In 1901, Emily Davison became radicalised to the cause of the female suffrage movement; this led to her ultimate demise as by throwing herself in front of the King’s horse, at Epsom Racecourse, on the 4th June 1913, she became a martyr to the cause, shaping Modern Britain forever. But what drove a young, middle class girl from Longhorsley (a historical, rural market town in Northumberland) to such extremes? Playing such a vital role in a pivotal social movement, Davison and the suffragettes impacted women, feminism and modern activism forever.
Kuiper (2015) constructs Davison’s life through a biography, recognising Davison’s father as a widowed merchant, having several children from his first marriage before marrying Davison’s mother. As her parents moved South from their hometown, Davison was born into a privileged area of South East London in 1872, and despite growing up in an era where few women had the privilege of an education, a bright, academic Davison was determined to receive high-quality schooling. Following primary education in Kensington, she went on achieve a bursary to Royal Holloway College in 1891 to study literature and modern foreign languages. But the unfortunate death of her father in 1892 meant she could no longer financially support her studies and had to quit, moving back home to Northumberland.
Davison spent a brief period here, working as a private governess before beginning teaching. However, once she had earned enough money, she was driven and determined to further her education. Davison self-funded classes in Biology, Chemistry, English Language and Literature at Hugh’s college, London, passing all final exams with first class honours. Despite this, as a woman she could not be awarded her rightful degree. Her entire early life was shaped and narrowed by her gender, and despite her admirable determination and perseverance, defying the odds of a patriarchal society, she never reaped the benefits. Davison was appalled at the lack of opportunities for women and believed denying women the right to vote reflected them as second class citizens in comparison to their male counterparts. Contextually, a wealthy female landowner could not vote, but most of her male staff could (Trueman, 2015).
Patriarchy was reflected in literature of the time, American suffragist Miller (1915) wrote a collection of poetry named ‘Are Women People?’ of which the title itself reflects the patriarchal dehumanisation of women. In one poem, ‘Why We Oppose Pockets for Women’, some critics argue that Miller cleverly symbolises votes as pockets. The author uses a plethora of anti – suffrage arguments, to satirically and humorously critique such dispositions against women, such as ‘pockets are not a natural right’ and ‘Because whenever women have had pockets, they have not used them’. Even Queen Victoria, arguably the most powerful woman in the world at the time, believed women should be disassociated with politics, thus emphasising the suffragette’s bravery to challenge the highest authority (Harris 2016).
In 1901, Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political union (WSPU) which was founded by the historical figure Emmeline Pankhurst. Shortly after, in 1909, Davison gave up her respectable career to join the suffrage movement full time, dedicating her life to the cause. By doing this, an affluent Davison was now facing financial insecurity for the remainder of her life.
Once Davison committed, she was incredibly devoted and arguably obsessed. Over the course of her life she was imprisoned nine times for arson and stone throwing, using violent acts in public to demonstrate how women were worth less than public property in the eyes of society. Davison was outraged that the women could not be identified as political prisoners, in an act of protest she regularly went on hunger strikes and was force fed a remarkable 49 times. One of Davison’s latter imprisonments in 1909 was due to throwing rocks at the carriage of chancellor David. Davison refused to eat and resisted force feeding, barricading herself into a cell with prison furniture; the prison officer climbed a ladder, using a hosepipe to flood Davison’s cell. Shockingly, she barely escaped death as the door broke shortly before the cell filled with water (BBC, 2014). However, this is not the only example of Davison’s impulsive behaviour. 1911 saw Davison becoming increasingly militant, after being imprisoned in 1912 for setting fire to London post boxes, Davison threw herself from a balcony admitting:
‘“I did it deliberately, and with all my power, because I felt that by nothing, but the sacrifice of human life would the nation be brought to realise the horrible torture our women face. If I had succeeded, I am sure that forcible feeding could not in all conscience have been resorted to again”.
Is this foreshadowing of her inevitable sacrifice of life?
Although, Davison was certainly not the only suffragette with such passion, in a letter Emmeline Pankhurst addressed to WSPU members in January 1913 she recognised that it was a duty for women to advocate for ‘other women who are less fortunate than she is herself’ (The National Archives 2018). Yet despite this, Davison’s acts of self-destructive behaviour began to reflect dissimilitude in her activism. The Pankhurst’s prided themselves on their middle-class social status and often opposed Davison’s behaviours, claiming they were ‘more erratic than effective’ (The National Archives, 2018). However, unlike the Pankhursts’ Davison was willing to go against all societal expectations of herself in order to elicit change. Though Emmeline herself experienced imprisonment, she never personally went on hunger strike. Some argue that this was because Emmeline’s prison time was mostly after the passing of the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act (1913) more commonly known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’. This legislation meant women whose health was affected by the hunger strike must be immediately released.
