Emily Wilding Davison: A Martyr for Women’s Right to Vote


In Britain today, it is easy to find cynicism amongst the electorate. Many of my friends, working class and middle class alike, refuse to vote anymore. Their rationale is that their voice is never heard and/or there is no-one left to elect to represent them.

Over the past couple of decades, the Labour Party’s policies so smacked of Thatcherism that Conservative Margaret Thatcher counted New Labour as her greatest achievement. The last general election resulted in a Coalition government which saw the Liberal Party abandon key issues, like opposing tuition fees, in order to rule alongside the Conservatives. My friends point towards the three major political parties and quote Orwell to me: ‘…but already it was impossible to say which was which.’

But when I am derided for my naivety, in still picking up my ballot card and walking into the polling station, my response is ready. As a British woman, I have to vote; and three words provide my rationale: Emily Wilding Davison.

The Suffragists, the Suffragettes and Votes for Women.

In the early decades of the 20th century, there was no women’s suffrage in Britain. However, it was a major issue of its day, kept in the headlines primarily through the work of two campaign groups: the Suffragists and the Suffragettes.

The Suffragists worked with the system, discussing the right to vote with various politicians and writing letters to whomever might have influence. On census night, April 2nd 1911, many of them defaced the form, writing such things as, ‘no people living here, only women‘, or adding Suffragist slogans to their data.

But the Suffragettes felt that the time for talking was over. Taking as their motto, ‘Deeds Not Words’, their publicity stunts became increasingly militant. Breaking windows, chaining themselves to railings, entering the public gallery in the House of Commons and raining leaflets down upon the Members of Parliament, hunger strikes and loud, boisterous protest marches, was their modus operandi. On census night in 1911, most of these women refused to fill in the form at all, as a protest against their lack of a political voice.

Emily Wilding Davison was a Suffragette. On April 2nd, 1911, she was in the House of Commons, hiding in a ventilation shaft. She wanted her census record to say that a woman was in Parliament.

Emily Wilding Davison and the Suffrage Movement.

The legal, media and Parliamentary archives, for 1906-1913, have recurring mentions of Emily Wilding Davison’s name. Her Suffragette actions were frequently violent, often shockingly self-harming, but always bringing the issue of women’s right to vote back into the newspaper headlines.

She was a clever woman. Born in Blackheath, London, she travelled away from home to work as a school teacher, in order to pay her own university tuition fees. She graduated from Hugh’s College, Oxford, with a first class honours in English and Literature. But she couldn’t then go on to higher education. Her place at Oxford University would have been guaranteed, if she had been male. But the institution did not accept female applicants at the time.

Emily Wilding Davison then turned her great intellect upon raising awareness of women’s suffrage. Her exploits included detonating a bomb at the Surrey home of prime minister, David Lloyd George. No-one was hurt, but the property was severely damaged. She also assaulted a man, who looked like Lloyd George, in the mistaken belief that he was him.

She was often arrested and imprisoned. While in Strangeways Prison, Manchester, she went on a hunger strike. On another occasion, in Holloway Prison, London, Ms Davison threw herself down an iron staircase. She landed on the safety net, sustaining an injury to her spine.

Emily Wilding Davison’s Martyrdom, Epsom Derby, 1913.

On June 4th, 1913, there came the incident for which Emily Wilding Davison is most well known. She became a martyr for the right of women to vote. She threw herself in front of the King’s horse, during one of the country’s most famous sporting events. A Pathe film crew was there to record the Epsom Derby horse race, as part of its news and sports coverage. They captured the moment of Ms Davison’s martyrdom.

As the racehorses thundered around Tattenham Corner, Emily Wilding Davison slipped beneath the safety barrier. Anmer was owned by King George V and ridden by jockey Herbert Jones. Some eye-witnesses said that they heard Ms Davison yell out, ‘Votes for Women!’. She was certainly carrying a Suffragette flag. She reached out towards Anmer and the racehorse collided directly with her.

Ms Davison was thrown several feet into the air. She landed with a fractured skull and internal injuries. She died, four days later, in Epsom Cottage Hospital. Anmer fell too, dislodging his rider. The racehorse was uninjured and quickly scrambled to his feet. He continued the race without a jockey. Herbert Jones suffered a mild concussion. Physically, he soon recovered, but he was mentally traumatised by ‘that woman’s face’. He committed suicide in 1951.

Emily Wilding Davison’s Legacy.

Was Ms Davison intending to become a martyr? Or was she merely trying to pin her flag onto the racehorse of King George V? Her exact motivation is unknown. But what is certain is that she felt so silenced that she had to take drastic action in order to be heard.

It is a message which can still be distinctly heard down the decades. In December, 2010, protest singer, Grace Petrie, sang her own song,Emily Davison Blues, outside the constituency office of Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. A poignant lyric is ‘when no-one’s listening, only violence makes the news; I’ve got the Emily Davison blues.’

As for myself, if a woman was prepared to die for women’s suffrage, the least I can do is exercise that right. Despite the cynical jeering of my friends, I will always vote.