The 4th June 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the accident at Epsom Derby where Emily Wilding Davison was hit by a horse, resulting in the loss of her life four days later. In dedication to the sacrifice she made to champion the women's right's movement, I (Susuana Antubam) submitted a motion at the Annual General Meeting calling for the Students' Union at Royal Holloway University of London (SURHUL) to lobby college to make a plaque to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison's death. This motion was unanimously passed by SURHUL. As the outgoing President of Royal Holloway Feminism Society and ULU Women's Officer, I am proud to have dedicated my final motion to Emily Wilding Davison. To remember the sacrifices she gave to the Women's Right's Movement, Vicky Iglikowski, a Royal Holloway Feminism Society Alumna has written an article about the great woman herself. This is also the 100th post on our blog :)
**Trigger Warning: state violence against women**
Emily Wilding Davison died 100 years ago today. She is a woman whose life has been defined by her death; a figure whose history has largely been constructed by people outside the last event of her life and whose image has developed in the popular imagination.
Often portrayed as hysteric and irrational the real woman contributed much more to the suffrage movement than the history books would have us believe; much more than one divisive act on Epsom Derby course. Emily held a unique position in the suffrage movement, aligned with the Women’s Social and Political Union but known as a militant ‘freelancer’ who worked outside the restrictions of what the authoritarian WSPU sanctioned. It was ‘freelancers’ that first instigated the hunger-strikes and window smashing later adopted as official WSPU policy. Emily rejected the Pankhursts’ authoritarian structures.
Emily was a complex figure, not merely a martyr. However, she is but one individual who has been singled out by history. In many ways her story is that of many militant suffragettes; each story unique but showing equal dedication to fighting for the vote.
Emily was born in Blackheath, London, with northern roots. She was raised with a sense of social responsibility, going with her sister and mother to deliver food parcels to the families of East End dockers when she was young. In 1891 she was granted a bursary for the study of literature at Royal Holloway College, where she studied for a short time between 1891-1893. In this period suffrage campaigns had been going for nearly half a century, however the most recognised and extensive part of the movement was just taking shape.
At RHC discussion and debate was encouraged amongst the all-female community. The lack of male students allowed freedoms and politicisation that would have been discouraged, or at least very male dominated, in a mixed college. The various debating societies were lively, and all girls had to be part of the mock parliament well into the twenitieth cnetury. Although no formal suffrage societies were formed at RHC until 1905 there were certainly many staff and students that were interested in gaining the vote before this. It is this climate in which Emily studied at RHC; one that actively encouraged women to think critically about society.
Upon the death of her father the family could no longer afford the £20 fees, and Emily had to leave the college, an issue still very relevant to the hierarchical education system today. She took a job as a governess on the strict conditions that she would have evenings free for her dedicated studies, and borrowed books from friends still attending the college. Through this determined effort she was able to gain a first class honours despite no longer attending the college, however it took over 10 years to gain her degree from the University of London when degrees were finally granted to women. Her degree emphasises two things; that to be able to study in higher education she had to be entirely dependent on a man, her father, for the funding. And even then when she completed her studies, gaining the highest level, she was not allowed a full degree due to her gender. It was possibly this that drove her into participating in the University Expansion movement and the Central Labour College, both which focused on working class education.
In 1906 Emily joined the WSPU in its early days of radicalism, and within 18 months had gained a paid position. However, her relationship with the leadership was always rocky. Along with other ‘freelance’ militants she challenged the WSPU, and pushed for more diverse, and often violent, methods. Her actions were habitually independent leading to her ostracisation within the WSPU, as Vera Di Campli San Vito notes this was ‘in keeping with her constant rejection of authority.’ The range of tactics she employed was varied and largely unauthorised, including arson, window smashing and even hiding in the House of Commons and humiliatingly entering as her address on the 1911 census.
However, her suffrage work extended far beyond the prison sentences and militancy. Her obituary by the WSPU emphasises her written work that is so often overshadowed. Such as articles on women who were considered figures of inspiration for the suffrage cause, including Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry and Hannah More, and a poem entitled “L’Envoi” written during one of her stints in Holloway which was included in a volume by Suffragette prisoners “Holloway Jingles”. Emily also reportedly wrote acts for plays, following in the tradition of many other Suffragettes in the arts.
