Edith Cavell - Nurse and WWI Martyr | Margaret Sanger - Pioneer in Birth Control and Women's Rights | Lisa Potts - Schoolyard Heroine | Flora Sandes - Heroine of the Great War | The Night Witches - Russian Combat Pilots of World War Two | Lillie Hitchcock-Coit - Firefighter | Emily Wilding Davison - Suffragette | Caroline Chisholm - The Emigrants' Friend | Grace Darling - the Lighthouse Heroine
Emily Wilding Davison, an influential woman in the suffragette movement, was the first women to die for this cause. The daughter of Charles and Margaret Davison, Emily was born at Blackheath on 11 October, 1872. She performed well at school and won a place at Royal Holloway College, but was forced to leave when her father died, as her mother was no longer able to pay the fees. Emily worked as a schoolteacher until she was able to finance her tuition for London University. Despite the oppositions facing her in a male-dominated society, she graduated with a BA. When she was 23 she attended St Hugh's College at Oxford University. She studied for one term, from April 1895 to June 1895, and obtained a First Class degree in Modern Languages. She then continued her teaching career working for a family in Berkshire.
Emily was unhappy due to the limited opportunities available to women, and the Women's Social and Political Unit (WSPU), founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, caught her interest. The WSPU were largely concerned with women's suffrage; many women felt that being refused the right to vote made them second-class citizens. Emily joined the organisation in 1906, and soon afterwards she began militant attacks. Like many suffragettes at this time, Emily is said to have been found in the House of Commons hiding in air ducts and other such places. No one has ever uncovered any Guy Fawkes-like plots on the part of the suffragettes, though - it is believed they were there purely to listen to Parliament. Emily quickly became the head steward and soon after gave up work to devote more time to the WSPU.
In March 1909, Emily attempted to hand a petition to the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. She was arrested, found guilty of disturbance and sentenced to one month in prison. Four months later, Emily attempted to gain access to a hall where David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was giving a speech. She was imprisoned, this time for two months. However, she was released early after going on a hunger strike. She was then arrested again in September 1909 for throwing rocks. Again, the sentence was for two months, but she was released early due to her refusal to eat.
Then in October 1909, just days after leaving prison, Emily and two other women, May Leigh and Constance Lytton, were caught throwing stones at a car that was taking David Lloyd George to a meeting. The stones were wrapped in paper bearing Emily's favourite saying: 'Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.' The women were arrested and, after being found guilty, were sentenced to labour at Strangeways Gaol. They attempted a hunger strike, but the authorities took action to force-feed them. Emily barricaded her cell with prison furniture in an attempt to escape this. A prison officer, angered by Emily's attempt to avoid force-feeding, flooded her cell with ice-cold water. She would have died, and was apparently willing to become a martyr to her cause, but workmen managed to break down the door. The public were appalled by Emily's treatment in prison and James Keir Hardie, the leader of the Labour Party discussed the incident in Parliament. Emily took legal action against the prison officers responsible. She won and was awarded forty shillings.
In January 1912, Emily carried out what was seen by many as her most violent attack yet: she set fire to London post boxes and was imprisoned for ten months. While in prison, Emily threw herself from an upper floor gallery. She truly believed that the only way to make people acknowledge the suffragette cause was to become a martyr. She was seriously injured but realised that dying in jail would not serve her purpose. The authorities were already concerned about the possibility of a woman becoming a martyr for the suffragettes, and introduced the Prisoners' Temporary Discharge for Health Act1 to prevent such an incident occurring through organised resistance such as a hunger strike. The act gave the police powers to free a suffragette if she went on hunger strike and then arrest her again when she regained her strength. Emily felt that if she died in jail, the authorities would somehow explain it away or cover it up. She had to be in control of where and how she died in the name of the suffragettes' cause.
Emily was arrested one final time in November 1912 after attacking a vicar she believed to be David Lloyd George and received ten days in prison.
The Epsom Derby
The Epsom Derby took place on 4 June, 1913. It was the social event of the year. Royalty were present and actively involved: the King had entered a horse named Anmer. Emily was also at the event, planning a public protest. As the horses turned into the home straight, Anmer was in third from last position. Emily slipped under the barrier onto the track and stopped in the horse's path. She attempted to take the reins, but the horse hit Emily with full force. The jockey, Herbert Jones, was thrown from the horse. He suffered a fractured rib, a bruised face and a concussion, but he soon returned to Newmarket in good health. The horse, Anmer, got to his feet and completed the race without his jockey.
Emily suffered a fractured skull and was taken to Epsom College Hospital, where it became clear that she was seriously injured. The doctors called for a consultant surgeon to assist them, but it was too late. Emily Wilding Davison died four days later, on 8 June, 1913, from considerable internal injuries. She was 40 years old.
Her funeral procession was led slowly from Victoria to Kings Cross station. Thousands of suffragettes, dressed in white, gathered to say their sad farewell. Emily was buried at Morpeth Church, in the family vault, beneath a purple cross inscribed by her mother, 'Welcome home the Northumbrian hunger striker'.
Sadly, it seems that Emily may have inadvertently made the position for women in Britain at the time worse. Many previous supporters of the suffragettes were so horrified by Emily's actions they stopped supporting the movement. Emily's death did not bring the suffragettes' cause to light in the way she had wanted. The public disregarded her actions as those of a mentally ill fanatic. The Herald printed a ghastly cartoon portraying a skeleton dressed in women's clothing holding a 'Votes for Women' placard. The public were more concerned with the health of the jockey and the horse than the suffragettes' cause. The newspapers printed information about the horse and jockey. The Times commented that the horse had 'suffered bruised shins'.
A year later, in the spring of 1914, Britain was pulled into war, the suffragettes put their cause on hold and Emily was mostly forgotten. All women over the age of 21 eventually won the right to vote on 27 May, 1928, with the passing of the Equal Franchise Bill2.
Perhaps Emmeline Pankhurst best sums up Emily's actions in her autobiography My Own Story:
Emily Davison clung to her conviction that one great tragedy, the deliberate throwing into the breach of a human life, would put an end to the intolerable torture of women.
Emily's headstone is inscribed with the WSPU motto, 'Deeds not words', an epitaph that describes her life well.