Like Anne Everest (Platform, 8 June) I had always believed that suffragette Emily Davison fatally threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. It was hailed by many as an act of martyrdom on behalf of the cause of votes for women.
A recent Channel Four documentary prompted me to think again about the circumstances of the campaigner’s death. Forensic analysis of newsreel film of the incident appeared to show that Ms Davison was able to identify the king’s horse from a vantage point behind the railings; that she came out and stood in front of it with a scarf (or banner) with the words “votes for women” on it; she seemed to want to attach it to the reins; the jockey tried to “jump” her, but they collided with tragic consequences.
Were her actions futile? Indeed, was the campaign of violence on property carried out by the Women’s Social and Political Union under Emmeline Pankhurst justifiable? Like many, I can understand their frustration in the face of the pre-First World War Liberal government’s intransigence. But Mrs Pankhurst proved to be the Establishment’s greatest ally once the war began.
The vote was granted to women over 30 with property in 1918 largely because she urged the dedication and support of women for the war effort. In 1928, a non-controversial act of parliament gave the vote to women over 21.
Ms Everest is right to point out the legacy of Emily Davison in terms of women’s education. Many questions still need to be asked, however, about whether her tactics and those of the WSPU were the right ones to help gain women’s suffrage.