Ultimately Emily was imprisoned eight times, often electing for prison sentence rather than a fine. One occasion lead Kier Hardy to object to the House of Commons when Emily decided to barricade her cell door to avoid force-feeding, and a hose pipe was put through the window dramatically filling the room with water to forcefully make the prisoner leave. Referring to this occasion Emily later wrote “The thought in my mind was that the moment for the sacrifice, which we have all agreed was probably be demanded, was at hand and, strange to say, I had no fear”. On another occasion in 1909 Emily was arrested with her associate Dora Marsden (founder of the Freewoman, a paper that campaigned for birth control and openly criticised the WSPU). Not only was Marsden force-fed but in refusing to wear the prison clothes she spent most of her time unclothed until she was forced into a strait jacket.
Emily was repeatedly force feed. It was a fate suffered by many. Vast numbers of suffragettes participated in the campaign to be classed as political prisoners by hunger striking. It was often forced upon them by the establishment of the WSPU. In her writings she described her first experience;
While they held me flat, the elder doctor tried all round my mouth with a steel gag to find an opening. On the right side of my mouth two teeth are missing; this gap he found, pushed in the horrid instrument, and prised open my mouth to its widest extent. Then a wardress poured liquid down my throat out of a tin enamelled cup…As I would not swallow the stuff and jerked it out with my tongue, the doctor pinched my nose and somehow gripped my tongue with the gag. The torture was barbaric.
In protest of the force-feeding and after listening to the screams of her fellow suffragette sisters, Emily repeatedly attempted to throw herself down a set of prison stairs onto metal railings. Referring to this occasion Emily later wrote “The idea in my mind was "one big tragedy may save many others".
On the 4th June 1913 in a last act of defiance Emily notoriously ran out in front of the King’s horse Amner at the Epsom Derby, and died 4 days later from her injuries. Whether her confrontation with the King’s horse on the 4th of June 1913 was planned, premeditated, intentional, spontaneous, or an act of suicide is irrelevant.Emily’s gesture at Epsom racecourse was not therefore an irrational act, but the culmination of a life time of dedication that always suggested she would be ready for the ultimate sacrifice.
Emily’s funeral was a huge spectacle, uniting attendees from many suffrage societies and a variety of trade unions, including gas workers’, dockers’ and general labourers’. Her death proved to have mass appeal, being one of the largest of all suffrage demonstrations, and one of the final suffrage gatherings on such a scale before the war. The imagery of the suffragettes marching in their colours of white, green and purple (now the Holloway colours) has had a lasting impact on the suffrage movement as a whole in the popular imagination. The WSPU’s hijacking of Emily as their Joan of Arc martyr is ironic given they often disagreed with her independent militant actions for the vote. It is, however, sad to note that it proved very difficult to find a clergy man willing to perform the funeral despite her lifelong religious convictions. Shortly after Emily’s death Kitty Marion and Clara Giveen lit a “beacon” for her, setting alight the Grand Stand of Hurst Park racecourse in both retaliation and in memory of their suffragette friend.
Emily was admirable for her activities but far from alone in taking direct action. The campaign for the suffrage encompassed hundreds of societies and amounted to a mass movement of women so vast it is beyond that which we can now comprehend. Over one thousand women were imprisoned, many like Emily on more than one occasion. She was the cause’s most explicit martyr but many others were willing to suffer great hardship. Many suffer medical difficulties derived from force-feeding. Thee suffragettes had already died from direct causes of state violence by the time of Emily’s death in 1913. Two of these deaths were direct consequences of Black Friday in which several hundred women were assaulted by Police when making a deputation to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, including the death of Henrietta H. Williams and Cecelia Wolseley-Haig. The third death, of Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister Mary Clark was due to force-feeding.
The actions of all these women and so many others show that to be involved in the campaign for the vote was a direct risk to their lives, and Emily was not the only one to understand that. Under the WSPU slogan “deeds not words” no one could deny there was great risk involved.
Emily Wilding Davison deserves to be admired, not purely as an individual, but part of a mass movement of women who reconstructed the role assigned to them by society, and smashed social expectations placed on women. It is a movement, that with hindsight, we should criticise, deconstruct and review; it was a movement plagued in fractions by classism, imperialism and pro-war attitudes. The women and men who fought for the suffrage teach us several lessons: the importance of organisation, the importance of diverse, creative tactics, and the retrospective need to be inclusive in our campaigning and strive for intersectionality unlike the majority of suffragettes. It was, however, a movement that not only gained the vote for women but challenged the archaic confines of gender identity.
Though we are now enfranchised we still lack a voice. The lesson we must learn from Emily’s life is that direct action is a vital aspect of political expression, and the best thing we could do in her memory is to learn how to use it.