One of the most depressing aspects of our age, as we contemplate another general election in the UK today, is that politically, it is a rather apathetic one – a time in which turnout at election time has been scandalously low, and in which those who abstain on polling day make the depressingly predictable complaints of ‘They’re all the same!‘ and ‘Voting doesn’t really change anything!‘ It’s an attitude that ought really to generate more outrage. The British comedy writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell (he of Things Can Only Get Better fame) is one who despairs of such a mindset:
As if the party of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley was the same as the party of Neil Kinnock, John Prescott and Dennis Skinner. The idea that there’s no point in voting because ‘they’re all the same’ is just intellectually lazy. You don’t have to wholly endorse everything one particular candidate stands for, you just have to consider one person as preferable to the other. If all of them are completely unacceptable, then stand for election yourself. Nothing gets my hackles up than people who should know better copping out of the political system because they think they are above it.
The apathetic also tend to roll their eyes whenever they receive the retort ‘People have died for this, you know.’ That is undeniably true: people in the UK certainly did risk absolutely everything, their lives included, to campaign for the right to choose a government – with Peterloo in 1819 and Newport in 1839 being the classic examples of this happening. More recently, though, a woman died for this right, which at the time was denied to her not because she wasn’t a homeowner but because she was of the wrong gender.
Like most who joined the campaign for women’s suffrage, Emily Wilding Davison had not originally aspired to be a political animal. Born in London on 11 October 1872, she had aspirations to become a teacher, winning a bursary to study literature at Royal Holloway College in London, but these were dealt a severe blow with the death of her father in 1893, and her widowed mother could no longer afford her daughter’s college fees. She later won a place at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and got a First in her final exams, but was denied the chance to graduate because she was a woman.
It was only a matter of time before Emily would get involved in political activism, and sure enough, in 1906 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which campaigned for women’s suffrage. She soon acquired a reputation for being one of the group’s most militant members, committing acts of arson and vandalism, and served a total of nine prison terms. On one occasion, on 2 April 1911, she hid in the crypt of the chapel of the Houses of Parliament. Emily had chosen the date carefully: it was the date of the census, and she then coolly entered her details as “Name: Emily Wilding Davison; Address: House of Commons”. Eighty years later, the Labour MP Tony Benn put up a plaque on the wall of the chapel to commemorate the event. The authorities later removed the plaque.
On two occasions while she was serving her many jail sentences, Emily was force-fed while going on hunger strike, an experience she recounted to a friend in a letter of 1909:
In the evening the matron, two doctors, and five or six wardresses entered the cell. The doctor said “I am going to feed you by force.” The scene, which followed, will haunt me with its horror all my life, and is almost indescribable. While they held me flat, the elder doctor tried all round my mouth with a steel gag to find an opening. On the right side of my mouth two teeth are missing; this gap he found, pushed in the horrid instrument, and prised open my mouth to its widest extent. Then a wardress poured liquid down my throat out of a tin enamelled cup. What it was I cannot say, but there was some medicament, which was foul to the last degree. As I would not swallow the stuff and jerked it out with my tongue, the doctor pinched my nose and somehow gripped my tongue with the gag. The torture was barbaric.
It wasn’t the only time Emily was ill-treated while in prison. While doing time at Strangeways Prison in Manchester for throwing stones at the Chancellor, David Lloyd George’s car in Newcastle, she nearly drowned after prison officers tried to fill her cell with hosed water. She took legal action against the prison, and won compensation of 40 shillings.
Then, on 4 June 1913 came the protest for which Emily Davison would forever be best remembered, and in which she ultimately died. At the Epsom Derby, in front of a crowd that included King George V, she rushed out on to the track in the middle of the race, and was trampled on by the horse Anmer – which just happened to be the King’s horse. The initial reaction was one of outrage, and the Queen Mother sent an apology to the jockey, Herbert Jones, describing Emily as a “brutal lunatic woman”. The press reaction was similar, with the Morning Post describing the incident as a “mad act”. But attitudes changed a few days later. Emily suffered various internal injuries and a fractured skull, and died on 8 June, four days after the incident, without regaining consciousness. Several thousand people lined the streets for her funeral procession in Morpeth on 15 June.
Debate has raged in the 104 years since Emily Davison’s death as to whether she had intended to die on that fateful June day. Opinion among the ranks of the WSPU was divided. The Union’s leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, believed that Emily did have a death wish:
At one time in prison [Emily] tried to kill herself by throwing herself headlong from one of the upper galleries, but she succeeded only in sustaining cruel injuries. After that time 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 and a great multitude of Their Majesties’ subjects, offering up her life as a petition to the King, praying for the release of suffering women throughout England and the world.
Emmeline’s daughter, Sylvia, however, was more doubtful:
Emily Davison and a fellow-militant in whose flat she lived, she had concerted a Derby protest without tragedy – a mere waving of the purple-white-and-green at Tattenham Corner, which, by its suddenness, it was hoped would stop the race. Whether from the first her purpose was more serious, or whether a final impulse altered her resolve, I know not. Her friend declares she would not thus have died without writing a farewell message to her mother.
The most authoritative research into the tragedy suggests that Emily’s death came as the result of a tragic accident: her intention was not to die but to affix a suffragette banner on to the King’s horse (she and other suffragettes had been witnessed practising jumping on to horses in the weeks before), but unfortunately she ended up slipping and falling, ultimately being trampled underfoot. Furthermore, the items found on her possession included a return rail ticket – not the kind of thing an intended suicide would carry.
Emily had certainly acted recklessly. In the words of the Spartacus Educational website, ‘[a]lthough many suffragettes endangered their lives by hunger strikes, Emily Wilding Davison was the only one who deliberately risked death.’ As to the question of why she did so, the feminist writer and campaigner Laurie Penny offered a few clues in an article for the New Statesman four years ago:
[Emily] obtained the maximum amount of education and personal freedom permitted to a middle-class woman of her generation and it wasn’t enough. I imagine it felt a bit like drowning…
We call them rebels, or activists, or colossal bloody headaches, depending on our point of view and place of employment. Emily Wilding Davison made trouble. She made herself intolerable to a system she found impossible to tolerate. It is thanks to women like her, and the few men who supported them, that far fewer of us today know what it is to be forced to submit to a husband, to be politically disenfranchised, to be denied the right to control our own bodies and our own children – though that work is far from complete. There are situations in which you can choose to toss yourselves under the hooves of history, or choose to drown. Emily Davison made the only choice she could bear. We should remember that, when we remember her.
The jockey, Herbert Jones, who himself suffered a number of injuries on the day of the incident, would certainly never forget her. He said later that he was ‘haunted by that poor woman’s face’, and fifteen years later laid a wreath at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst, dedicated both to her and to Emily. Suffering from anxiety for the rest of his life, Jones died by his own hand in 1951, after filling his kitchen with gas.
All of which is worth remembering on this General Election day in the UK. Your party or cause are not the issue: the issue is that you turn out and vote – because the cliche, in the final analysis, is true: people did die for this right, and not all that long ago, either. Happy Election Day, one and all…