Emily and Me: Empathy Across the Centenary

by JoHarrington

One hundred years after the birth of Emily Wilding Davison, I was born in the same country. Comparing our lives highlights the changes that were wrought.

On June 4th 1913, Emily Wilding Davison ducked under the railings at Tattenhall Corner, Epsom Races. She was holding a small Suffragette flag with its pin already prepared for attachment.

It was Derby Day, one of the most widely attended events in the year. Watching on were many members of the British aristocracy, including the royal family. King George V had a horse named Anmer competing in the race.

After the main body of racehorses had thundered by, Emily Davison darted out onto the track. She was apparently attempting to pin her Votes for Women banner onto one of them. Seconds later Anmer careered right into her.

Four days later, Emily Wilding Davison died of her injuries. She was the only Suffragette martyr.

Image: Emily Wilding Davison in Color
Image: Emily Wilding Davison in Color

Musings on the 100th anniversary of Emily Davison's Martyrdom

Emily was born in 1872. I was born in 1972. You are welcome to journey with me, as I contrast our lives to see what changed either side of Women's Rights.

When I was a little girl, there was a room in the local Working Men's Club which was male only.

Given a choice, I wouldn't have wanted to go in there. It was full of boring old men talking about sport. But the exclusion of females kept me on the very threshold, the tip of my toes up against the line. Staring inside. Listening to everything.

My juvenile protest ended, after the government passed a law making such segregation illegal. I smugly went back to play with the other kids.

I've grown up with the government on my side in promoting gender equality. Emily Wilding Davison lived with her government legislating against her. Parliament passed the Cat and Mouse Act specifically to further silence Suffragettes like herself. Unlike me, she had no recourse to the law when faced with discrimination.

When I was in high school, I wanted to establish a girl's football team. The headteacher said no. I researched, formed strategies and plans, contacted external trainers and basically did the organizational hard work for him. He still said no.

I argued, campaigned and produced names on a petition. The headteacher called me into his office, on an almost daily basis for a week, to tell me off. I had to desist my agitating, or I'd be in detention. I took the detention. Then I personally persuaded enough female students to join me, that we had a full team.

My headteacher was incandescent with rage. He threatened me with suspension. I threatened him with the local press.

In 1987, I played football in one of the first girl's high school teams in the country. My headteacher was painfully aware that the newspapers would take my side. Sexism in schools would have run as a story during that decade.

Emily Wilding Davison never had such support. Editors and reporters lined up to tell her that she was wrong on every count. She was a harridan, unfeminine, insane, frivolous, fragile, unnatural and ridiculous. Had she been in a similar situation in 1887, it's expected that the journalist would have allied with the headteacher.

My headteacher treated my threat seriously, though I was just fifteen years old. We both knew that the press would too. At forty years old, with all her hard-earned qualifications to prove her intellectual prowess, there was still nobody who took Emily Wilding Davison seriously.

She had to die in order to elicit that kind of sympathetic newspaper reports.

When I finished my A-Levels, it was pretty much a given that the female school-leavers would work in an office or a shop. When Emily Wilding Davison reached maturity, it was expected that she would be a governess or a teacher. Those were our options, though I had the potential for more with a bit of effort. She did not.

We both opted for further education, in order to boost our opportunities. My first degree was free, paid for by the local authority. Emily had to work full-time as a governess to pay her college fees. I was able to attain my Master's Degree. There's nothing (except cash and inclination) stopping me pursuing a doctorate; maybe even a professorship too. All of these were unattainable for Emily.

She was restricted by her gender. She could reach no higher than college. At that point, her zest for learning was promptly stifled. No formal avenues were left open to feed her intelligence with academic stimuli.

In those circumstances, it would take an insanely optimistic person not to sink a little into resentment, pity and boredom, particularly as her male class-mates could carry on. Even where their grades were lower than her own, a university education beckoned for the boys.

I ended up (assuming that I've stopped formal education for good now) two academic levels higher than Emily did. In both of our cases, culture has played a part in where we stopped. Emily had no choice. Her gender dictated where the glass ceiling sat. She would have loved to have continued, but the option wasn't there.

For me, gender is no barrier to education. But arguably social class is. I live in a predominantly working class area, which isn't exactly teeming with graduate level employment. I tried when I achieved my first degree. Part of the reason that I took my Master's was to elevate myself a little higher, in the hope of that lucrative employment. There was still nothing there.