In the early 1900s, suffrage acts such as Davison’s were cast in a light of deviance, militance and shame. Headlines such as ‘Mad Woman’s Dash’ (Daily Mail, 6th June, 1913) reflect how the patriarchal media encouraged the public to view activists like Davison. The Guardian portrayed her behaviour as a setback to the cause, labelling her behaviour a result of ‘diseased emotionalism’ (Daily Mail, 9 June, 1913) further casting passionate women like Davison in a light of lunacy or hysteria.
Arguably, Davison’s cause of death may be considered predictable and not out of character, still to this day her motive is questioned. Some argue it was suicide, whereas others claim she was attempting to cause disruption, but not death, pinning a suffragette badge to the horse. Despite uncertainties, both parliament and the media were in agreement, arguing this was not an act of legitimate protest but madness, The Queen Mother herself apologised to the jockey that the race was interrupted by a ‘brutal lunatic woman’ (Gordon, 2018).
Regardless of her motive, Davison’s life of activism elicited great change in modern history. Five years after her death, The Representation of People Act (1918) saw women over the age of 30 with a property qualification granted the right to vote. It also saw the abolishment of restrictions for men, allowing virtually all men over 21 the right, and men in the armed forces the right to vote from the age of 19. Prior to this, to many people’s bewilderment, only 58% of males could vote. This was largely due to the fact men had to have resided in the country for 12 months prior, discriminating against a large number of troops who served overseas in the war. 1928 saw women finally begin to achieve political equality with The Equal Franchise Act (1928), illustrating how society ameliorated for women following the suffrage movement. 1979 even saw Margret Thatcher in parliament as the first female prime minister, something which would have been unfathomable to the generation prior. However, this issue is still a contemporary one. The right to parliamentary vote is still denied women in some countries like Saudi Arabia, and even today, in our democratic country, female Members of the House of Commons is at an all-time high of a bleak 32%. Despite progressions, examples like these reflect how equality is still in the distant future, yet society is still developing, and political protest and activism is increasingly supported.
As well as impacting feminism, challenging conceptions of women and femininity in this era, Davison and the suffragettes changed modern activism forever. The suffragettes had to result to violent protest to achieve social change, after the peaceful ‘suffrigists’ failed to elicit change in half a century. However, now people have the right to protest peacefully and be heard.
As the suffragettes paved the way for equality, modern feminist activists still strive for political equality today. Frances Scott initiated the 50:50 movement, which aims to address institutional gender imbalances, achieving an equal amount of male and female MPs. Men outnumber women 2:1 in parliament; in the last 100 years, over 5000 MPs have been elected, but fewer than 500 are women; this political movement seeks to solve the democratic deficit, through peaceful protest and petitions (50:50 Parliament, 2013).
Nonviolent actions such as civil disobedience are increasingly used; a contemporary example would be the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, who’s protests in London saw thousands of activist’s campaign for ecological justice. Global mobilisation now demands climate action, and following acts of protest, the British government began to meet protester’s demands, with political parties including the Labour party declaring a national climate emergency. Yet even today these protesters can be cast in a problematic light, with many from a point of extreme privilege dismissing environmental claims and criticising the movement, the prime minister Boris Johnson even referred to protesters as ‘crusties’ (Dixon 2019).
Yet the environmental movement also saw a 16-year-old, autistic, Swedish environmentalist become a global icon: Greta Thunberg. Greta campaigns tirelessly against climate change, encouraging children globally to strike weekly ‘Fridays for future’. Browns (2019) compares the young girl to the suffragettes as she too is deemed a ‘threat’, challenging norms. We’ve seen it repeatedly, The Suffragettes, The Civil Rights Movement and now with the Climate Movement; at first movements are criticised, however in retrospect they are deemed a necessity, shaping modern attitudes and norms. Yet without women like Davison, it is undeniable that women would not have the privilege of a voice to elicit change, helping to shape modern Britain.
Conclusively, Davison and the Suffragettes sacrifices and advocacy laid the path for future waves of feminism and society as we know it today. They consistently challenged societal expectations of women in this era and were catalysts in the modernization of democracy. Without brave women like Davison, the world as we know it may look very different.
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