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.
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