This is where inclination kicks in. Why bother putting myself through the hard work and near insanity of a thesis, when there are no graduate jobs around here? In this way, social class has factored into where I stopped my formal education.

However there is a key difference between the experiences of Emily and me. She had no choice. I do. It's inclination based on class, not class itself, which halted me. I could move. I could save my money, do the work and live somewhere with appropriate employment prospects.

The limitations on Emily's opportunities were imposed, mine are self-imposed. Though there is a argument that the notion of relocating away from all I know and love is an indirect imposition.

I would instantly lose the support network of my extended family in the close vicinity. In 2013, the likelihood is that those with doctorates will be middle class, which could influence who I'd be living and working alongside.  Seeing as I have a broad regional accent, I would probably have to change my diction, in order to be understood by my new neighbors.

These prospects are so unattractive, as to practically guarantee that I won't aspire to it. Yet that doesn't alter the fact that I could. Emily could not.  That is the major difference between our situations.

Nevertheless Emily Wilding Davison and I gained our qualifications.  One century apart, we each rode a tide of hopes and dreams straight to the job market. Yet she still ended up as a governess and I still ended up in an office.

For Emily, the barrier was undoubtedly gender. For me, the causes of my set-back are less distinct.

Social class, location and lack of informed career advice factor in there somewhere. I graduated into a recession. By the time it was over, I'd already taken employment, so didn't seek a change. When I finally did, I was informed by the university's graduate career adviser that I'd already messed my work history up, to the extent that I couldn't improve now if I tried.

Each time I've been made redundant, the job center advisers tell me to hide the fact that I have degrees. Things like that put potential employers off.

While Emily knew her position precisely, I get a little mired just trying to identify what's holding me back. I can come up with all kinds of weird and wonderful hypotheses, all tinged with the vague suspicion that I'm to blame. If I could just wise up, I'd secure the promised graduate level employment. Maybe. If it's something I can influence and control.

The implication is that there's a bizarre downside to living in the 21st century.  With all of our hard won anti-discrimination legislation in place, no employer will fall foul of it. Maybe I've not secured certain jobs because I'm a woman, or white, or Pagan, or deaf. If so, I will never be told that. Emily would have been. Her world was rigidly unequal and unjust by modern standards, but she was never left guessing.

Image: Emily Wilding Davison
Image: Emily Wilding Davison
Colorised by Paul Pollard

Emily could face the world with a clear conscience. She'd done everything right. The way society viewed her sex was her sole obstacle. She couldn't change her gender, so she would have to shift society instead.

Yet even with this focus, it was hardly fair. If she'd been male, then it would have been plain-sailing. She would have been ushered into the hallowed halls of Oxford University. The prestige of the degree, and the contacts she made amongst her fellow students, would have practically guaranteed a high-flying career thereon.

Unfortunately, she was female. (In a situation which insinuates that to be 'female' is 'unfortunate'.) Emily could easily have sunk into self-loathing for her very womanhood, blaming a circumstance of birth for the unravelling of her dreams. Much of Edwardian society would have encouraged such thoughts.

Fortunately, Emily wasn't the sort to internalize her set-backs in that way. She always remained very sure of where the problems lay; and social inequality was external. By all accounts - and the historical record! - she was very difficult to intimidate with peer pressure and ridicule. She was more inclined to externalize her feelings, delivering them right to where they deserved to be unleashed.

Nevertheless, the return to employment as a governess must have rankled.

I know what aspirational disappointment feels like. I appreciate how it leaves a chip on the shoulder. I can empathize fully with the creeping sense of something stolen that was your due. The faint notion that you are owed recompense for all of that hard work, like the job market should be bound by the rules of karma.

It was much worse for Emily Wilding Davison. Employers and job center staff aside, everyone else congratulated me on my academic achievements. The fact of her education led to Emily being treated like she'd committed some unholy crime against humanity. For every friend who praised her grades, there would be a dozen others who thought them unseemly in a woman.

I wonder if she ever regretted aspiring to rise so high; if she ever wished she'd never been educated. Then she could have taken refuge in more palatable excuses. She could have told herself that if she'd just applied herself, then the world would be her oyster.

Instead, Emily was staring at cold, harsh reality. It didn't matter how hard she worked, nor how many qualifications she amassed, nor how spectacular her grades. These were not the criteria by which she was judged. She was a woman. Her gender was her sole definition. She could have sat in a corner dribbling for her entire adult life, and still be met with the same reception.

