Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913)
“As I am a woman and women do not count in the State, I refuse to be counted. Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God”
Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) was a British suffragette and leader of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She dedicated her life for the WSPU call “Votes for Women!” She was arrested on nine occasions for civil disobedience in the fight for equal women’s suffrage, went on hunger strike seven times and was force fed on forty-nine occasions. She died after being hit by King George V’s horse Anmer at the 1913 Epsom Derby when she purposefully walked onto the track during the race to demonstrate for the call “Votes for Women!” She was remembered by the militant suffragists movement as a martyr for their cause.
Emily Wilding Davison was born just outside London in Blackheart in October 1872. Her father, Charles Edward Davison, and her mother, Margaret Caisley, were of middle-class status and bore four children together, of which Emily was the third. However, Charles’ previous marriage to an Anglo-Indian woman named Sarah Seton Chisholm had borne nine children resulting in deep family ties around the globe. Emily’s education began in the home with a governess before progressing to the formal level at Kensington High School in 1885 and continued with her attending Royal Holloway College from 1891 to 1893, cut short due to her father’s passing in 1893. Both institutions show records of excellence in English Literature and Drawing amongst other topics of study, as well as a reputation of hard work and perseverance. The subjects of study that piqued young Davison’s interest seem to allude to her later work as a political activist and highlight a desire for female autonomy not popularly accepted during the time. At Kensington High School, she became infatuated with the Knights Tale character Emelye, an Amazon woman who seeks a life of devotion to the huntress Diana over her expected path in life of marriage and domesticity, even going so far as to claim the name as her own.
Following her withdrawal from Royal Holloway College, Davison went on to take classes at St. Hughes College, Oxford. There, she earned her First Class Honours in English Language and Literature in 1895, but was unable to earn a degree as Oxford did not award degrees to women during this period. In the following years Davison followed the typical path of a woman with her level of education and social status, working as a teacher in girls’ schools and privately as a governess, all the while enrolled in the University of London as an external student. She earned her degree from the University of London in 1908 with a third-class honors BA in Modern Languages.
It was in 1906, the middle of balancing her work in teaching and earning her degree, that Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union. Intrigued by the bad press the suffragettes received for their militant activism and unapologetic commitment to the fight for women’s rights, Davison began attending meetings of the WSPU and becoming an active member the same year. In the next few years, she would quit her teaching jobs to fully commit herself to the cause of women’ suffrage. The WSPU was founded in 1904 by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), her daughters Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst and other likeminded women, who had grown tired of the patient, far-sighted work of other suffragists, like those of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The NUWSS aimed to work within the limits of the existing laws and parliamentary system for the desired political change with petitions, meetings and demonstration. The WSPU was more geared to public activities that created attention than the NUWSS and became increasingly militant in response to the dismissal of bills regarding the expansion of suffrage to women while simultaneously expanding the suffrage rights of male citizens. By 1908, the WSPU started the destruction of property through the “argument of the stone” in Pankhurst’s words: The suffragists began to express their frustration with the lack of progress in parliament by smashing window panes and throwing stones to damage property.
Davison was particularly dedicated to the shift towards militant actions as she was arrested on multiple occasions between 1909 and 1913. Her first arrests in 1909 were attributed to the disruption of parliamentary meetings which excluded women from attendance. She and other women disturbed the meetings. Even while imprisoned Davison presented forms of personal protest that were not without consequence of poor treatment. When found guilty of her first arrest, Davison refused to promise not to repeat her actions and was sentenced to a month in prison. Her second arrest resulted in her utilization of a hunger strike, following the lead of fellow suffragette Marion Wallace Dunlop (1864-1942) who had implemented the tactic to protest the government’s refusal to grant the imprisoned women first class status as political prisoners. The suffragists’ treatment while on a hunger strike in prison would become notoriously brutal with prison workers holding them down to be force-fed and even forcing them out of their cell by filling it with water from a hose. The forced feeding would not only gain attention from media, shocking the public with such appalling treatment of middle-class women, but also resulted in a court case win after Davison sued Strangeways prison.
The forms of protest of the suffragists continued to grow in intensity, as did the response of the government and, in turn, the acts of retaliation in a cycle that continued to define the suffrage movement in Britain. The events of November 18, 1910, referred to later as Black Friday, began with women storming parliament in an attempt to gain access to Prime Minister Asquith and ended with a six hours of police brutality. The protestors were subject to physical assault that was primarily focused on sexual abuse and the subsequent humiliation of its public nature. Black Friday was a turning point for the WSPU as its members realized that the deputations left them vulnerable to physical assault without furthering their cause in a significant way. The shift to window smashing was in full effect and in 1911 it was Davison who was responsible for the WSPU’s even greater shift towards militancy through arson with her suggestion that they set fire to the mail and pillar boxes of London. Her most controversial and notorious form of activism, however, would also be her last.
On June 4, 1913, Davison attended the Epsom Derby, the most famous horserace in Britain. With the King’s horse, Anmer, competing in the race and thousands watching as they sped around the track, Davison stood waiting at the final curve known as the Tattenham Corner. Upon Anmer’s rounding of the bend, Davison ran out from behind the safety of the barricade between the crowd and the track and was rammed by the racehorse. After the collision Davison lay unconscious, the jockey was thrown, and the horse simply rolled over to finish the race. Davison did not wake from her unconscious state and died four days after the Derby incident. Her funeral was a testament to the solidarity of the suffrage movement as newspaper clippings from that day report over five thousand women marching in the procession through London with a wreath placed over her casket reading ‘She died for women.’
Although Davison’s intentions at the Derby have been hotly contested, her status as a martyr for the cause and claims that her death was indeed ‘for women’ remain accurate. New image enhancing technology has revealed that Davison was in fact attempting to place something on the bridle of Anmer rather than an act of suicide to bring attention to the suffragette plight. Earlier reports of suffragettes practicing the grabbing of horse bridles along with the fact that the activist was found holding two small suffragette flags support these findings as she may have intended to place on the horse’s bridle to wave across the crowds for the remainder of the race. Regardless of her intention that day, Davison’s legacy is one of complete dedication to the fight for women’s suffrage despite the consequences of her actions. Her perseverance and commitment to action in the face of adversity show that personal struggle and defeat can result in the progression of a greater good.
With the onset of World War I in 1914, Davison’s funeral procession was the last great organized act on the part of the WSPU, which disbanded to focus on the war effort. While it was the circumstances surrounding the War that ultimately brought about British women’s suffrage in 1918, the WSPU and their militant activism, often times spearheaded by Davison, changed prior notions of women’s positions as activists as well as activism as a whole. Davison and her fellow suffragettes disliked and disagreed with the men in power and, rather than continue to play by their rules in hopes of eventual change, they took matters into their own hands by maintaining the attention of the public and refusing to let the oppressors continue their daily lives unfettered by those whose rights they have stripped.
Allison Sedberry, Economics & Political Science, Class of 2018
Literature and Website
- “Emily Davison Laid to Rest.” Century Ireland, at: http://www.rte.ie/centuryireland/index.php/articles/emily-davison-laid-to-rest. (Accessed 23 April 2018).
- Collette, Carolyn P. In the Thick of the Fight: The Writing of Emily Wilding Davison, Militant Suffragette. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.
- Thorpe, Vanessa. “Truth behind the Death of Suffragette Emily Davison Is Finally Revealed.” The Guardian, May 25, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/may/26/emily-davison-suffragette-death-derby-1913 (Accessed 23 April 2018).