Suffragette Emily Davison: The woman who would not be silenced

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A hundred years ago the activist was trampled to death during the Derby. Now supporters are paying tribute to her

Morpeth

She has been described as the most misunderstood woman of the 20th century. For the ruling establishment of post-Edwardian Britain she was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous.

It was an opinion that was to be confirmed in the minds of her enemies at 3.10pm on 4 June 1913. As a record crowd of 500,000 spectators cheered on the horses as they thundered around Tattenham Corner into the final straight of the Epsom Derby, the slight figure of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was seen ducking under the rail and crossing the path of the approaching cavalry charge.

“With great calmness,” it would later be recalled, she allowed a few mounts to pass by before stepping into the path of Anmer, the horse of King George V, and raising her hand.

She was knocked instantly to the ground and sent rolling over and over, dying four days later in hospital.

Incredibly, the ensuing newspaper headlines focused not just on the extraordinary incident that had unfolded in front of the vast crowd at the world’s greatest sporting event but on the fact that the eventual winner was 100-1 outsider Aboyeur.

Next week, exactly 100 years on, a small tribute will be paid to Ms Davison on the Surrey race course where she died. Supporters wishing to highlight her extraordinary radicalism and bravery in the pursuit of universal suffrage had hoped to persuade Derby organisers that a minute’s silence should be held in her honour.

After enlisting the broadcaster Clare Balding to the cause, it was agreed a more low-key commemoration – a photomontage of her life and death – would be displayed on the track’s plasma screens before the race.

For Ms Davison’s surviving relatives, 80 of whom gathered from all over the world last month to watch a plaque unveiled in her honour at the spot where she fell, her belated inclusion in the British national story is a welcome development. They maintain her death was a tragic accident rather a deliberate act of suicide – as she did not leave a note to her beloved mother Margaret. They believe she meant to attach a suffragette flag to the galloping horse.

“She fought for what she believed in and I think that is a very important thing to do. It has something I have always tried to do and she has to be admired for that,” said a distant relative Lauren Caisely, who, like her ancestor, is studying to be an English teacher.

“I wish she could have lived her life to the full.  But people were not really listening to the suffragettes at that time and it was thought something drastic needed to happen,” she said.

Something drastic was indeed needed. In 1913 partial emancipation was still a world war away. Full suffrage would have to wait a further 15 years.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union had already disrupted the state opening of Parliament. There had been a campaign of window-breaking, post boxes were set alight and hundreds of women were detained and force-fed in prison when they stopped eating in protest. The Liberal government of Herbert Asquith responded with the notorious “Cat and Mouse Act” which saw hunger-striking prisoners released and rearrested in a bid to stop their protest.

Ms Davison, a champion swimmer with a first-class degree from Oxford (unawarded because she was a woman), had already been jailed on nine occasions and force-fed 49 times before she stepped out on to the Epsom course that day. “She was a very brave woman. She went to extreme lengths to be heard and to get her point of view across,” says Ms Caisley.

Ms Davison was interred in a grave in Longhorsley, Northumberland, after her inquest returned a verdict of misadventure rather than suicide. The train on which her coffin travelled was met by hundreds of well-wishers.

Although she was born in London she always considered the North-east to be her home. A new play recalling her life has been commissioned whilst a writing competition, concerts and events under the banner “Emily Inspires!” have marked the anniversary.

Their co-ordinator Penni Blythe-Jones believes the region holds her close to its heart. “She demonstrated the impact and legacy of making a stand for something. She didn’t just care about votes for women; she cared about their independence and economic stability,” she said.

The Northumberland genealogist Maureen Howes, who has spent the past decade researching the life story of the suffragette for a new book, believes she should be seen in a new light. “She has been misconstrued. She was someone who was very loved and much appreciated for her intellect and her energy.

“For her family she was an adored aunt. We are saying to people: ‘Forget everything that you might have heard about her and try and see her with a more compassionate, less sensational eye. Let us try and forget the hype and the hysteria’,” she said.

But Katherine Connelly, of the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign, which led the calls for the minute’s  silence, believes she remains an outcast from mainstream history.

“The press and the establishment of the time tried to ridicule her as a crazed woman and a maniac and tried not to link what she was doing with the terrible experiences the suffragettes were undergoing.

“What she did at the Derby was to expose the abuses that were happening behind closed doors – the force feeding of hunger-striking suffragettes in prison,” she said. “We still live in a society where sexism exists. On the rare occasions that suffragettes are represented on TV it is very much as a joke – they are portrayed as somehow ridiculous. They rightly would not do that for the civil rights movement or the miners’ strike. That is a massive loss for young women today who are asking how they can fight for equality and who are facing new challenges of sexism,” she adds.

Ms Caisley agrees that her ancestor would have a view on women’s rights. “There is still a lot that needs to be done if you look at the other countries across the world. If Emily were alive today she would have been fighting for equality still,” she said.

Standing up: Rights activists

Malala Yousafzai

The 15-year-old is recovering in Britain after being shot in the head by Taliban gunman on a school bus in Pakistan. She enraged militants by campaigning for girl’s education.

Lubna Hussein

The Sudanese journalist became an international symbol of equal rights after she was arrested with 12 other women for wearing trousers. She insisted on a trial and was sentenced to 40 lashes although the punishment was never carried out.

Susan B Anthony

The 19th century Quaker and anti-slavery campaigner was also significant in the US temperance movement. She published the journal The Revolution under the slogan: “The true republic – men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.

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The wife of the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a progressive campaigner for improved women’s access to birth control and the reform of marriage laws.

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