It hasn’t even been 100 years yet since women were given the right to vote in the UK. I always cast my vote now because of what the suffragettes went through back in the early 1900’s. As far as I’m concerned it wouldn’t be right to pass up on something that was fought for so valiantly by women such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, and also by the lady I’m concentrating on today, Emily Wilding Davison.
Emily Wilding Davison was born on October 11th 1872 in Blackheath, South London to a comfortable, middle-class family. At the age of nineteen, she attended Holloway College to study for the Oxford Honours School in English Literature but had to leave half-way through her course and find work when her father, the main family provider, died. After a period as a governess she was able to complete her studies at St Hugh’s Hall, a women’s college recently founded in Oxford, where she gained a First Class degree in English in 1893 (although at that time women could not actually take their degrees). She then took up employment as a schoolteacher, a not entirely happy experience, and so went back to working as a governess. Sylvia Pankhurst described her as being “tall and slender, with unusually long arms, a small narrow head and red hair”, and as having “whimsical green eyes and thin, half-smiling mouth”.
Emily joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, a women-only organisation that had been founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 to campaign for the parliamentary vote for women. From 1908, the campaigning colours of the ‘suffragettes’, as members of the WSPU were called, were purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope.
In 1909 Emily gave up teaching to devote herself full time to the women’s suffrage movement, also known as the suffragette movement. She was unafraid of the consequences of her political actions, willing to be arrested and ended up imprisoned several times on various protest-related offenses.
Emily spent a month in Manchester’s Strangeways Prison that same year. While in prison, she attempted a hunger strike. Many jailed suffragists went on hunger strikes to protest against the government’s refusal to classify them as political prisoners. She barricaded herself in a cell for a time, but he guards flooded her cell with water. Later writing about the experience, she stated, “I had to hold on like grim death. The power of the water seemed terrific, and it was cold as ice,” according to the journal Social Research.
Another of Emily’s militant campaigns for the vote included setting fire to post boxes in late 1911 using coarse linen soaked in kerosene. She was sentenced to six months in prison and was not given leave to appeal. Suffragists were treated brutally in prison, and those who went on hunger strikes became subject to being force-fed. Over the course of Emily’s campaigns she was force fed 49 times in prison, and even thought that she could end the abuse of her fellow suffragists by jumping off a prison balcony. She later explained her idea, stating, “The idea in my mind was that one big tragedy may save many others.”
This must have been her way of thinking when on June 4, 1913, she attended the Epsom Derby with the intent of advancing the cause of women’s suffrage, bringing with her two suffragette flags. After the race began, Emily ducked under the railing and strode onto the track. She put her hands up in front of her as Anmer, a horse belonging to King George V, made its way toward her. King George V and Queen Mary were watching this spectacle unfold from their royal box.
The horse crashed into Emily and struck her in the head. The jockey riding Anmer was also injured, but the horse was unhurt. Emily was taken from the track and brought to a nearby hospital. Never regaining consciousness, she died four days later on June 8, 1913 from a fractured skull and internal injuries. Press reports criticized her actions as the act of a madwoman, but suffragist newspapers hailed her as a martyr for the cause. Whether she intended to commit suicide at the derby has been debated for years. Some think it was accidental as Emily had bought a round-trip train ticket to go home after the event. In any case, supporters of the Votes for Women campaign turned out by the thousands for her funeral procession. Her body was laid to rest in Morpeth, Northumberland. Her gravestone reads “Deeds not Words,” a popular suffragist motto.
Roughly 15 years after her death, Emily’s dream was finally realised. Britain gave women the right to vote in 1928.