 74 days, more than 10 weeks. His posthumously published Principles of Freedom preserved his legacy.
  6. Denny Barry: Another Irishman who fought in the Rising, Denny Barry was an IRA member who wound up imprisoned at the Newbridge internment camp in October 1922. After a hunger strike started at Mountjoy Prison, word spread of the resistance, and Barry and others began their own protest of fasting. He lasted for 35 days before dying, only two days before the strike was called off.
  7. Bobby Sands: A volunteer with the IRA, Bobby Sands became famous for leading a hunger strike in the Maze prison in 1981. In March of that year, Sands began the strike (the culmination of years of protests) with a simple refusal of food. He also decided that other prisoners should perform hunger strikes at staggered intervals to draw out the strike and create maximum impact. The strike revolved around a series of demands, notably the prisoners’ desire to wear their own clothes and be free to associate with other prisoners and receive visitors and post. One of the things that made Sands such a famous hunger striker was the fact that he actually ran for and won position as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, an event that prompted the British government to pass the Representation of the People Act, which bars prisoners serving a term longer than one year from being nominated in elections. Sands’s strike last 66 days before he died; he was 27 years old. His death sparked riots, and more than 100,000 lined his funeral route.
  8. Cesar Chavez: Cesar Chavez was a towering figure in the farm labor movement and the co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, which would eventually become the United Farm Workers. In 1965, Filipino American farm laborers in Delano, California, initiated a strike for better wages, and Chavez supported them and soon led grape pickers on a march to the state capitol. The strike would run for five years. In 1968, Chavez underwent a 25-day hunger strike to drive the point home, and his actions helped turn the tide of the legislative battle in favor of the workers. In 1989, Chavez participated in another hunger strike, this one lasting 36 days, which he called his “Fast for Life” and used to protest the use of dangerous pesticides on farms.
  9. Mia Farrow: In 2009, actress and activist Mia Farrow began a hunger strike to protest the conflict in Darfur. She also blogged about her experience and posted video updates to YouTube (though these have since been switched to private). Before beginning the fast, she wrote that she planned to go for three weeks without food, but a doctor put an end to her strike after 12 days, citing severe health risks. With her blood sugar plummeting, she passed off the hunger strike to Richard Branson, who took over for three days.
  10. Tianenmen students: The 1989 student protests in China’s Tianenmen Square are largely remembered today for the iconic image of a lone man standing in front of a row of tanks. But the protests, which ran for weeks, also included the use of mass hunger strikes as people took to the square to protest a host of issues. In May, a group of 100,000 students and workers marched to demand better communication between the government and student-elected representatives. When the government rejected their requests, hundreds of students responded by going on hunger strikes for one week. Their activities in turn inspired students at campuses nationwide, and the hunger strikes helped them gain broader support while also showing to Chinese authorities just how serious these protests had become. Hunger strikes are never safe, but Tianenmen Square showed that they can make for powerful statements against oppression.

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