Emily Davison: Making of a feminist martyr

Suffragettes hailed the bravery of Emily Davison’s suicidal protest, but historians paint a more complex picture, writes Dani Garavelli
Emily Davison is fatally injured as she tries to stop the King's horse 'Amner' on Derby Day. Picture: GettyEmily Davison is fatally injured as she tries to stop the King's horse 'Amner' on Derby Day. Picture: Getty
Emily Davison is fatally injured as she tries to stop the King's horse 'Amner' on Derby Day. Picture: Getty

ON JUNE 13, 1913, thousands of suffragettes gathered in the streets of London to honour the movement’s first and only martyr, Emily Wilding Davison, who died days after falling under George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.

Although Davison had been seen as extreme even by the militant Women’s Social and Political Union and had been acting alone, they claimed her as their new figurehead. Clad in white dresses and carrying wreaths, they formed a cortege, processing behind the coffin from Victoria Station down Buckingham Palace Road, through Piccadilly to a service at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, before heading to King’s Cross Station, where she was sent on her final journey to her resting place in Northumberland.

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One photograph shows crowds of onlookers, both male and female – a sea of boaters and homburgs and bowlers and cloche hats – watching respectfully as a group holding a banner reading “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” passes by.

A memorial procession for the suffragette, Emily Davison, passing through Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Picture: GettyA memorial procession for the suffragette, Emily Davison, passing through Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Picture: Getty
A memorial procession for the suffragette, Emily Davison, passing through Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Picture: Getty

Elsewhere, the reaction to Davison’s dramatic act was less sympathetic; as sports lovers berated her for disrupting the carnival atmosphere of the day, the King’s mother, Alexandra, wrote to injured jockey Herbert Jones to commiserate over the “sad accident caused by the abominable conduct of a brutal, lunatic woman”. In newspapers such as The Times more concern was expressed for the horse, Anmer, than for Davison, who was portrayed as an unstable extremist rather than a crusader for justice, while the Daily Herald published a cartoon of her as a skeleton, wielding a “Votes For Women” placard.

But the suffragette movement capitalised on the publicity generated by her death, presenting an alternative vision of her as a woman who sacrificed her life to help right a social injustice. Within the space of a few months, feminist writer Gertrude Colmore had produced a biography replete with florid and apocryphal stories from her childhood aimed at turning her into an icon.

To an extent it was successful. Today – almost 100 years on – there can be few who do not know what Davison did; the fact you can now view the news footage of her slipping under the barrier and falling under Anmer’s hooves on YouTube has added potency to her story. And yet her legacy continues to be problematic. On Tuesday, her contribution to the fight for suffrage will be honoured at a reception in the House of Commons, where she famously hid in a cupboard to avoid being counted on the 1911 census. But, though a plaque in Davison’s honour was recently unveiled at Epsom Downs racecourse, officials angered contemporary feminists by refusing to hold a minute’s silence in her memory at yesterday’s Derby, suggesting they are still not entirely at ease with her ­actions.

In recent years, there has been much debate over Davison’s intentions when she ran out as the horses rounded Tattenham Corner. Was she committing suicide or trying to make a political statement by pinning the suffragettes’ colours on to Anmer as the King looked on? There are doubts too over the long-term impact of her martyrdom: did her decision to hijack the most prestigious sporting event of the year advance or hinder the cause? Most controversially, in a world under threat from suicide bombers, should Davison be viewed as a freedom fighter or a kind of terrorist?

“When I suggested Davison was the first suicide bomber on a radio show last year, people got really hysterical about it,” says historian and writer Diane Atkinson, who curated the Purple, White and Green exhibition on the suffragettes in the Museum of London. “Of course, I’m not equating suffrage with extreme Islamic protest, but I do think her actions were quite like those of a lone suicide bomber in that she was stepping out and away from the organisation and making the protest her own; and that she was blowing the protest up in front of people who were really important.”

Others, including June Purvis, professor of gender history at Portsmouth University, see Davison more as a risk-taker whose experience of brutal force-feeding during spells in prison and the government’s intransigence on the issue had convinced her an act of great sacrifice was required to put an end to the barbarity.

Whatever your stance on Davison’s position, it is clear it was born of her own frustrations with the limitations imposed on women in the early 20th century. The first legitimate child of her father’s second marriage, she had to battle to gain the education she craved. Although she attended Kensington High School, her studies at Royal Holloway College were cut short when her father died, leaving her mother unable to pay the fees. So she took the only path available to clever women at the time, becoming first a teacher, then a governess. She saved enough to go to Oxford University, where she achieved first-class honours in her final exams, but at that time women couldn’t gain degrees there like men. “I think that was a formative influence on her because it gave her an insight into how women were secondary creatures,” says Purvis.

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After returning to work as a governess, ­Davison became increasingly interested in the suffragette movement, joining the Pankhursts’ WSPU in 1906 and leaving her job to campaign full-time in 1908. Quickly gaining a reputation for violence, she was arrested for an attack on a man she mistook for Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George in Aberdeen and came up with the idea of setting fire to pillar boxes.

