Thursday 30 May 2013

Centenary of a Suffragette's Supreme Sacrifice

Saturday, June 1st sees the running of the annual Epsom Derby horse race and marks the centenary of the death of one of the most famous British Suffragettes. Emily Wilding Davison was born on October 11th 1872 and was a woman with a fierce determination and belief in her ideals. She defied convention and earned herself, firstly a BA from Royal Holloway College (now part of London University) and then, some years later, a First Class Honours degree from Oxford.

She was born ahead of her time. Her beliefs and values were out of kilter with the male dominated society in which she found herself. Apart from discrimination shown to women in the field of education, her most vitriolic anger was directed at the continuing stubborn refusal of a Parliament comprised solely of males to allow women the vote. The government was happy enough to collect her taxes, but wouldn't allow her the right to say who was setting them!

Sadly, Emily and other likeminded women, received no support from the monarch either. Queen Victoria stated that she did not believe women should involve themselves in politics and therefore did not need the vote.

Emmeline Pankhurst
It was inevitable that, with such strong convictions, Emily would seek out others of similar mind, which drew her inexorably towards the Suffragette movement and into the sphere of the fearless and enigmatic Pankhursts. An ardent follower, Emily was all too ready to embark on their programme of civil disobedience, arson, and destruction of property. 

She joined Emmeline Pankhurst's Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906 and was imprisoned no less than nine times, for a month or more at a time, for crimes such as stone throwing, obstruction, breaking windows at the House of Commons, setting fire to post boxes and assaulting a vicar (a case of mistaken identity as she thought he was Chancellor the the Exchequer, David Lloyd George!). She also targeted Lloyd George on at least two further occasions, throwing stones at his car as he was travelling to a meeting and attempting to gain access to a Hall where he was delivering a speech.

As with many of the most militant suffragettes, a prison sentence meant an immediate refusal to east or drink. On one occasion, Emily barricaded herself in a prison cell to prevent her being force fed. The authorities responded by flooding her cell with ice cold water and then dragging her away, whereupon she would have had a tube forced up her nose, or down her throat into her stomach.

This inhuman and barbaric treatment was often ineptly executed, leading to the tube puncturing a lung or causing permanent injury and lifelong digestive, heart and breathing problems. Force feeding in this manner was enabled by the passing of the, so called, Cat and Mouse Act. Fellow militant, Sylvia Pankhurst suffered with serious digestive problems for the rest of her life, following repeated instances of force feeding, which occurred twice daily for the duration of the prison sentence, or until the hapless woman agreed to eat normally. Many held out until released at the end of their sentence. Emily was force fed 49 times.

On 2nd April 1911, she managed to spend the night hidden in a cupboard near the crypt chapel of the Palace of Westminster, to ensure that the census for that year recorded it as her home! Emily was nothing if not imaginative and resourceful.

Increasingly desperate to achieve her goal, there is hard evidence that Emily believed that suicide could be a serious consideration. Emmeline Pankhurst, in her autobiography, My Own Life said her fellow Suffragette believed that only loss of life 'would put an end to the intolerable torture of women.'

What went through her mind on that fateful afternoon of June 8th 1913, as the horses galloped around Tattenham Corner? Was it suicide? She was undoubtedly capable of it, but a number of factors mitigate against it. One has always been the presence of a return half of her rail ticket in her pocket and a holiday she was apparently taking in a couple of weeks time with her sister. It is also said that she could not possibly have been able to make out which was the King's horse (Anmer) from her vantage point. 

But perhaps the most compelling evidence that she merely wanted to attach something to Anmer's bridle comes in the form of a WSPU sash, retrieved from the scene at the time and, much later, sold to the writer Barbara Gordon at auction - where she bid against the Jockey Club. They obviously believed it to be genuine and a recent Channel 4 programme shows slowed down restored footage of the tragedy. At the moment she is hit by the horse, she is holding up something remarkably like a sash and appears to be trying to attach it to Anmer. For the King's horse to have crossed the finishing line wearing a sash, proclaiming 'Votes for Women' would have been a coup indeed!

The footage also shows her to be in a different position to that previously believed. It is now entirely possible she was able to see the horse's distinctive King's colours, and it is possible to see her move quickly and deliberately, under the fence and into the path of this one specific horse.

Her fatal mistake was in misjudging the speed at which they were galloping. She was knocked unconscious and died in hospital four days later, without waking from the coma into which she had sunk.
Emily Davison may not have meant to die on that day, but, given her passionate beliefs, I have no doubt she would have thought her death to be a sacrifice worth making.
Emily was buried in her hometown of Morpeth, Northumberland, where her memory is revered to this day. On her gravestone in the Church grounds, is the inscription by which she lived: 'Deeds not Words'.

Sadly, it took World War I for women's right to vote to be granted. This came in two stages, firstly in 1918 for all women 'of property aged over thirty' and then, finally, in 1928 women achieved full voting equality with men.
For a limited time, you can watch Clare Balding's fascinating Channel 4 documentary, Secrets of a Suffragette by clicking here