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This editorial reflects on the life of Emily Wilding Davison — , a suffragette in Edwardian Britain, who died on 8 June after running on to the race course at the Derby, four days earlier, and trying to grab the reins of the King's horse, Anmer. Rather than seeing her as a suicidal fanatic, it is suggested that she was a sensible, level-headed, religious woman, a risk-taker who probably did not intend to die.
It was years ago this year that the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, a member of the Women's Social and Political Union WSPU , the most notorious of the groupings campaigning for the parliamentary vote for women in Edwardian Britain, died. One small group of horses galloped past, running swiftly towards the winning post, but as a second group approached, she ducked under the railing, raised her hands and tried to grab the reins of the King's horse, Anmer.
With great force, Anmer knocked her over, rolled on his back, kicking her furiously. Emily suffered a fractured skull, severe concussion and internal injuries. Taken to Epsom Cottage Hospital, she was operated on to relieve pressure on the brain. She never recovered and died four days later. Emily Davison has been perpetuated in popular culture as an unbalanced, suicidal fanatic. But was she? Was her death accidental, as the coroner of the day concluded?
And who was she? Emily Davison was born into a comfortable middle-class home on 11 October , in Blackheath, Kent, to where the Davison family had travelled from Morpeth, Northumberland, a short time before her birth. Her father, Charles Edward Davison, a widower with nine children, had married Margaret Caisley in and Emily was born four years later.
While she was still a baby, Emily and her eleven siblings were moved from Blackheath to a country house near the village of Sawbridgeworth, in the border land of Hertfordshire and Essex. A high spirited, daring, affectionate and impulsive child, the leader among her siblings, she appears to have cared little for dolls but enjoyed playing soldiers and organising battles. On returning home, the thirteen year old Emily became a pupil at Kensington High School where she remained, except for a year at Lausanne learning French, until The bright Emily thrived at the High School where she excelled in English literature, French and drawing.
She was also keen on physical exercise, especially cycling, dancing, skating and swimming. At the age of nineteen, she was awarded a bursary to attend Holloway College to study for the Oxford Honour School in English Literature. The unhappy Emily was forced to leave Holloway and take up work as a resident governess. Determined to develop her talents, she saved enough to pay for a term at St. Something of the exuberant side of her nature may be seen in her reaction to the news of this success which arrived while she was at Longhorsley.
She found them playing on the village green whereupon she opened the jar and flung the contents into the air, much to the children's delight. The range of jobs open to a university-educated woman of her day were severely restricted and so Emily, like many of her peers, became a schoolteacher, a not entirely successful experience. From —, she went back to working as a governess. Her illusive, whimsical green eyes and thin, half-smiling mouth, bore often the mocking expression of the Mona Lisa.
She would sometimes stand in a London street, collecting money for the wives and children of the unemployed or poor. After three years of juggling her teaching with her suffrage work she decided to devote all her time to the women's movement—and faced financial insecurity for the rest of her life, partly offset by the warmth and support of a web of close friendships that included other suffragettes, such as Mary Leigh, Rose Larmartine Yates and Eleanor Penn Gaskell.
She was imprisoned eight times, went on hunger strike seven times and was forcibly fed forty-nine times. Unable to prise open the door, the prison authorities put a hose pipe through the cell window, pouring in icy water with great force. Released eight days after her sentence, she won her case against the authorities for breaching prison regulations in turning the hose pipe on her.
This imprisonment was a formative moment in her life. Determined on political protest, Emily managed during and to evade the security staff at the House of Commons and hide there on three separate occasions, once in the hot-air shaft and twice in the crypt. In June , Emily ed other hunger-striking suffragettes in Holloway prison who, earlier that year, had engaged in mass window smashing. Yet again, she attempted to stop the forcible feeding of her friends.
But this time, on three separate occasions, she threw herself over the landing railings. Overcome by five sturdy wardresses, she was forcibly fed. Summoning all her courage, she then threw herself from the netting onto an iron staircase, a drop of about 10 feet. If I had succeeded I am sure that forcible feeding could not in all conscience have been resorted to again.
Such a spiritual victory would eventually convince men of the justice of their cause. At the end of November , Emily was arrested in Aberdeen for attacking with a dog whip a Baptist minister, whom she had mistaken for Lloyd George, a government minister. Recuperating at Longhorsley, in January , the hard-up Emily was looking for work.
Further, it largely operated as an underground movement since it was increasingly adopting illegal, violent tactics, including secret arson—although non-violent forms of protest were still evident, such as protests in churches.
On hearing of Emily Davison's death, the shocked and saddened WSPU leadership identified her as a martyr for the women's cause. Five thousand women from all over Britain, most in white dresses with black armbands, marched in the funeral procession in London on 14 June, the last of the great suffragette spectacles Figures 2 and 3. The ill Emmeline Pankhurst, determined to attend, was rearrested as she stepped into the street from the flat where she was being nursed. After the coffin was carried into St.
George's Church, Bloomsbury, for a short memorial service, it was conveyed to King's Cross Station where it was taken by train to Morpeth for burial in St. Mary's churchyard Figure 4. Figure 2. Figure 3. Emily Wilding Davison's funeral procession through London, 14 June So was Emily Wilding Davison an unbalanced suicidal fanatic?
Certainly, some male historians have thought so. As her modern biographers Anne Morley and Liz Stanley argue, Emily Wilding Davison was a sensible woman with a coherent philosophy who deliberately undertook her final militant act, knowing it might have fatal consequences. After all, she had bought a return ticket to Epsom, indicating she intended to travel back home. However, is that the whole story? Most present day feminist assessments, with their secular bias, give little attention to Emily's religious convictions. But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant!
It is important to remember that the suffragette movement had not only a political secular motive but also a much broader spiritual agenda. Suicide would have meant that she, a deeply committed Anglican, could not be buried in consecrated ground. Although we will never know what went through her mind that fateful day, the suffragettes understood her action, a desperate measure undertaken by a clever, level-headed woman for the cause of democracy.
It is fitting that we, and many others throughout the world, remember Emily Wilding Davison, a courageous woman who years ago left her imprint on British history. Most of the following details are taken from Colmore. For an aimed at schoolchildren, see Claudia Fitzherbert Emily Davison: the girl who gave her life for her cause London: Short Books. Entry on Emily Wilding Davison in A. Gay L. Cicely B. Kerr; and undated invitation, quoted in Abrams, Emily Wilding Davison, p. Gullickson, Emily Wilding Davison, pp.
Abrams, Emily Wilding Davison, p. Morley with Stanley, The Life and Death , p. Recommended articles lists articles that we recommend and is powered by our AI driven recommendation engine. Cited by lists all citing articles based on Crossref citations. Articles with the Crossref icon will open in a new tab. Search in: This Journal Anywhere. Advanced search. Women's History Review Volume 22, - Issue 3. Journal home. June Purvis Correspondence june. s Published online: 22 Apr Remembering Emily Wilding Davison — Remembering Emily Wilding Davison — All authors.
June Purvis. Published online: 23 May Figure 1. Emily Wilding Davison's degree award photograph. Display full size. Figure 4. Emily Wilding Davison's grave, Morpeth, June West The Life of Emily Davison, p. Letter from E. D to the Editor, Votes for Women , 11 June , p. Votes for Women , 5 November , p. Votes for Women , 29 December , p. Colmore, The Life of Emily Davison , p. Letter to the editor, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , 21 September Daily Herald , 10 June Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst , pp.
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