Emily Wilding Davison: Original Women’s Lib Martyr, Publicist Extraordinaire

I’m not sure I understand her methods.

Emily Davison, 1908Martyrdom is pretty universal, although volunteering takes a special kind. Emily Wilding Davison devoted her life to gaining women the vote in England. At the age of 40, Emily was already a catalyzing force in the Women’s Movement. 

She had been a gifted student, eventually attending Oxford University. This being the Victorian era, she never earned a degree because Oxford didn’t award them to women at the time.

Emily became a teacher and, by and by, a political activist. Denied greater exercise of her talents, the obvious first step to liberation was civic engagement. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906, a very active group of agitators founded by another famous suffragist, Emmeline Pankhurst.

By three years later, Emily had dropped out of teaching to devote herself to the cause. The WSPU was making as much noise as they possibly could, staging marches full of pageantry and public spectacles designed to make news. 

The Daily Mail dubbed them ‘Suffragettes’, thinking a cutsie nickname might subdue them. But these smart women saw something good and ran with it, renaming their magazine The Suffragette. Definitely catchier than the on-the-nose Votes For Women.

‘Deeds, Not Words’

The Suffragettes learned Jiu-Jitsu for self-defense. They marched in white gowns, waving signs and wearing the Suffragette flag as a sash. They were arrested many times. Emily was given six months for setting fire to public mailboxes, after getting herself a reputation for beating a man with a whip.Jiu Jitsu

She was arrested a total of nine times. Emily and others went on hunger strike to protest not being recognized as political prisoners. Trying to avoid force-feeding, she barricaded herself in her cell. So, the guards flooded it.

I had to hold on like grim death. The power of the water seemed terrific, and it was cold as ice.

The political landscape was tense, but things took a turn on December 17, 1910.

The women of the WSPU had often employed London Police as defacto bodyguards during their demonstrations. On this particular Winter day, a riot broke out. In the ensuing mayhem, around 150 women were manhandled by the men in uniform.

Escalation and Inspiration

Apparently disillusioned, the pageantry was scaled back. Emily and the Suffragettes weren’t fooling around, and they needed another way to make noise.

By The Wrists

You can’t hold me like this forever!

One favorite was breaking windows. They ditched the elaborate displays in favor of vandalism, falling back to an ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission‘ approach. They cut phone lines. They sabotaged the mail. They broke a lot of windows. 

The profound collective rage didn’t exactly make them popular. For a few years, nothing moved. The campaign eventually escalated to arson, targeting public venues and even the World’s Fair. 

The Suffragettes made it clear they would not stop until their goal was met.

The hunger strikes carried on, prison authorities force-feeding through the nose to prevent starvation. They really went the full mile to keep those uppity wenches from casting ballots. 

Somewhere in the misery, a ray of inspiration shone on Emily Wilding Davison, The idea in my mind was that one big tragedy may save many others. During another six-month stay, she threw herself off a balcony.

Emily survived, carrying spinal injuries from her fall. Secretary of the MSPU Edith Mansell-Moullin testified before Parliament to make Emily’s point perfectly clear: The Suffragettes were being tortured, and Emily Davison was willing to die to help give women a voice.

The King’s Horse

The Epsom Derby was first run in 1780. Even King Edward had a horse in England’s most prestigious race.

In 1913, the new technology of movie cameras was added to the tradition. 500,000 people were there that day in June, including the King himself.

Emily went to the race, squeezing through the crowd to stand just outside the railing near the final turn. A great spot to view the race. A great spot for the cameras to be focused on.

The dark, grainy footage is hard to make out at first. She ducks under the railing as the horses come by, a human-shaped coal smudge in a sea of motion. Choosing her moment, Emily stepped into the path of King Edward’s horse.

I Cried In The Dark

This one is gonna haunt me…

Shocking, But Effective

I’ll save you the trouble of watching this horror, and tell you that a 1,200-pound animal doesn’t hit much different than a 1,200-pound automobile. Emily took a shocking amount of force, flying backwards in a ghastly backflip. She, the horse, and the jockey ended up crumpled on the ground.

Emily died four days later. She didn’t leave a note, and didn’t tell anyone what she was planning. Everything I read made sure to point out that no one really knows if she intended to die. (The Independent seems especially confused, telling us she was protesting women’s suffrage!) 

I don’t think she was all that worried about it.

The setting made her action impossible to ignore. Edwardian England got a little taste of what we know so well, how a video can really hit hard. 5,000 Suffragettes marched in her funeral. People packed the streets.

Emily’s death finally communicated the gravity of women’s oppression. She brought the issue to worldwide attention. The tide of public opinion began to turn, but progress was interrupted by World War I in 1914.

When that was done, women over 30 gained the vote in England in 1918. This extended to all women in 1928. 

Bringing It Home, Paying It Forward

Tired Meeting

Ok, I know we’re all exhausted, but we can do this!

I can’t say I would do what Emily Wilding Davison did. Maybe I’m not as brave. Maybe I’ve gone a different direction in life. But her course adjustment from damaging others’ property to damaging herself was strategic genius.

We need to remember Emily and women like her. Ok, the WSPU was a group of middle-class white women. They are often the women with the most free time and resources. I applaud them for using that privilege to pull us all up. They demanded votes for all women in their country, not just rich ones.

Even from such a distance, I feel their passion. Their dedication is breathtaking. We’re still a ways from walking onto race tracks, but we could take a page or two from the Suffragettes’ book. In these days of constant online blather, the credo Deeds, Not Words has an even sharper sting.

If they can get organized, so can we.


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