She was born in south-east London 146 years ago today. Her father was 49, her mother 23. Emily Wilding Davison grew up to be a bright student, earning a 1st in English from Oxford University – or, at least, she would have, were she able to actually graduate. At that august academy in the 1890’s, degrees were closed to women.
Davison joined the Women’s Social & Political Union in 1906 and quickly became a model activist, in just a few short years leaving her teaching job to focus full time on the organisation. Sylvia Pankhurst, no shrinking violet herself, was moved to describe Emily as, “one of the most daring and reckless of the militants”. Her first arrest was in March 1909, when a demonstration aimed at the Prime Minister ended with violence; Emily Davison was sentenced to a month in gaol for, “assaulting the police in the execution of their duty”.
The stint in prison did not deter her one iota. In July of that year, she and her fellow suffragists stormed into a public meeting from which women had been barred, held by David Lloyd George. For this ‘obstruction’ she was sentenced to 2 months in chokey. So her first spells of incarceration were for having a pop at the two men who would hold the highest office in the land during the forthcoming ‘War to End all Wars’ – pretty impressive, whatever way you look at it.
Emily went on hunger strike at Holloway Prison, thus being released after serving just 5 days. This was a forerunner of the ‘cat and mouse’ policy that would see official introduction in 1913; in response to a hunger striker the suffragist would be set free only to be subsequently picked up by the authorities once well-fed and healthy again. Sure enough, in September she was arrested for throwing stones at another men-only political meeting. In October, another arrest. 2 weeks after that, more stone-throwing brought about another penal sentence; hard labour.
When she went on hunger strike this time, the government tactics had changed. The brutal practice of force-feeding was carried out, and Davison would call the experience one which, “will haunt me with all its horror all my life”. To avoid a repeat, she barricaded herself into her cell using the bed and stool, and the guards responded by turning a fire hose on her for a quarter of an hour. Emily would sue, and win, for this inhumane treatment.
In April 1910 she broke into the House of Commons by hiding in a heating system, only being discovered by an officer when she went in search of water. That month she became a paid employee of the WSPU and began writing for its newspaper, Votes for Women. Incensed by police aggression against the Suffragists on what would become known as ‘Black Friday’, Emily responded by smashing the windows of parliament’s Crown Office. Once more she was sent to prison, once more she went on hunger strike, once more she was force-fed, once more she was released early.
At the end of 1911 she started setting fire to letterboxes. Davison was arrested for arson at the houses of parliament and admitted to burning 2 additional postboxes. For this she received 6 months in Holloway Prison, during which she again was subjected to what she described as “barbaric” force-feeding. In June 1912 she and her fellow imprisoned Suffragists barricaded themselves inside their cells and went on hunger strike. Once the authorities had wrested the demonstrators from their improvised fortifications, the strikers were again force-fed.
Davison now decided on what she called a, “desperate protest…made to put a stop to the hideous torture”; she jumped from one of the prison’s interior balconies, cracking 2 vertebrae and almost fracturing her skull in the process. Despite her injuries, she was still force-fed shortly afterwards.
In November 1912 Emily Davison was arrested a final time, for horse-whipping a Baptist minister while under the mistaken impression that her target was Lloyd George. In jail she engaged in a 7th – and last – hunger strike, and was forcibly fed for the 49th time. By this stage, she had become completely ostracised within the WSPU; they took a dim view of her spontaneity and initiative, considering her behaviour persistently erratic.
At Epsom racecourse in 1913, she would make her final – most memorable – demonstration. On the 4th of June, while bearing the Suffragist colours of purple, white & green, Emily Davision hurled herself under the hooves of the horse owned by King George V. This ‘propaganda of the deed’ was captured by no less than 3 news cameras – an extreme rarity with newsreels still in their infancy. The footage horrified the world.
Emily never regained consciousness after the collision, and would die 4 days later. Hatemail directed at her was sent to the hospital while she struggled to cling on to life. The contemporary news media were, of course, incredibly unsympathetic: The Daily Express called her ‘malignant’. The Daily Telegraph aired their ‘fierce resentment with the miserable woman’. The Pall Mall Gazette labeled her death ‘grotesque and meaningless’.
10 days after the race, Davison’s body was transported from Epsom to London. 5,000 women formed a procession, along with hundreds of men, to accompany her journey. 50,000 people lined the route. Then her coffin was taken by train to Northumberland, where she would be interred at St. Mary’s Church in Morpeth. Emily’s gravestone bears the slogan, ‘Deeds Not Words’.
5 years later, women attained the vote in Great Britain.
In her essay The Price of Liberty, Emily Davison writes;
“To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant”
Solidarity, brothers & sisters…♀