The Choices of Emily Wilding Davison

by JoHarrington

On June 8th 2013, it was the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison. She made the decision to become a martyr for Women's Right to Vote.

My legs went from under me, the first time I fully grasped what Emily Davison did. I sat down heavily, feeling a little breathless. It was the horror, not the heroism, which had finally occurred to me.

Until then, she had merely been an historical figure. I'd acknowledged her significance and, on a very academic level, accepted her rationale. But I'd not felt it. I'd not looked out from Emily's eyes and seen as she saw. Insofar as you ever can in those circumstances.

When I did, I cried.

Image: Emily Wilding Davison
Image: Emily Wilding Davison
Colorised by Freya Hansen

Emily Wilding Davison: A Suffragette's Family Album

Strangeways: The Near Drowning of Emily Wilding Davison

Highly intelligent and utterly stubborn, Emily was not a woman for backing down. Even if her own life was on the line.

Image: Force-feeding Emily Wilding DavisonRight around now, two truths became self-evident. She knew they were prepared to kill her. They knew that she was prepared to die. It was a stalemate. A battle of wills with a potentially deadly outcome. It would galvanize public opinion like never before.

Emily Wilding Davison had barricaded the door to her prison cell. A warden had climbed on a step-ladder in order to access the barred window outside. He'd fed a hosepipe into the room and was currently flooding it with water.

His motivation was simple. The Suffragette was supposed to panic and remove the barricade, in order to save herself from drowning.

Then prison staff would seize her and drag her into the force-feeding room. She would sit, pinned down by three wardens, while a pipe was rammed up her nostril and into her throat. In this way, her hunger strike would be ended.

Hunger strikes had always worked before. Within days of a Suffragette starting one, she would be released. It had long since been recognized by government that a woman starving to death in prison would be a public relations nightmare. But that merely allowed them to start agitating again for Women's Right to Vote. Hence the force-feeding. Hence Emily Wilding Davison barricading herself in a cell.

Now the water was gushing with nowhere to go. Emily's skirts were billowing out in the freezing, rising pool. All she had to do was remove the barricade. She refused. The prison wardens had encountered no-one quite like her before. It was supposed that when the water reached her waist, or her chest, she would cave in and get herself out of there.

It was now at her neck and Emily Wilding Davison looked altogether too calm. "Votes for Women!" She called out, as the water covered her head.

Now it was pandemonium outside. British prisons did not torture their prisoners to death, even annoying ones like those after political equality for women. Public opinion had largely been against the Suffragettes, but drowning one in an official institution could well change all that. It might even bring down the government.

On a personal level, the people involved were going to get sacked.

Several burly, male prison wardens performed a Herculean feat of strength, racing against time, but they forced open the barricade from the outside. As the water poured through the broken dam, Emily collapsed gasping inside. She was nearly drowned, weighed down by the weight of an Edwardian woman's dense clothing. But she survived.

The outcry which followed in the national press was a major coup for the Suffragette movement. Emily Wilding Davison sued and won. She was awarded £2 damages for her experiences in Strangeways Prison, Manchester.

She'd learned an important lesson. The British government and its officials really didn't want a Suffragette martyr; and the hearts and minds of the British public could be swayed by one.

Emily Wilding Davison and the Suffragette Banner

She wasn't the only woman prepared to die for Women's Suffrage, if it came down to it. In fact, she was one of eighty hunger strikers at the time.

Learn More about the Militant Suffragette Movement

In Edwardian Britain, women did not have the right to vote. They were considered the possessions of male relatives. The Suffragettes demanded a female voice in Parliament.

The Position of Emily Wilding Davison

Before we can analyse the decisions she made, we need to examine the options open to her. Who was she? And what else could she have done?

Image: Emily Wilding DavisonThe first thing to note about Emily Wilding Davison was her determination and intelligence.

This was a woman who had worked as a teacher, in order to pay the tuition fees on her own education. She'd graduated from the prestigious Hugh's College, Oxford, with First Class Honors in English and Literature.

But then she'd found that she could do nothing with her qualifications. Had she been male, she would have automatically been awarded a place at Oxford University. But places were not offered to females. Higher education was the preserve of men.

When she looked for work, all that was open to her were the jobs available before her education. She could return to teaching. She could be a governess. Employers shrank in horror from her certificate. An educated woman was not only deemed perverse, but a little dangerous too. It was certainly unfeminine.