By the time she stepped onto the racetrack at the Epsom Derby, Davison had served nine jail sentences, and been repeatedly force-fed. The sanitised images of placard-bearing suffragettes in pretty lace petticoats that dominate history books obscure the suffering they endured at the hands of the state as warders held them down, forced their mouths open with steel gags and inserted tubes down their throats. On one occasion, after Davison barricaded herself in her cell, a warder stuck a hosepipe through the window and began filling it up with water.

“The force-feeding was horrendous experience for her because she felt it was torture,” says Purvis. “She couldn’t bear to hear the screams of her friends when they were being held down or the way they vomited once the tubes were removed.” Yet the government’s answer to growing concern over this dehumanising treatment was to introduce the Cat and Mouse Act – legislation that allowed the state to release the women when they became weak from starvation, only to rearrest them when they started to regain their health.

According to Atkinson, the movement’s growing militancy was driven by the women’s experiences in jail. “It was hearing about what was going on and being politicised by that whole prison experience kept the thing going – it encouraged women to go out and do more outrageous things because they got so wound up by it,” she says.

Even by the standards of the more militant suffragettes, however, Davison was regarded as excitable and reckless, particularly when it came to her own well-being. She threw herself over the railings at Holloway Prison three times, landing safely on the netting below on the first two occasions and injuring her head and back on the third.

As her behaviour grew more extreme, she found it increasingly difficult to get work; ­although she was an accomplished writer – ­penning short stories, speeches and letters to newspapers – editors shied away from giving her a column and the WSPU, which disapproved of members endangering their own lives, would not employ her as an organiser. By 1913, she was struggling to make ends meet. “It always strikes me as the saddest thing that among her papers are the dog-eared testimonials which were returned to her days before the Derby with an accompanying letter telling her she was over-qualified for a secretarial job,” says researcher Elizabeth Crawford, who runs the website www.womanandhersphere.com on the suffrage movement.

Though her inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death, Davison’s growing desperation and the way she spattered her writing with the language of martyrdom has convinced some that she set out to kill herself at the Derby. Others have pointed to the fact she bought a return ticket and left no note as evidence that she expected to survive. So preoccupied have some experts become with the question of suicide that whole documentaries have been made to examine the conflicting theories. In Channel 4’s documentary Secrets Of A Suffragette, Crawford quickly exposed the return ticket as a red herring after discovering that the race was such an important social event normal train services were suspended and special day excursions introduced, making it likely that only return tickets were available.

More convincing clues have been found by analysing the few seconds of film which show Davison running on to the track; examined closely, they seem to show she had successfully identified the King’s horse and was trying to grab its reins when she fell. The fact she was carrying writing paper and stamps lends weight to the theory she expected to be arrested rather than killed.

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It is possible, however, that the truth lies somewhere in the middle; that, while she didn’t set out deliberately to kill herself, she was prepared to die. “Davison was a deeply committed Anglican, kept a Bible by her bedside and wrote a piece called ‘The Christ of Liberty’ in which she talks about the suffering of Christ on the cross and how the true militant would be willing to give up her life for the woman’s cause,” says Purvis.

“Having said that, as an Anglican, she would have known that if she committed suicide she wouldn’t have been buried on consecrated ground, so it’s not clear-cut. I don’t see it as suicide in the normal sense, I see her as a risk-taker willing to give her life to save her comrades from further torture and to draw attention to the King that her cause was just.”

Also unresolved is the question of whether Davison’s act furthered or held back the fight for suffrage. On the one hand, the newspapers’ depiction of her as a wild lunatic may have alienated some of those in the mainstream who were sympathetic to the cause and prompted the government to dig in its heels so it would not be seen as bowing to extremists. On the other, the way the movement harnessed the publicity her deeply symbolic act generated to raise awareness gave it fresh momentum. One of the reasons it is difficult to assess the impact Davison had is that just over a year later the First World War broke out and the WSPU suspended its activities. As the war neared an end, the contribution women had made to the war effort was formally acknowledged in the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave women over 30 who were householders or married to householders the vote.

With so much going on, the story of Davison’s martyrdom could easily have been forgotten. But a loyal band of friends formed the Emily Davison group, collecting memorabilia such as her writings, her race card and a letter written by her mother while she lay unconscious at ­Epsom Cottage Hospital to keep her in the public consciousness.

Unfortunately, Davison also lived on in the memory of jockey Herbert Jones, who said he was forever haunted by her face. He committed suicide in 1951 – a reminder Davison’s rebellion was not a victimless crime. And yet, there is something undeniably noble about her sacrifice. At the House of Commons reception on Tuesday, Crawford will read an eyewitness account of her funeral service written by Kate Parry Frye, whose diaries she has edited. “To think she [Davison] had to give her life because men won’t listen to reason and justice,” the suffragette says. It’s a poignant tribute to a woman for whom the WSPU maxim “Deeds Not Words” – on her gravestone – was more than just a slogan. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1

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