Emily Davison: Votes for women's Derby Day 'martyr'

Woman dressed in Votes for Women colours at the unveiling of Emily Davison plaque at Epsom A supporter dressed in Votes for Women colours was at the unveiling of the plaque in April

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A crowd of more than 100,000 people were on Epsom Downs to see some of the finest racehorses in the world round Tattenham Corner in this year's Derby.

The horses thundered past a plaque commemorating the moment 100 years ago when suffragette Emily Wilding Davison ran on to the course and was knocked to the ground by King George V's colt Anmer.

Davison died from her injuries four days later in Epsom Cottage Hospital, and the suffragettes quickly established her as a martyr for votes for women.

A stage-managed funeral procession in London attracted large numbers of spectators.

But what drove this middle-class woman to such a desperate act and how should she be remembered today?

Dr Alex Windscheffel, a historian at Royal Holloway, University of London in Egham, Surrey, believes she was heavily influenced by her time as a student there.

Davison was one of the first to join the college, then for women only, at the age of 19 in 1892.

She studied French, German and English Literature but had to pull out a year later after the death of her retired merchant father.

He left too little money to pay the £20 a term fees and Emily became a governess to fund her continuing studies, eventually completing her degree in 1908.

Royal Holloway register entry Emily Davison was one of the first students at Royal Holloway, joining in 1892

"It is pretty clear this is a very formative experience - she is very happy at Royal Holloway and very involved in student life," said Dr Windscheffel.

"It shows that women need to be independent of men - that she needs to have a profession of her own."

Although records from the time are sparse, Dr Windscheffel said it was believed Davison belonged to Royal Holloway's active suffrage society and debating society.

Among her contemporaries at the college was Louisa Martindale whose mother, also Louisa, was a leading figure in the suffrage movement in Sussex.

Emily Wilding Davison (1872 - 1913)

Emily Wilding Davison
  • 1895: Achieved 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 younger Louisa became a pioneering gynaecologist who helped to found a hospital for women in Brighton.

"Louisa Martindale is a very significant figure in female health issues in the 20th Century and her mother was a very senior figure in the female suffrage movement," said Dr Windscheffel.

"It suggests that Emily Davison is moving in these circles and open to these influences."

Later, as a member of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), Davison became a militant advocate of votes for women.

Her activities, including torching letterboxes, throwing stones and disrupting political meetings, led to her being jailed nine times and she was among suffragettes who were brutally force-fed in prison.

Davison's intentions on 4 June, Derby Day 1913, remain unclear. No one knows whether she intended to kill herself for the cause or whether running on to the course was a publicity stunt.

Either way, the suffragettes wanted to establish her as a martyr, according to Dr Windscheffel.

"They are very keen on promoting Emily Wilding Davison as a highly educated, independent woman who has taken this action.

"It shows how desperate women have become for the vote and how cruel the State is in denying them."

But Davison's death confirmed many prejudices against granting women the vote and may have been counter-productive.

"There is not a lot of sympathy for her in the London press," said Dr Windscheffel.

"It tends to confirm suspicions that women are emotional, hysterical and don't think rationally.

"The Queen, for instance - her first thought was for the jockey and she refers to her (Davison) as a 'horrid woman'.

"There's not much sense of sisterhood there."

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the campaign for votes for women became less militant.

The Pankhursts, the leaders of the WSPU, supported the British government during the war, promoting war work done by women as a sign that they were patriotic and capable of active citizenship.

It was not until 1928 that women were eventually granted the vote on an equal basis with men.

But Emily Davison, the martyr for women's suffrage, was not forgotten.

Dr Windscheffel said US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr mentioned her name as an example of those who had fought for equality.

Emily Davison on ground at Epsom Downs Emily Davison was knocked to the ground at Tattenham Corner by the King's horse

"Her name gets picked up again in the 1970s, in the second wave of feminism," he said.

"People like Davison can be repackaged as those who lived life free from men and who put their cause before their personal safety.

"I think what we need to remember is the lengths which women 100 years ago were prepared to go to.

"I don't think she intended to kill herself, but she was clearly aware of the dangers so her personal safety was secondary to the cause.

"Her legacy to women today is as a reminder of the strength of feeling - of the acts these Edwardian women were prepared to carry out so women could be treated as full citizens economically and politically."

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