From where Emily Wilding Davison was looking, the glass ceiling was made of granite.

Struggling to otherwise make a livelihood, Emily Davison remained in the teaching job she'd used to fund her college education. She had to eat. The pressure was simply to shut up, find a husband, have children and die.

There was another avenue, which might have used her remarkable brain. The Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) did have paid staff members. Headed by the Pankhursts, we know them better as the Suffragettes. Emily was a member of it, but she was never offered employment.

The reason is very clear. The Pankhursts demanded unity based around operations devised by themselves. If neither Emmeline nor Christabel Pankhurst had given permission first, then it shouldn't be happening. Unilateral militarism was frequently answered with dismissal from the WSPU.

Emily Wilding Davison had a clarity of vision and intelligence which far out-stripped either lady. If she couldn't persuade the Pankhursts to sanction certain routes of activism, then Emily would strike out alone. They considered her to be an out and out maverick. Yet the WSPU was frequently left running to catch up, when Emily's actions forced another wave of public opinion.

The situation was unfortunate. It rendered even the Suffragette Movement as yet another wall for Emily to butt her head against. The Pankhurst women represented a kind of betrayal. They were on her side, yet the message was loud and clear. Stop being so clever. Just conform.

At least the cell in Strangeways was more honest. There the near drowning was evident. For Emily in 1910-1913, the emotional and mental smothering was internal, but her activism was not.

Suffragette Memorabilia Pack - Suffragette Resource Pack

Emily Davison: "One Big Tragedy May Save Many Others."

She saw it so clearly now, yet she was a lone voice screaming into the political wilderness. Votes for Women needed a martyr.

Image: Emily Wilding DavisonEmily Wilding Davison was arrested and imprisoned nine times. She gained a healthy horror of force-feeding, as her letters revealed. She was also convinced that one day someone would be killed during the practice.

She wrote of her own experiences with being force-fed in Strangeways Prison, Manchester. She had been held into a chair by 'five or six' female wardens, while a doctor examined her mouth. He held a 'steel gag', which he tried to insert between her teeth. She clenched them closed to stop him, but Emily had two teeth missing on the right side of her mouth.

The doctor held apart her lips and shoved the steel tip into that dental gap. The device was then scissored open, acting like a jack against her teeth. It was painful, but not as much as the tube which was pushed against the back of her throat. Liquid from an enamel cup was poured into a funnel.

It gushed relentlessly and tasted 'foul'. There was something more than nutrients in the liquid. It had a sharply chemical aspect, thus alerting Emily to the fact that it included some kind of medication. She fought. She used her tongue to try and dislodge the choking pipe. Her damaged mouth filled with liquid, which she spluttered to expel, but most of it swamped down into her stomach. It felt like drowning all over again.

There were eighty women on hunger strike at the same time as Emily. She could see the potential for this manner of force-feeding to go badly wrong. Someone was going to end up killed. Especially if these same wardens were prepared to flood barricaded prison cells; and police officers on the street were willing to violently put down Suffragette protests. 

Something had to give and soon. If public opinion would rally behind Votes for Women, then the government would have to comply.  It was almost worth hoping that force-feeding did result in a fatality - a woman drowned in liquid food, or failing under a heart attack.

But such things might be brushed under the carpet. They were too small. Too reliant upon an already frail constitution. It might be dismissed as not the fault of the authorities. The woman would be a victim of her own ill-health; a reinforcement of how females were too fragile to be exposed to politics.

When Emily was released from Strangeways Prison, she began telling friends of her observations. "One big tragedy may save many others," She told a fellow Suffragette. Though some may have theoretically and cynically agreed with her logic, it would have been with a shudder and a prayer that it never actually happened.

No-one was about to volunteer for martyrdom. Nor did anyone seem to realize that, at least intellectually, Emily Wilding Davison already had.

Grace Petrie: Emily Davison Blues

"When no-one's listening and only violence makes the news, I've got the Emily Davison blues..."

Was Emily Wilding Davison Suicidal?

By 1913, the newspapers were determined to frame Emily as a hysterical woman. She wanted to die. She just used politics to make that look better. Or did she?

Image: Emily Wilding DavisonEmily Wilding Davison made a will in 1911. She was only thirty-nine years old. This is one of the major facts lingered upon by the press later, when their stories sought to paint her as a mentally unbalanced, suicidal woman.

