Emily Wilding Davison 1872-1913

Former National CWO Chairman, Niki Molnar, writes on the 100th Anniversary of Emily's death

Much has been written and filmed about the demise of Emily Wilding Davison but what happened at Epsom Downs on Saturday June 5th 1913 will remain mere supposition, as we have no record of what Emily was trying to do, or why. Was she planning on dying? Did she care if she did? Was she trying to bring the horse down or pin a suffragette scarf to its neck?

The majority opinion is now that Emily was not trying to kill herself - she was brought down by racehorse galloping at 35mph - although even attempting to curtail a horse at that speed is pretty suicidal. It was a tragedy, whichever way you look at it, and unfortunately did little for women's suffrage - other than possibly expounding the myth that all suffragettes were loons.

Emily is an enigma: Why would someone with the inspired and quite brilliant idea of spending the night of the 1911 census hiding in a broom closet in the Palace of Westminster, end up broken and dying on a race course two years later?

Emily was born on the 11 October 1872 and studied at Royal Holloway College before earning enough as a governess and teacher to study Biology, Chemistry, English Language and Literature at St Hugh's College, Oxford. Women were not allowed to take degrees at the time but she still received first-class honours in her finals.

In 1906 Emily joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had been formed by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. These were the militant suffragettes - a different group from the more peaceful suffragists.

She quickly gained a reputation as a violent campaigner and without WSPU approval, Emily went from disrupting meetings to stone throwing and arson.

In 1909, she was sentenced to a month's hard labour in Strangeways Prison in Manchester after throwing rocks at the carriage of chancellor David Lloyd George. She attempted to starve herself, and resisted force-feeding. A prison guard, angered by Davison's blockading herself in her cell, forced a hose into the room and nearly filled it with water. Eventually, however, the door was broken down, and she was freed. She subsequently sued the wardens of Strangeways, and was awarded 40 shillings. (BBC History)

In June 1912, near the end of a six-month sentence in Holloway Prison for arson, she reacted to an episode when she and dozens of fellow Suffragettes were force-fed by throwing herself down a 10 metre iron staircase. Her intention, as she wrote afterwards, was to stop the suffering of everyone else by carrying out this action. As a result she suffered severe head and spinal damage, causing discomfort for the rest of her life. (Higher Magazine, Royal Holloway College, Issue 15, 2011 pp18-19)

To know what she had gone through in just a few years - plus the ever-increasing hopelessness that some suffragettes believed of their cause - one is able to sympathise with her state of mind when the King's horse, Anmar, raced around Tattenham Corner. It may have been suicidal but when someone has so much passion for a cause, so much hatred for the unwavering 'establishment', anger at being tortured and hopelessness that anything will change, a publicity stunt to shadow all others may be all that was left.

As for suffrage, did Emily's death from her injuries on the 8th June 1913 do anything for the cause? It's doubtful. What did more was the tragic circumstances of the Great War, when women took the place of the men in factories, offices and farms, showing themselves to be perfectly competent to vote and showing the anti-suffrage movement that women had a place in deciding the future of this country.

When we see news footage of women being killed in Afghanistan, Sudan, etc. for exercising their right to vote, we should remember every woman who has ever died for freedom and democracy and use that right at every chance we have.

Today, we remember Emily.

Niki Molnar, Former National Chairman, CWO

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