Deeds not words

On 13 October 1905 the struggle of the Suffragettes started with a request for the right to vote. Six years later the movement gave its first martyr for the cause of women’s rights. Yvonne Ridley recalls the story of Emily Wilding Davison

Each stone was lovingly wrapped in paper bearing the   handwritten words:   ‘Rebellion   against tyrants is obedience   to God’  . The missiles were then carefully aimed by hand with a passion at   politicians, their moving cars, government property and any other target to   maximise publicity for the cause.  As you read that paragraph what images   did you imagine in your mind’s eye? A   Palestinian youth standing in front of   an Israeli tank? Perhaps a revolutionary   from somewhere in the Arab world or   maybe one of the very many anticapitalist protestors in recession-hit Europe   or a member of the Occupy movement   on America’s Wall Street.  The fact is the stones were thrown by   a former private school governess who   had gained a reputation as a militant   and violent campaigner, for women’s   rights … in Victorian Britain.  Emily Wilding Davison, although born   in London, had roots in my native   North East where her heroic deeds are   often recalled today as a source of great   pride and admiration.  She was appalled at the low regard for   women in a Victorian society where they   were denied real opportunities in the   workplace and, more importantly, the   right to vote was also denied. While the   male servants of a large house could go   out and vote on election day the female   head who employed him could not.  And while Queen Victoria shamefully   believed that women should not involve   themselves in politics the Suffragettes   thought otherwise and refused to be   treated as second class citizens. The denial of the right to vote outraged   Emily who had already experienced   being treated as a lesser person in the   male dominated world of academia,   despite her own brilliance.  She had won a bursary to Royal Holloway  College in 1891 to study literature and   modern foreign languages but dropped   out after the death of her father because   her mother was unable to pay the fees of   £30 per term. She was forced to become   a private governess and later became a   schoolteacher before raising enough   money to study Biology, Chemistry,   English Language and Literature at St   Hugh’s College, Oxford. She obtained a   first-class honours in her final exams,   although again she was reminded of   the inequalities women faced because   female scholars in that period were not   awarded degrees at Oxford.  In 1906 she joined the Women’s Social   and Political Union led by Emmeline   Pankhurst.  Davison went on to become one of the   leading lights in the movement because   of her daring and determination to   highlight the injustices faced by women.  Earlier this year various memorial   services and events were held around   the UK to mark the 100th anniversary   of the death of Emily and while many   of us felt the occasion deserved to be   marked with a minute’s silence at the   iconic Epsom Derby, this small act of   remembrance was rebuffed by the very   same Establishment attitude that tried   to crush the movement for women’s   rights 100 years ago.  Emily was fatally injured when she   deliberately ran onto the track during   the 1913 Derby.  Acting on the suffragette slogan ‘Deeds   not Words’, Davison’s protest against the   refusal of Britain’s rulers to grant votes   for women turned her into a martyr for   democracy and women’s rights.  Despite newspapers writing off her   actions as those of a suicidal, mad   woman Emily’s intentions were far more   noble in that she was trying to raise   awareness about women’s rights and   equality by pinning the colours of the   suffragette movement onto the King’s   horse.  Isn’t it ironic that while the male- dominated media, government and   establishment of the day tried to silence   the demands for women’s rights way   back then, a century later some officials   from the male-dominated racing world   tried to do the very same?  It’s probably worth remembering that   while Emily was still unconscious in   hospital Queen Alexandra, the then   Queen Mother, asked one of her flun  –  keys to send a telegram to the jockey   who was recuperating at home. The   note read:   “Queen Alexandra was very   sorry indeed to hear of your sad acci  –  dent caused through the abominable   conduct of a brutal lunatic woman.”  Supporters of the Emily Wilding   Davison Memorial Campaign, the group   set up to commemorate the centenary   anniversary, ignored the bleatings of   the Establishment and organised a   series of stunning events to remember   this iconic woman.  In the end the powers that be did agree   to have a ceremony at the racecourse   in which the great, great, great niece of   Emily unveiled a plaque to mark her   sacrifice.  Bearing in mind the world’s largest   ever commemorative silence is held   annually at 11am on 11 November for   the war dead when every street, every   town, every city in the UK comes to a   halt with tens of millions taking part,   the excuses coming out of Epsom over   a refusal for 60 seconds in memory of   Emily Wilding Davison look pretty weak   and pathetic.  The truth is a hundred years on we as   women are still facing inequality and   oppression. It’s vital that the sacrifice   she made in the fight for democracy   and women’s rights is never forgotten.  As it turns out, thanks to committed   activists – both men and women – the   spirit of Emily was remembered on the   100th anniversary of her sacrifice in   many different ways.  Personally I would like to see her image   on English banknotes as a permanent   reminder of her greatness although   there is a plaque in the House of   Commons marking another daring feat   performed by her. That great, elder   statesman Tony Benn, the former MP   made sure her efforts would not be   forgotten but you still have to try and   hunt it down.  The plaque marks the night of 2 April   1911, the eve of the census, when she   sneaked in to Parliament and hid   in a tiny broom cupboard in St Mary   Undercroft, the chapel of the Palace of   Westminster. She stayed there overnight   so that on the census form she could   legitimately give her place of residence   as the House of Commons. The 1911   census documents that were uncovered   state that Emily Wilding Davison was   found ‘hiding in the crypt’ in the Houses   of Parliament.  The following year she was sentenced   for her part in an arson attack and   jailed for six-months in Holloway Prison.   There were scores of other Suffragettes   also being held in the jail where many   had gone on hunger strike and were   being force-fed. As part of a protest   within the prison walls she hurled   herself down a 10-metre iron staircase.   Her intention, as she wrote afterwards,   was to try and bring a halt to the primi  –  tive force-feeding methods … methods,   by the way which were subsequently   banned because they were deemed so   primitive. It’s interesting to note these   same methods are being deployed   in Guantanamo prison today despite   global condemnation.   A few months after her release Emily   became the movement’s first martyr   when she was trampled under the   King’s Horse, Anmer, during the Epsom   Derby in June 1913.  There are those who still think this was   a deliberate act by a woman who felt   the Suffragette movement needed a   martyr to ramp up the case for women’s   rights including the right to vote.  I personally feel that she had set out   to pin a sash bearing the movement’s   colours to the King’s Horse knowing   that it would create huge headlines.   However, I also believe she knew it   was a perilous thing to do but she was   prepared to pay the blood price for   women to get the vote.  This is why I think it is important for all   women to exercise their right to vote in   every forthcoming election.  The price of British women’s right to   vote carries a very high price and the   blood of a great woman.


Emilie Davison

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