But of course she made a will then.  The staff of Strangeways Prison had just tried to drown her.

Emily was well aware that the stakes had been raised. She could die in the course of her activism. But if her last will and testament was an indication of her supposed suicidal tendencies, then why didn't she top herself in 1911?

In fact the majority of her activities throughout the next two years weren't unduly dangerous to life and limb. She marched. She set fire to post-boxes (thus getting kicked out of the WSPU). She threw stones, wrapped in paper bearing the words "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God", at the prime minister's car. She broke into the Houses of Parliament on census night and hid in a ventilation shaft (so the clerk would be forced to register that a woman had entered Parliament).

These were the sorts of things that she did. If Emily Wilding Davison was truly attempting to take her own life from 1911 onwards, then were is the evidence?  There was nothing regarding suicide or martyrdom until after April 1912.

Then the sinking of the Titanic changed everything. Detractors all over the world were sneering at women for disdaining equality if their lives were on the line. Newspaper commentators were practically demanding a death.

Emily Wilding Davison could recall how well her cause gained public sympathy in the aftermath of her near drowning. She, more than anybody, understood just what would silence critics now; and what might finally force Votes for Women to be taken seriously in society. Someone needed to be willing to die for this almighty cause.

Someone just like her.

Did that render Davison suicidal?  It meant that she grasped the rhetoric. Undoubtedly, she'd read the public mood and identified the point of public relations leverage. But she saw herself as a militant, a soldier in a war. If she was suicidal, then so are every nation's troops.

Votes for Women or boats for women? In 1912, the press pushed to make it either/or and the Suffragettes were left floundering.

Emily Wilding Davison: "Only a tragedy will move things along."

The world seemed to be demanding a Suffragette martyr. With no-one prepared to listen to her and her fellow women, Emily opted for 'deeds not words'.

Image: Emily Wilding DavisonIn June 1912, newspapers like the London Daily Mail were still running scathing editorials regarding Suffragette principles.

If women were really ready for equality, then they would have refused to get into those Titanic life-boats. If they had any kind of emotional maturity, then the likes of Sylvia Pankhurst shouldn't belittle the male chivalry shown during the disaster.

Who on Earth could take Votes for Women seriously in those circumstances?

Emily Wilding Davison was in Holloway Prison. She had already served four months of her sentence for political arson, when the Titanic sank. She had been on hunger strike again. She had been force-fed again. Despite her earlier rhetoric, she had not attempted suicide.

But she was not without news. Isolated, starving, tortured and locked up in a cell, she could only look on, as events unfolded. She could clearly seeing what a public relations nightmare the Suffragette reaction to the Titanic disaster was turning out to be. For two months, there was nothing Emily could do about it.

Except answer the press charges with 'deeds not words'.

On June 19th 1912, Emily Wilding Davison resolved to protest the force-feeding of Suffragettes with drastic action.  She climbed to the top of the iron staircase in Holloway Prison and looked down. Thirty feet below, a suicide net hung across the chasm, but the same staircase she had ascended was alongside. She calculated that if she jumped off the railing at an angle, she would bypass the net and hit the staircase instead.

She would surely break her neck. She would show everyone just how serious Suffragettes were about political equality. She would enact the metaphorical equivalent of refusing a lifeboat on the Titanic, in the name of Votes for Women.

Emily leapt.  But a corner of the safety net caught her anyway. She sprawled, so close to the staircase, and lifted her head. She smashed it down hard on the iron bannister and blacked out.

She wasn't killed.

Emily Wilding Davison suffered fractures, including a spinal injury. For the final year of her life, she would be in constant pain due to the latter, as well as suffering terrible headaches. But she had not reached her objective. The Suffragette Movement did not have its martyr.

"Why did you do it?" A prison doctor asked her.

Despite her physical agony, Emily was quite blunt in her response. "Only a tragedy will move things along."  And still no-one saw fit to attempt to dissuade her in this conviction. Instead they force-feed her again that very night.

One year later, on Derby Day 1913, Emily Wilding Davison ran out onto a racetrack. She was apparently attempting to pin the Suffragette colors onto the king's own racehorse. It trampled her instead. Emily died four days later, on June 8th 1913, due to the injuries she sustained that day.

