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Emily Wilding Davison – Suffragette Martyr?

By Dr. Jennifer Frangos, Department of English

On a recent visit to the Museum of London with a friend, I found myself in front of a display case of artifacts from the Women’s Suffrage movement in Britain in the 1910s. (If you’re a PBS drama fan, you’ll remember the WSPU protest marches along Oxford Street in Mr. Selfridge and, of course, the backdrop of the women’s rights movement filtering subtly through Downton Abbey.) The museum has a significant collection of fascinating objects from this period, especially items relevant to the incarceration of suffragettes who had been arrested during protests or as a result of actions designed to call attention to their cause — including medals awarded to incarcerated suffragettes by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and Florence Hill’s prison diary, written on toilet paper.

But one of the most captivating parts of the suffrage exhibit is the loop of newsreel footage showing Emily Wilding Davison stepping in front of galloping horses on June 4th, 1913, at the Epsom Derby. She was struck and trampled and died four days later of her injuries. (You can see one newsreel version in this video: ; this is not the version in the Museum of London’s exhibit.) Davison was a member of the WSPU, and had been arrested many times for protests, throwing stones, setting fire to mail boxes, planting bombs, and once for attacking a man she thought was a member of Parliament (Davison denied this charge, which suggests that she wasn’t responsible for this incident, for she accepted responsibility for every other action she was charged with). While incarcerated, as many suffragettes were wont to do, she engaged in hunger strikes as protest to the treatment she and others were subjected to. Initially, prison officials would release hunger strikers, for fear that their deaths while in custody would reflect poorly on the government; eventually, policy shifted to forced feedings and later, under legislation called “The Cat and Mouse Act,” to a process of allowing the hunger strike to progress to dangerous stages, then releasing the striker on the condition that she return to prison once she had sufficiently recovered to tolerate incarceration again, at which point she was usually arrested and her sentence picked up from where it left off. Davison was force-fed 49 times while incarcerated, including on occasions when she wasn’t on a hunger strike but prison officials had determined that her health was fragile enough that she needed intervention if she were to survive through her sentence. She described the experience, in no uncertain terms, as torture.

There has been much debate about Davison’s motivations and plans for the Epsom Derby protest; some believe that she was trying to kill herself in order to become a martyr to the cause of women’s rights, while others maintain that she meant to slip a flag or banner over the king’s horse as a publicity stunt. Much has been made of the fact that she bought a return train ticket from Victoria station (though apparently it wasn’t possible to buy a one-way ticket), left no suicide note or communication for her mother, and had plans to volunteer and attend a lecture later that week — so she must have thought she would be returning home after her protest. Others point to her increasingly militant activities and to the fact that in June of 1912, in the midst of a program of force-feeding of a number of suffragettes, Davison threw herself down an iron staircase in Holloway Prison as a protest of the treatment of her fellow inmates — which must be evidence of suicidal tendencies prior to the 1913 Derby (though in an account she wrote of the experience that was published after her death, she records that she told the prison’s Governor that “I thought that one big tragedy would save the others”). There are anecdotes of her “drawing the short straw” for a mysterious, unspecified action planned by a local suffragette group, and of her practicing catching the bridles of moving horses near her mother’s house in Northumberland. A hagiographical biography published shortly after her death suggests that there was a growing consensus among the radical protesters that eventually someone would need to die for the cause. Recent analysis of three separate newsreels of the Derby seem to indicate that she was reaching for the bridle of the king’s horse and holding a WSPU “Votes for Women” banner when the horse knocked her down, so it seems clear that she was intending to stop and bedeck the king’s horse with the WSPU colors — but whether or not she believed that she would walk away from this protest remains unclear.

Davison was almost instantly dubbed the “suffragette martyr” and compared to Joan of Arc. The funeral procession through London, on June 14th, included 6000 women’s rights supporters, was watched by more than 50,000 people, and stopped traffic throughout the city. Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement and founder of the WSPU, was arrested as she left her house that morning to join the funeral, but the funeral’s organizer had Pankhurst’s empty carriage ride in the parade anyway in symbolic protest. Davison’s coffin was taken by train to Morpeth, Northumberland, where a second parade and funeral service were held the next day, involving another 20,000 onlookers. She was buried in the family plot, under the motto “Deeds Not Words.”

This year, with the 100th anniversary of her death, there has been renewed interest in her story, and renewed debate about her motivations. The UK television station Channel Four aired a documentary in May, including the analysis of newsreel footage I mentioned above. Michael Tanner published a book, The Suffragette Derby, including his own analysis of the newsreels, which points more toward suicide. A plaque was unveiled at the race track, and there was a petition to hold a moment of silence at this year’s race (which was considered, though not enacted due to logistic and practical concerns). Local officials in Northumberland announced plans to restore Davison’s gravesite and memorial as well. In the words of a fellow suffragette, Gertrude Colmore, we would all do well to remember Emily Wilding Davison, “who died that other women might find it possible to live truer, happier lives; who fought that other women might have freedom; who gave herself to the Woman’s Cause, without grudging and without fear, convinced, as every apostle of liberty has been convinced, that rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God, and never doubting that God will give the victory” (60–61).

Works Cited:

Colmore, G. The Life of Emily Davison: An Outline. London: The Woman’s Press, 1913. Print. Rept. in Stanley, Liz and Ann Morley. The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison. London: The Women’s Press, 1988. Print.

See also:

Atkinson, Diane. “Deeds Not Words.” New Statesman (6 June 2005). Web.

Chancellor, Deborah. The Perfect Rebel: The Life and Death of Emily Davison. Edinburgh: Barrington Stoke, 2010. Print.

Davison, Emily Wilding. Personal Papers. Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.

Sleight, John. One-Way Ticket to Epsom: A Journalist’s Enquiry into the Heroic Story of Emily Wilding Davison. Morpeth, Bridge Studios, 1988. Print.

Social and Working History Collection. Museum of London.

Tanner, Michael. “The Violent Zealot of Women’s Lib.” The Week (8 Jun 2013): 53. Print.