Was Emily Davison's death an extreme act of political defiance, or just a mistake?
Emily Davison was willing to die for her cause. Maybe. A British suffragette in the early 1900s, Davison became increasingly dedicated to women’s rights as well as increasingly militant during the suffragette movement. Her death came in 1913 when she walked onto the track at the Epsom Derby and was struck by the horse of King George V. Based on past behavior, many saw her death at an act of defiance. But because she hadn’t given a prior explanation to anyone, her true motives have remained unclear and up for debate.
Emily Davison was born on Oct. 11, 1872, in London. She attended the University of Oxford, even though women weren’t allowed to actually receive degrees at the time, as well as the University of London.
She joined the Women’s Social And Political Union (WSPU) in 1906, which, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, was the most prominent militant women’s suffrage organization in the U.K. Eventually Davison gave up her previous job as a teacher to devote her attention to the organization full time.
Throwing herself fully into the movement, Davison’s used extreme tactics. She was committed to both labor causes and women’s rights and was unafraid of the repercussions of her actions. These radical tactics included stone throwing and arson. She was arrested nine times and went on seven hunger strikes. By her fifth arrest, the government was already accustomed to the practice of force-feeding her.
In 1909 Davison was sentenced to a month of hard labor in Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for throwing rocks at the carriage of David Lloyd George, who was chancellor of the exchequer at the time. She was arrested again with several other suffragettes in 1912 and all of them went on hunger strikes while in jail. Through her cell, she was able to hear the pain her fellow suffragettes were in as they were being force-fed.
When she was let out so that her cell could be cleaned, Davison jumped off the balcony. She said that the action wasn’t an attempt to escape, but rather to stop the torture of her friends, with the idea that one giant tragedy could save many other ones from occurring. In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette Davison wrote, “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.”
It was a year later that Emily Davison attended the Epsom horse racing Derby. The date was June 4, 1913. In the shocking moment that was captured on film, Davison steps out onto the horse track and is mowed to the ground by King George V’s horse, Anmer. Davison’s hat rolled away as the horse, galloping at over 30 miles per hour, trampled over her.
Emily Davison was knocked unconscious and died four days later from a fractured skull.
Her funeral was held on June 14, 1913 in London and included a procession of around 5,000 suffragettes and supporters. An additional 50,000 people lined the route as her coffin was carried through the city.
As eventful as Davison’s life was, most of the discussion around it now revolves around her death.
Reactions to Emily Davison have been divisive. To many suffragettes, she was a heroine who became a martyr in death. Others viewed Davison’s radical actions as fanatical and suicidal.
Since she hadn’t mentioned anything about her final moment to anyone, different theories have emerged throughout the years. There is the argument that she wasn’t staging a political act of self-harm, but was actually attempting to tie a scarf or flag that represented the suffragette movement to the horse. This theory has been supported by the evidence that a return ticket, as well as two flags, were found on her by police. Then there are others who say it was a simple accident.
The answer to Davison’s tragic death may never be known, but her passionate commitment to the women’s movement is undebatable.
Women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote in 1918. The age was lowered to 18 in 1930.
Emily Davison is buried on her family’s plot site in Northumberland, England. Her headstone reads “Deeds not words.”
If you found this article interesting, you may also be interesed in reading “Suffragette” and the State of Modern Feminism. Then, you can read the story of Hypatia, the ancient Greek intellect who was killed for her beliefs.