Emily Davison: The suffragette who died for her cause

Emily Davison on the ground (left) and the King's horse Anmer and his jockey (bottom right) Emily Davison on the ground (left) and the King's horse Anmer and his jockey (bottom right)

One hundred years ago Emily Wilding Davison was trampled upon by King George V's horse at the Epsom Derby and died from her injuries four days later. Her fellow suffragettes made her into an international martyr, but was this her own intention?

On 4 June 1913, a crowd of around 300,000 spectators were present at the Derby, when the race was interrupted.

A woman ran out onto the track in the path of the horses. Knocked down, she lay unconscious, bleeding. It was Emily Wilding Davison, a militant suffragette already well-known to the police.

The footage was captured on film and broadcast around the world.

The suffragettes main aim was winning the vote for women and "deeds not words" was their motto. True to it, they had let off bombs, smashed shop windows as well as numerous acts of arson.

Emily Wilding Davison (1872 - 1913)

Emily Wilding Davison
  • Gained a first-class honours in English at Oxford University, but could not graduate as degrees were closed to women
  • 1906: Joined the WSPU
  • 1909: Sentenced to a month's hard labour for throwing rocks at the chancellor's carriage
  • 1911: Was found "hiding in the crypt in the Houses of Parliament" on the night of the census, so she could put House of Commons as her official residence
  • 1912: Sentenced to six months in Holloway Prison for setting fire to a pillar box. While in prison she was force-fed after going on hunger strike

The more militant arm of the suffragette movement were determined to bring to awareness to their cause, in whatever way they could. Many were imprisoned and while there went on hunger strike. The governments response was force-feeding.

It is thought Emily herself was force-fed around 49 times and as a response to this she became increasingly radical.

In a book written by the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst - founder of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), she wrote how Emily believed that "the conscience of the people would awaken only to a sacrifice of human life".

She had once tried to commit suicide in prison, said Pankhurst, "by throwing herself head-long from one of the upper galleries, but she succeeded only in sustaining cruel injuries".

"She 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.

"And so she threw herself at the King's horse, in full view of the King and Queen... offering up her life as a petition to the King, praying for the release of suffering women…"

Emily never regained consciousness. Whether or not she intended to die that day for her cause remains a much debated issue.

Her possessions found on the day included a return railway ticket, writing paper, envelopes and stamps. These items were often carried by suffragettes in the event of their arrest, to write home to family.

She also had a ticket for a summer festival for the same day, and two WSPU flags pinned on the inside of her jacket. Some believed she had planned to pin a flag onto the King's horse, a theory that was explored in a Channel 4 documentary, Secrets of a Suffragette.

At the inquest into her death, given all this evidence, police reached the verdict of "misadventure" rather than suicide. Suicide was illegal at the time and would have brought considerable shame to her family.

Key dates for women's suffrage

  • 1867: MP John Stuart Mill supports equality for women in the Second Reform Act, but is defeated
  • 1903: The Women's Social and Political party, later referred to as the suffragettes, holds its first meeting
  • 1918: Representation of the People's Act allows women over 30 to vote
  • 1928: Women over 21 get the vote

Her fellow WSPU members gave her a martyr's funeral, which attracted thousands of sympathisers.

Professor June Purvis from the University of Portsmouth, has written extensively about suffragettes. She says we will never really know what she was thinking but it's clear that Emily had planned some sort of protest.

"Emily was a risk taker who deliberately engaged in her final militant act, knowing it may have fatal consequences. She risked her life to save her comrades from any further suffering."

"Many see her as a suicidal fanatic but others emphasise that she was a rational, intelligent woman who risked her life to bring the democratic right of the vote to women in Britain," adds Purvis.

One thing Emily did not leave behind was a note, but historian and biographer Dr Diane Atkinson - says her writings were her note.

"Her writings are apocalyptic, dark, dangerous and extreme. She was looking for martyrdom in her words.

"I think she was also quite depressed in the six months leading up to Derby day. She was short of money and couldn't get a job."

14 Jun 1913 - Funeral procession of Emily Davison Signs such as this, and "Give me liberty or give me death" were displayed at Emily's funeral

In an article by Emily - published posthumously - she had written that the cause needed the "last consummate sacrifice of a militant".

"She gave her movement a fantastic propaganda coup while she guaranteed her place in history. She wanted to be famous and remembered, and now her reputation lives on," says Atkinson.

But others believe that suicide was not her intention. Women's rights campaigner Dr Helen Pankhurst, who is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, does not think she was purposely seeking martyrdom.

The Suffragette Newspaper Emily pictured as an angel who "died for women"

She says the items Emily was carrying on Derby Day are clear indicators that she had planned to come out alive, and that she could not have known the positioning of the horses. They were of course travelling very fast.

Pankhurst adds that whether or not Emily planned suicide is "almost irrelevant" as she would have continued to take more and more radical militant action until the vote was won.

"The spirit was about whatever sacrifice was needed. As a single act [Emily's death] carries incredible visual and emotive power."

The suffragettes achieved more than just the vote, she says. They brought major change in social attitudes for the role of women in society and at home.

"Her death is also a poignant reminder of the inequalities that so many women experience today," says Prof June Purvis.

On the day of her funeral, mourners lined the streets, dressed in only black and white.

Whatever her intention, Emily Wilding Davison, through her action 100 years ago, is still remembered today as a symbol of the struggle faced by women in their fight for their right to vote.

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