In fact, that might have been better, because at least then she wouldn't have been educated. Emily could have expected more courtesy in the meek conformance of ignorance.

Those whose hopes have been raised, then dashed, are always most likely to be spurred into action. Those who never thought they had a chance are generally content to remain in numb acceptance. The depth of Emily's disillusionment and sadness can be measured by her subsequent stirring. See how completely she threw herself into the Suffragette Movement.

After graduation, I lugged my university degree through three different office jobs. None of them required one. I could have skipped those three years of study and applied straight from school. I would have still been qualified to fill the vacancies.

Then I struck lucky.

While working at the local university, I'd heard about the Aimhigher initiative. It was being launched to persuade communities, under-represented in the academe, that higher education was available for them too. There was also funding for schemes designed to break down the various obstacles - both perceived and real - to entering higher education from a non-traditional background.

In short, Aimhigher wanted to take working class scutters like me and send them to university.

As one of the rare breed who had already done just that, I had plenty to say. I accosted the Aimhigher director at the earliest opportunity. I talked her ear off for about five minutes, trying to get in everything I could remember, or warn her about, or suggest. Aimhigher had to get it right. I fired off all of the things that I could imagine going wrong. I raced through ways to prevent such calamities.

This wasn't just academic to me. It wasn't a passing interest, nor a purely altruistic bid to help those following in my footsteps. This was personal. If Aimhigher succeeded in its remit, then the knock on effect would touch me too. As I spoke with the director, I could feel the desperation rising. That this middle class lady wouldn't grasp the urgency, or take me seriously, or pay heed to what I had to say.

She did. She gave me a job. She said that anyone that passionate, about what Aimhigher was doing, deserved to be in the middle of it. It was a position which required a degree. It was an initiative targeting one of the major obstacles to hold me back.

In my bitter disappointment, I'd thrown myself bodily at the cause, and it embraced me. The livelihood was only part of it. I felt valued and vital. I was judged on my merits, and my insights were deemed worthy of consideration.

A century ago, Emily Wilding Davison never got that. Despite her rare education and conviction, she was never offered paid employment. The Pankhursts most often regarded her as an unruly nuisance and a maverick. The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) eventually kicked Emily out for setting fire to pillar-boxes without permission.

These were people who should have sympathized. They simply alienated Emily further. Her ideas and shrewd observations were dismissed as worthless. She was castigated for her propensity to think for herself and act unilaterally. Even when Emily's conversations increasingly talked about 'one big tragedy', she did not appear to have elicited much interest.

Retrospect brings such clarity. Neither the Pankhursts nor the rest of the WSPU could be expected to have foreseen what happened at Epsom. This is not a point upon which to apportion blame. It's merely to state that the Suffragettes could have been, but weren't, Emily's final safety net.

As it was, the WSPU unwittingly reinforced the gradually developing viewpoint of Emily Wilding Davison - that she was most usefully deployed hurtling into a shocking martyrdom. Only then might there finally be a dialogue paving the way for Women's Suffrage in Britain.

We live in different worlds, Emily and me. Only 100 years apart and in the same country, but changed utterly.

I'm sitting here cosseted by all this legal protection. My gender should never cause a university to turn me down, nor an employer to refuse a position. I could sue them if they did. And should that story make the papers, then I'm confident that the angle would be favorable towards me.

Most importantly of all, I have the vote. Just like Emily Wilding Davison, I am a British woman. But the difference between us is that my MP has to listen to me. Even if he's never voted on issues as I would have him do.

Yet for all of those years and sacrifices, there is still a lot of work to be done. Only 22% of British MPs are female.

Blatant sexism would provoke an outcry amongst the public in my Britain. (Though casual sexism runs as an undercurrent in its last dying coda.)  But protestors are still vilified and/or ignored, whatever the politicians can get away with and the papers will collude.

Then there's Emily, standing in front of the crowd at Tattenhall Corner, clutching the purple, white and green of the Suffragette flag. Her back still aching badly from the spinal injury sustained in Holloway. The horses hooves thundering along the Epsom Racecourse.

Whether a terrible accident or an intentional martyrdom, I can't help but suspect that Emily Wilding Davison was right. It was the pivotal moment, which swung her world onto a course towards mine. It's an uncomfortable admission, because no-one wants to self-sacrifice as the only way to open a debate. Such things set a dangerous precedent.