The Death of Emily Wilding Davison at Epsom Races

Almost a year to the day after her attempted martyrdom at Holloway Prison, she succeeded under the hooves of the King's horse during Derby Day 1913.

Books About Emily Wilding Davison

Learn more about this passionate activist for women's rights with these history books about Emily Wilding Davison.

Did Emily Wilding Davison Set Out to Die on Derby Day 1913?

The jury is still out on whether she meant to throw herself under the king's horse. But she certainly thought that there should be a Votes for Women martyr.

Image: Emily Wilding Davison at Epsom RacesWe don't know what Emily Wilding Davison was thinking on June 4th 1913. She didn't leave a note.

Her death came as a shock to even her closest friends, and it devastated her family. Her house-mate stated that Emily had left home with a very different strategy.

She was going to wave her Suffragette flag at Tattenhall Corner. She hoped that the sudden movement would be enough to startle the horses into abandoning the race. Film footage seems to show her attempting to pin her colors onto several horses, before the king's racehorse Anmer mowed her down.

Others have speculated that she specifically targeted the king's horse. The newspapers certainly ran stories framing this as a deliberate insult against the British royal family by a Suffragette. But in the fast-paced thundering of hooves, it seems incredible to imagine anyone anticipating the right horse with such precision.

Nor does that account for all the near miss reaching out to the horses, which immediately preceded Anmer.

(The same newspapers appealed to the British love of animals by reporting that Emily Wilding Davison's actions had killed the king's horse. It hadn't. Anmer can be seen in the footage rising and fleeing the scene. He definitely wasn't dead when he was entered in subsequent races. The horse was notably alive, when he was presented to the Canadian prime minister. Anmer went on to sire baby racehorses there.)

Emily Wilding Davison spent the week before the race replacing the lining of her coat with Suffragette colors. Some have speculated that this is evidence that she meant to commit suicide.  Why else might anyone see inside the coat of an Edwardian middle-class lady?

The night before she left for Epsom, Emily attended a WSPU rally in a private Kensington garden. There was a statue of Joan of Arc there, and she placed a wreath against it. Should we read anything into that? The respect towards an idealistic female martyr from one who was planning to become one.

Much has been made of the fact that Emily bought a return train ticket to Epsom. Why bother if she knew that she wasn't coming home? At least this can be dismissed as a clue to her frame of mind. Derby Day was such a big event that the train company was only selling return tickets. It was buy one of those, or don't go at all.

Yet her house-mate remained adamant that it all must have been a terrible accident, despite Emily's convictions about the need for a martyr, and her previous attempt at Holloway Prison. She wouldn't have set out to die without writing a letter home to her mother first.

Modern Forensics Provides an Insight into Emily Davison's Motives

Clare Balding's Secrets of a Suffragette reconstructed events from three known contemporary footage. Emily was accidentally killed.

Why I Cried for Emily Wilding Davison and her Choices

It occurred to me that it wasn't just political. It was not solely for a great, almighty cause. It was downright personal.

A century separates Emily Wilding Davison and me. She was born in 1872. I was born in 1972. I'm the same age now as she was, when she fell beneath the hooves of the king's racehorse.

It was the Epsom Derby Day 2013 three days ago. Nobody died.

I can vote in local and national elections. I am protected by laws, which prohibit discrimination due to my gender in just about every sphere of life.

It was the Epsom Derby Day 1913, one hundred years ago. Somebody died to ensure that I'd gain those rights.

We can debate endlessly about whether it was Emily's sacrifice, or the whole Suffragette/Suffragist Movements, or the First World War, or simply time which secured Women's Rights. Everyone has their theory.

But this is looking at it all so very academically. We're in danger of viewing Emily Wilding Davison not as a real person, but as a powerful symbol. No flesh and blood woman, but the embodiment of 'one great tragedy'. The faceless 'woman who dared', pictured in the mind's eye solely as a tumble of skirts and a flying hat on a black and white race-course.

Did Emily intend to die?  We'll never know.  Did she need to die? That's a question for the academe. The real point being - did Emily believe that she needed to die?  I think that she did.

That is the real tragedy here, particularly since she wasn't necessarily suicidal. She just wanted life to be fair. In her deep frustration, Emily - that First Class Honors graduate with such clarity of social and political vision - had reached the conclusion that her death would be of more worth than her life. She would sacrifice herself, so that those who followed might at least have a chance.

