Did Emily Davison advance the cause of women’s suffrage? A blog by Megan Blenkinship

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The daughter of Charles Davison of Morpeth, Emily Davison is chiefly remembered for her tragic death at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Her actions and motives on that day remain the subject of debate, as does the question of whether she succeeded in furthering the cause of women’s suffrage. Like many suffrage campaigners, Emily Davison, was keen to establish her credentials as a scholar. Born on October 11th, 1872, in London, she attended Kensington Prep School, and took classes at Royal Holloway College and at Oxford University, although she was unable to officially earn a degree as women could not do so at the time.

In 1906, Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and was of course an active campaigner. During the course of her career she was detained at Strangeways Prison where she attempted hunger strikes and endured force feeding on 49 occasions and even barricaded herself in a cell for a time. The guards, unsure of what to do, flooded her cell with water. Later writing about the experience, Davison stated, “I had to hold on like grim death”. In 1912, to escape being force fed in Holloway Prison, she thought she could end the abuse of her fellow suffragists by jumping off a prison balcony. She later explained her idea, stating, “The idea in my mind was that one big tragedy may save many others”.

Her earlier actions suggest that an early death for the cause was not completely unpredictable, but it remains unclear what her real intentions were on the 4th June 1913 when she tried to pin a suffragette flag on the King’s horse mid-race. The immediate consequences are well known – Davison was trampled on by the horse and suffered injuries to her head, from which she never recovered.

Did those actions help women gain the vote? Views at the time were mixed. On the 5th June, The Times described Davison’s actions as ‘not likely to increase the popularity of any cause with the general public’ and looked forward to being able to ‘learn from the offender herself what exactly she intended to do and how she imagined it could assist the cause of women’s suffrage.’  When the sister paper The Sunday Times reported on her funeral, the tone was very different.  The writer described the suffragette procession as ‘one of the most remarkable funeral processions London had ever seen’, and describing Davison as having ‘achieved martyrdom’, ‘in their eyes at least’, but at the very least ‘possessing a spirit capable of the most heroic deeds and actions’. There is no question that her funeral was exploited by the Suffragettes – but Davison would have approved whatever her intentions had been.  Nonetheless, the question remains: did her death have any significant effect on the progress of the cause?

June 1913, London, England, UK --- Suffragettes in white uniform form part of the procession at the funeral of militant campaigner Emily Davison who died making a protest at the 1913 Epsom Derby, when she threw herself in front of King George V's horse. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
June 1913, London, England, UK — Suffragettes in white uniform form part of the procession at the funeral of militant campaigner Emily Davison who died making a protest at the 1913 Epsom Derby, when she threw herself in front of King George V’s horse. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Many years later, Christabel Pankhurst published her autobiography Unshackled (1959) and praised Davison’s deed: ‘Emily paid with her life for making the whole world understand that women were in earnest for the vote’ and that ‘at no other time and place could she so effectively have brought the concentrated attention of millions to bear upon the cause.’ However, as co-founder of the WSPU, Pankhurst had no choice other than to commend the actions, given that she must have born a large degree of responsibility, having encouraged her devoted followers to act on their own initiative.

Whether Pankhurst felt consciously guilty, however, is another mystery. She would have denied it, no doubt.  But there were other reasons for Pankhurst’s praise for Davison. In the years following the Reform Act that gave women the vote in 1918 and the Act which extended it in 1928, a controversy raged as to whether the short-term shock tactics of the suffragettes or the long-term steady constitutional approach of the suffragists had won the day.  More recently, historians have debated a third possibility – that it was due to women’s contribution during the war – and yet a fourth possibility was the progress of constitutional reform elsewhere among nations that had fought on both sides during the war, signalling that the time for change had arrived.

The balance of probability lies with the actions of the WSPU, making them one of the most successful pressure groups in British history and suggesting that, as part of a wider pattern of behaviour, Davison’s actions did indeed further the cause of female suffrage.  The Suffragist organisation, the NUWSS, led by Millicent Fawcett, grew exponentially after 1906, suggesting that, whatever their views of their militant rivals, they benefitted from the publicity that the WSPU drew to the cause.  There is even a chance that instead of hastening votes for women, the War served only to delay the decision.  The support of both suffrage organisations for the British War effort removed a classic objection to giving females the vote – that women were not able to take tough decisions regarding war – but more importantly, the War provided an opportunity for the government to save face in what had become an embarrassing stalemate.

Whether Davison intended to commit suicide at the derby has been debated for years. Some think it was accidental, as Davison had bought a round-trip train ticket to go home after the event. In any case, supporters of the Votes for Women campaign turned out by the thousands for the funeral.  Her body was laid to rest in Morpeth, where her gravestone reads, “Deeds not Words,” the motto of the suffragettes.

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