Yet the gear change was obvious, even at the time. There was little evidence that anyone really took the Women's Movement seriously before June 4th 1913. Those witnessing the funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison were left with no doubt that a corner had been turned.

However what made it so spectacular, and poignant, wasn't the coffin at the center of the procession. It was all of the people, from different backgrounds and affiliations, acting in concert to pay tribute to the martyred woman. Therein lies the context and the key.

It wasn't just one person who secured Votes for Women. Though Emily's martyrdom may have sped things up a bit.

Here Emily Wilding Davison and I stand. We're the same age, educated, British women, but that century polarized our positions.

Our lives were not identical, I never thought they would be. But there were enough points of similarity to compare them. At each moment, two things became patently clear:

  • I have much more support - legally, culturally and via the media - than Emily ever did. My rights are safe-guarded by government, law courts, social norms and the means for sympathetic publicity. Even if I couldn't get a journalist to cover my story, I could post it myself on the internet. At every one of these junctures, Emily was not only bereft, but frequently attacked.
  • I have many more choices. If something doesn't work out quite as I'd have wished, then I can diversify or switch course completely. Emily had very little leeway. Her society was so rigidly regimented, that her position was practically pre-ordained. She was pinned in place as completely as a butterfly on a collector's board.

So what if Emily Wilding Davison lived in 2013?   My guess is that she'd have gone on to Oxford University, then forged her career. She may not have even been involved in politics. Her activities there, a century ago, seem to have started only when her post-educational aspirations withered.

As for me, like Emily, I'm involved in activism. But those choices extend to this realm too.  Before I would ever be reduced to awaiting the king's horse at Tattenhall Corner, I have many more avenues to pursue. They would all allow my voice to be heard, which was the element so horrifically denied to Emily.

But what if I had been in 1913?  Would I have made the same choices as Emily?

It's possible that I could have been standing on the edge of a racetrack, willing to risk my life for the cause. Breaking down gender barriers WAS her life. She couldn't personally progress until there was access for women in higher education and/or more employment choices. Votes for Women was only step one.

I would have been in that very same position. My choices, as hers, would have been:

  • Embrace martyrdom as a way of forcing a serious debate on the issue.
  • Continue in the rank and file, though those tactics seemed not to be working. (There was no way of knowing in 1913 that World War One was on the horizon, nor that some women would gain suffrage in 1918.)
  • Accept my life with its limitations, i.e. continue on as a governess, though it bored me stupid, and stranded me in the certain knowledge that I could have been much more, if society was fair.
  • Get married, have kids, devote my life to being a wife and mother.

I know how frustrated I get in 2013 over certain issues. I can certainly envisage the pressure of 1913 restrictions pushing me into a deep consideration of martyrdom. When there are no options left and no-one is listening through non-violent means, then history has showed again and again that violent means become the only recourse. Unless you're Gandhi.

So yes, logically, idealistically and psychologically, I may have followed in Emily's horrible footsteps. But there are another two factors here:  personality and courage. Would I have had the guts to leap out onto that racetrack? I really don't know.


Postscript: As a result of writing this article, I was inspired to write an Open Letter to Emily Wilding Davison. For more insights into how I feel about her, having completed this journey of contrasting lives, please do check it out.

Books about Emily Davison

Emily Wilding Davison: A Suffragette's Family Album

Emily Wilding Davison's image has been frozen in time since 1913. On the June 8 of that year, Emily was struck by the king's horse, Anmer, during the Epsom Derby. She died four ...

View on Amazon

Emily Wilding Davison: The Suffragette Who Died For Women's Rights

This is the first new biography in two decades of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette martyr who died from injuries sustained when she rushed onto Epsom racecourse and grabbe...

View on Amazon

Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison

In June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison died after she "grabbed at the reins" of George V's Derby horse. Her funeral was the occasion of some of the most impressive displays of feminist solidarity Britain has ever seen. ---Yet who was Emily Davison?

View on Amazon

One-way ticket to Epsom: A journalist's enquiry into the heroic story of Emily Wilding Davison

View on Amazon

The King's Jockey

The Suffragette Derby of 1913: a woman sacrifices her life for her cause, but what of the man who feels responsible for killing her? This novel was inspired by the life of royal...

View on Amazon

Updated: 06/07/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 07/14/2013

I honestly think it depends upon your social class and the amount of jobs out there. When the job market looks like it does at the moment (in Britain), then nepotism beats any piece of paper.

frankbeswick on 07/13/2013

Do you think that having degrees is a barrier in some jobs, even to men?

