The facts and figures of Emily Davison in a few words is that due to money constraints she had to finish her degree at night college, yet despite this difficulty, she achieved a first class honours degree in English Language & Literature. She was a governess for some years before becoming involved in Mrs Pankhurst’s WSPU campaign for the vote. During her years as a Suffragette, Emily was imprisoned 8 times, hunger-struck on the last 7 of these occasions, and during her 3 imprisonments between the start of hunger striking and the passing of the Cat & Mouse Act which stopped force-feeding, was forcibly fed 49 times. And of course she wrote her place in history by attempting to place a Votes for Women scarf into the bridle of the king’s horse Anmer at the 1913 Epsom Derby and died attempting this. But what was Emily actually like?
She wasn’t particularly photogenic and, as was the way when having one’s photograph taken in those days, tends to look at us through history with a rather serious face. And some Suffragettes who worked with her told of a rather aloof woman. But those who knew her best tell quite a different story. She had a striking appearance, being tall and red-haired, with a readiness to smile. She was endearingly self-effacing, had a good sense of humour and though very bookish was no intellectual snob, and her favourite past times were certainly down to earth – musical comedy, cats and her family. She also took being teased about her socialist and suffragist beliefs in good heart. She was also very religious and this comes through in her writing on the suffrage issue. Many of her articles were published in Votes for Women and other periodicals. Her last piece fo writing, published in the Daily Sketch, exactly a week before the 1913 ‘Suffragette Derby’, was an article called the Price of Liberty, which makes many references to the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. One of the final sentances is movingly prophetic.
“To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary (the spot outside the city walls of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified) for generations yet unborn, that is the last consumate sacrifice of the militant!”
It is such references that some people have picked up on when trying to explain her actions on June 4th 1913. But words and phrases like ‘sacrifice’, ‘tragedy’ and ‘lay down life’ should not be taken too literally. Emily was willing to die for the cause, but so was every woman who was force-fed. Any of them could have died from this torture. Not just immediately, but slowly, either from physical or mental problems. Prior to the women being force-fed, such treatment had been tried in mental institutions and had led to death both immediately and by later suicide. Mrs Pankhurst was the one hunger-striking Suffragette who was never force-fed, because the government feared the repercussions that her death in prison would have had. And force-feeing wasn’t the only way one could die for the cause. Two women, one of whom was Mrs Pankhurst’s sister, died from illnesses contracted from them being badly beaten up and abused by the police during ‘Black Friday’ in 1910.
When Emily stepped out on to the course at Tattenham Corner in front of galloping race horses, she knew it was an extremely dangerous mission. She knew she was risking her life. But she did not “throw herself in front of the king’s horse” as so many lazy journalists have written in the past week.
What was Emily like? Likeable, endearing, amusing, self-effacing, down-to-earth, bookish, religious, brave, determined. And glorious, selfless and inspiring!