Emily had swallowed her own deep disappointment. She gave up on her own behalf. Her options had left her with no option. She could conform and allow the world to slowly crush her spirit; or she could gather her courage, and hope that her grand exit was seismic enough to change the course of society.

Funeral Procession of Emily Wilding Davison

It was a massive event, swiftly organized by the WSPU. Thousands of people took part, not just Suffragettes. It was noted how the public reacted with subdued respect.

The Funeral of Emily Wilding Davison

It's difficult to assess how far Emily's martyrdom contributed to women finally winning the vote. Too many other factors are in play. But her funeral felt different..

For a second there, it seemed like business as usual.

Politicians sought to distance Emily from the Suffragettes. She was a lone madwoman, a lunatic; she was working alone.

The press scrambled to out-do each other in whipping up condemnation of her actions. She'd killed the horse! (She hadn't.)  It was all a stunt aimed to deliberately insult the royal family! (It wasn't.) She'd killed the jockey!  Nearly killed the jockey! Badly injured him!

(Technically this is true. Herbert Jones survived the collision, but committed suicide 38 years later. Friends reported that he'd never come to terms with the accident. His long-term depression certainly contributed to him taking his own life.)

Police notices banned any public assembly or funeral procession, in honor of Emily Wilding Davison, through the streets of London. WSPU member Grace Roe promptly organized one and over 1000 Suffragettes gathered. It was their last great march, and immediately proved the Parliamentary lie that Emily had not been one of them.

(Though, in fairness, she officially wasn't at the moment of her death. But only because Christabel Pankhurst had kicked Emily out over the pillar-box incident. She would have been back, and every Suffragette from the Pankhursts through the rank and file were calling Emily their sister right now.)

None of this was particularly unpredictable.  However, the rest of Emily Wilding Davison's funeral procession contained elements that had not been there before.

The police were accustomed to breaking up any Suffragette march and arresting the women. Despite having publicly prohibited this one, no attempt was made to stop it. In fact, the police officers quietly lined the curb-side, unobtrusively enacting crowd control, but that was it. No arrests were made. Flanking Emily's coffin coach, the women were startled to note many police officers bowing their heads or doffing their helmets in respect, as the cavalcade passed by.

A group of self-confessed male agitators, who had come to heckle the Suffragettes, all fell silent. One explained that those at the front of the procession were carrying a huge cross. It didn't feel right to cause trouble then.

Several clergymen left their churches to walk alongside the ladies within the procession. They were joined by students, black-clad in their graduate robes, as they marched past all of the city colleges and universities. 

From the East End of London, crowds of trade unionists had traveled west especially to march with the Suffragettes.  Also stepping in line from the very start were the Suffragists. All quarrels about differing methodology was put aside. Today, all of the Votes for Women organizations were united.

Nor were all of those in the procession part of an organized group. Hundreds of people simply stepped off the pavement into their ranks. They wished to merely demonstrate their support in the wake of Emily's sacrifice.

Finally there were the crowds thronging on both sides of the streets. Every WSPU march had always been subject to angry cat-calls and a largely hostile mass of onlookers. But not today. For the last ever large Suffragette procession through the capital, there was respect and an almost eerie silence, given the hundreds of thousands of people present.

Whatever opinions may have been privately held, Emily Wilding Davison had forced the average Londoner to take the Suffragettes seriously.

Emily Wilding Davison Poster

Emily Davison Died after Throwing Herself in Front of the King's Horse

More about Emily Wilding Davison

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.
Updated: 07/22/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 06/12/2013

I'm pleased to have been the one to introduce you to Emily Wilding Davison. She's certainly worth remembering. Grace Petrie song is amazing.

Ember on 06/12/2013

I love Grace Petri, she (okay you talking about her music) was the first time I learned about Emily Davison.

I'm surprised how little I know about anything that happened in these movements, beyond that they happened. Thank you for your knowledge. :)

JoHarrington on 06/06/2013

I've not revisited that part of our history for a while. I ended up doing a lot of reading, simply because I'd been drawn into a new appreciation of what they did for us. I think that as you get older, you see it even more clearly - not the activism, but the personal stories. They were truly amazing ladies.

Thank you for reading.

jptanabe on 06/06/2013

Wow, powerful story. I'd not thought about suffragettes in a long time. We really do take everything we have for granted, things this amazing lady died for. Thank you for sharing so beautifully.

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