JoHarrington on 07/04/2013

It's a hard call to make. On the one hand, internalisation of the glass ceiling is definitely a factor. On the other, when that is recognised and you go for it, then it turns out that the glass ceiling is still there anyway.

But it's coming down. This definitely feels to me like a generational thing.

kate on 06/20/2013

Thanks this is a really thought provoking article - I have a friend who gave up the opportunity of applying to ox-bridge for the same reasons you sited - i.e he thought he would be surrounded by middle class people with whom he would have little in common. The ironic thing is most of his mates are now 'middle class' anyway - as are all of his interests, what he reads, watches etc. Its a shame these thoughts put you both off aiming higher. I wonder if it could be seen as an internalisation of the glass ceiling?

JoHarrington on 06/08/2013

I'm glad that you thought so. It was an interesting exercise to write. I just hope I did her justice.

AngelaJohnson on 06/08/2013

An interesting comparison and great way to portray Emily Wilding Davison's life.

JoHarrington on 06/06/2013

Mira - Thank you very much. As for your take on it, you're not being a spoil-sport at all.

In fact, accepting your lot, and NOT throwing yourself under a galloping horse's hooves, is actually the sane option. But only if you can bear that without resentment and disappointment burning holes in your psyche and eroding your self-worth. Then you're merely switching the big, dramatic moment of insanity for a slow, creeping, long drawn out smothering kind of insanity.

Emily found that the latter was worse than the former. She gave up her governess job, when she became more entrenched in her Suffragette activities, despite the fact that left her without a livelihood. The sane option bored and rankled her too much to accept it, so her choices became even more limited.

I think I straddle the ground between you and Emily Wilding Davison. I can empathize with what you said about lowering aspirations to what's achievable. I'm also at my happiest when running wild in nature, hippy Pagan creature that I am.

But I also took a very Emily-esque leap of faith, when I walked out of the job centre and lost my benefits, in order to not give up writing. That worked out ok for me. It didn't for Emily. I have more opportunities to test out than she ever did, which made the difference.

You and Emily share a perverse outlook though. She was subject to peer pressure which said, 'Do not aspire to anything. Never reach higher than you're given.' So she aspired to it all. You are told, 'Aspire! Be everything! Reach higher than ever before, then reach higher than that!' So you lower your aspirations. Rebel.

JoHarrington on 06/06/2013

Catana - That works brilliantly, but only if the author is writing about their own class. Otherwise, they're making those nuances up as they go along.

If you're really interested in British class etiquette, then I totally recommend Kate Fox's book 'Watching the English'. It's not only informative, but hilarious and entertaining too. Also here's one I wrote earlier and on another site: http://suite101.com/a/tea-code-britis... Would you like a cup of tea?

I think you do your fellow American writers a disservice. Exhibit A: 'The Great Gatsby' for the upper echelons of society on the eve of the Great Depression; and Exhibit B: 'The Grapes of Wrath' for the lower orders during it.

Etiquette and other social behavior rules the former; while the progressive breaking down of the same, in the latter, symbolizes just how defeated these people became. (Before Rose of Sharon rewrites the rules to something more suited to surviving.)

Mira on 06/06/2013

Great article, Jo, and really interesting points in comments, too. I knew her story as I read about the suffragette movement at one point. I don't want to be a spoilsport, but I have come to think that sometimes life can be truly wonderful if you choose less education and come to enjoy simple things more fully. We've been conditioned to desire too much, I think, more than we can handle. I certainly find it difficult to follow so many new things happening in the world and think back to a time when I lived without a TV and spent more time in nature and with friends than with information. But that's just where I am in life on my particular journey. And no, I definitely wouldn't want women not to have choices! Each woman should decide for herself the kind of life she wants. I for one am trying to learn to desire less in terms of education and future jobs. I find that time in nature and relationships are much more important.

JoHarrington on 06/06/2013

I love Henry James. :)

Yes, I can definitely see how that would be the case. The 'nouveau riche' have always been a 'problem' for the upper classes here too. That sort of money buys access into the kind of clubs and circles populated by the higher echelons.

What ensues is really a clash of cultures within the same country. It's discomfort that emerges as snobbery. The 'nouveau riche' will be inadvertently clattering through all manner of etiquette breaches. The old money people won't have a frame of reference to cope with that.

When it comes to the subtleties of the British class system, even the language to communicate appropriate behaviour doesn't exist.

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