Emily Davison and the Suffragette Movement

I thought I knew about the suffragettes, I’d read about them in history lessons, in stories … When I hear the word, ‘suffragette’, I think of women chaining themselves to railings, or the ‘madwoman’ who threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby.

Well, the Derby is upon us, and it’s the centenary of Emily Davison’s death, that ‘madwoman’, so there have been programmes and articles about her.  I confess I wasn’t sure if I’d been aware of her name before now.  And I certainly knew a lot less than I thought I did about the suffragette movement.

The programme on TV was interesting in that the latest forensic techniques were used to analyse the footage from the 3 newsreels that had recorded the race.  It was always assumed that it had been pure chance that she’d collided with the king’s horse, but even on the grainy footage, in black and white, it’s possible to see which one is the king’s jockey because he wore dark colours while the colours of the other riders were light.  Could it be possible that she’d targeted the king’s horse deliberately?  And if so, why?

Emily Davison was an educated woman who’d attended Royal Holloway College, which had been founded by Thomas Holloway, a self-made millionaire, and his wife, Jane, to promote education for women.  Following her father’s death a year later and subsequent money problems, she became a governess.  But she continued with her education and 2 years after she’d left the college, got a first class degree, and 12 years later, she got her Honours.

At that time, the ‘votes for women’ campaign had been around for 30 years, trying to negotiate the vote by constitutional means with no success.  What I find strange is that, New Zealand had granted women the vote in 1893, and Australia in 1902 – both countries were part of the British Empire.

In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded, promoting more direct action to campaign for the vote, their motto being ‘Deeds, Not Words’.  Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter, Christabel, were the driving force behind this more radical arm.  Emily Davison joined the WSPU in 1906.

The methods of the WSPU were drastically different to those of the ‘suffragists’, usually seen as the more moderate section of the suffrage movement.  The headlines in 1913 included: “Window breaking, Arson and Wilful Destruction …”; “Fire losses upwards of £380,000 …” (that would be in the £millions today).  At this point, I started to feel uneasy as it made me think of acts of terrorism.  Did the end justify this?

Suffragette demonstration 1910

In 1910, the suffrage movement believed that the Liberal government of Asquith was going to act in their favour, but the Suffrage Bill was abandoned.  This led to a new campaign of fire razing and bombings, with the suffragettes increasingly committing criminal acts and being imprisoned for their troubles.

Emily Davison went to prison 9 times.  When she and her fellow suffragettes were denied the status of political prisoners, they went on hunger strike and were subjected to brutal force feeding.  She herself suffered that agony 49 times.  I shan’t go into the stomach-churning details.

Going back to the restoration of the footage – it shows what happened, maybe a bit too clearly.  After all this time, it still has the power to shock; I’ve decided against including a link as it’s easy enough to find on Youtube.  The footage shows the horses racing past, Davison ducks under the fence before the king’s horse, Anmer, comes around the curve … it was thought that she stood right in front of Anmer and he couldn’t see her.  But the footage seems to show her a little more to the side, and from the horse’s position, especially of his front legs, he looks like he’s trying to jump her!  The footage also shows that she, possibly, had a better view of the oncoming horses than was previously thought.  And it seemed as if she was holding something … she lifts it up as the king’s horse comes closer …

She never recovered from the coma she’d fallen into, and died four days later on June 8th.   The ‘thing’ she was holding might have been her suffragette scarf; there is a light coloured item lying on the ground close to her.  It’s not mentioned in the police inventory of her belongings, and was apparently picked up by a clerk at the course and, later, given to his daughter.  It was bought at auction by a writer, and it’s now hanging in the Houses of Parliament.  The other bidder at the auction was The Jockey Club; why their interest?

We’ll never know what Emily Davison had meant to do, what she’d hoped to achieve that day … whatever conclusions people come to is all supposition.  Maybe she was going for the ultimate publicity stunt – having the king’s horse race past the finish post bearing the colours of the women’s suffrage movement.  If that had been her intention, then she misjudged terribly, the speed at which a galloping racehorse can move.

There’s a part of me that feels I should wholly, 100% admire this woman and her fellow suffragettes.  But their actions make me very uncomfortable.  I abhor terrorism, and the headlines in the suffragette’s own newspaper, a month before the Derby – “Train Fired at Teddington”; “Explosion in Manchester Free Trade Hall”; “Beware Dangerous Bomb”; “Railway Coach in Flames” … Terrible acts, which understandably hardened public opinion against them.  And at the end of the day, Emily Davison’s action and subsequent death can surely only be seen as pointless.  It didn’t bring the suffragettes any closer to their goal.

I have to wonder, was all that criminality necessary?  The women in NZ and Australia were granted the vote without resorting to any criminal activity.  And women weren’t the only ones denied the vote; in the UK, only 60% of male householders over the age of 21 had the vote.  The huge majority of soldiers who’d risked and lost their lives in World War I were not entitled to vote, and still couldn’t when they returned.  It was only for the long overdue General Election in 1918, that all adult males over 21were granted the vote, as were women over 30.  Possibly, an overriding factor was the Russian Revolution; the government could not chance the same thing happening in Britain.  In 1928, women were given the same electoral rights as men.

I was glad to read that the horse, Anmer, was not injured.  But, personally, I think the one who truly suffered was the jockey, Herbert Jones, even though he only suffered minor injuries and made a full recovery.  But he was never as successful as he’d been before that day; in 1900, he’d won the British Triple Crown, one of only 15 jockeys to have done so.  He never forgot Emily Davison and was said to have been haunted “by that woman’s face”.  He took his own life in 1951.

                         Herbert Jones