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Deeds Not Words: Emily Wilding Davison

2011 March 30

This year, as many of us fill in the census, it’s also 100 years since the 1911 census, which women’s suffrage activists saw as another campaigning opportunity.

One of the best and oddest moments in the Disney canon is the appearance, halfway through Mary Poppins, of an all-singing all-dancing campaign for civil liberties. ‘Sister Suffragette’ isn’t without its problems – the song is half-pisstake, half-pastiche, and the film makes Mrs Banks’ dizzy preoccupation with Votes for Women another instance of parental neglect – but come on, it’s a subversively fluffy aside that puts a smile on the face, and it’s sometimes the first encounter with that fabulous creature, a suffragette, that people remember having.

The campaign for women’s suffrage in this country is such a great story that I’m surprised it’s never been the subject of its own Disney film. Apart from its narrative of struggle towards a goal undeniably justified in modern eyes, it’s got a whole array of glamorous heroines in petticoats and picture-hats and, eventually – after the false dawn of the 1918 Representation of the People Act which only included women property-owners aged over thirty – a happy ending. In particular, the Suffragette taste for militantly iconoclastic protest would lend itself to iconic on-screen moments: women chained to the Downing Street railings, smashing windows, occupying civic buildings, enduring imprisonment and force-feeding and, not least, Emily Wilding Davison’s much-disputed martyrdom at the social event of the season, which actually was captured on film at the time.

Contrary to the Pathé News intertitle, Davison was not killed by her collision with George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, but died four days later of the injuries sustained. She was forty. When people say women died for your right to vote, a fair proportion of them will be thinking of her.

Davison’s intentions on the day of the Derby are lost to history. Some historians believe her to have been intent on martyrdom, pointing to a previous incident during her imprisonment in Strangeways where she threw herself off a balcony. On the other hand, the fact that she had purchased a return train ticket – and also a ticket to a suffragette dance later that day – suggests that she intended to return having only interrupted or disrupted the race – possibly by attaching a suffragette flag to the King’s horse. This would have been one more instance of Davison’s dedication to gaining attention for her chosen cause through publicity stunt and spectacle.

Black and white photograph of Emily Davison, a young white woman with thick dark curled hair in a high collar and an academic mortarboard.Davison was born at Blackheath on 11th October, 1872. Sylvia Pankhurst recalled her as ‘tall and slender… Her illusive, whimsical green eyes and thin, half-smiling mouth, bore often the mocking expression of the Mona Lisa’. She performed well at school, and defying many of the social orthodoxies imposed by Victorian society, won a place at Royal Holloway College, funding her own education through teaching work. In 1895 she studied for a term at Oxford, gaining First Class Honours in Modern Languages – despite, Oxford degrees being closed to women, having no opportunity to graduate. Having resumed her teaching career, Davison joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906, quickly becoming its head steward as well as an active member of the socialist Workers’ Educational Association and the Central Labour College.

Davison was one of around a thousand women imprisoned for political activities between 1903 and the outbreak of WWI. In March 1909, she was arrested for disturbance while attempting to hand a petition to the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and sentenced to one month in prison. Four months later, she attempted to gain access to a hall where the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, was giving a speech, and was imprisoned for two months. Later in the same year, she and two other women were arrested for throwing stones at Lloyd George’s car, and sentenced to a month’s hard labour at Strangeways prison. The stones were wrapped in paper bearing Emily’s favourite saying: Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.

While inside Strangeways, Davison went on hunger-strike. The prison authorities, in line with government policy, responded by force-feeding her and, when she barricaded herself inside her cell to avoid this, came close to causing her death by flooding the cell with ice-cold water. This treatment appalled the public and was discussed in Parliament, with Labour leader James Keir Hardie advocating her release. Undaunted, Davison spent the next few years in and out of prison for setting fire to London post boxes, attacking a vicar she mistook for Lloyd George, and planting a bomb which severely damaged Lloyd George’s house in Surrey.

Photo showing a large white stone monument to the Davison family surrounded by greenery.

The Davison family monument in Morpeth, Northumberland. You might *just* see Deeds Not Words if you click to enlarge. Nearest Creative Commons shot we could locate... Photo from Flickr, shared under Creative Commons, taken by Daniel Weir (user danielweiresq).

The public response to Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby was not immediately sympathetic: more information was printed about the health of the King’s horse and jockey (the latter making a full recovery and the former ‘suffering bruised shins’) than about the suffragettes’ cause, and the Daily Herald went on to print a cartoon in dubious taste showing ‘Miss Davison’ as a skeleton holding a Votes For Women placard. Posterity has been scarcely kinder, dismissing Davison as a mentally ill fanatic and proto-terrorist whose actions horrified both supporters and opponents of her cause, and which enabled the persistence of old arguments founded on the idea that women’s intrinsically irrational nature made them unsuited to political discourse and decision-making. Populist historian George Dangerfield’s depiction of the suffragettes as a frivolous frilly edge to the fall of Liberal England was a cue picked up by succeeding historians, who viewed the majority of women involved as playing at politics, succumbing to a fashionably edgy craze, indulging their innate feminine tendency to hysteria, and even masochistically courting the treatment they received from police and prison authorities. Not until the advent of women’s history in the 1970s were they treated more seriously and their struggle linked to that for wider suffrage in earlier decades: the first Woman’s Suffrage Bill was presented to Parliament in 1832, as part of the general struggle for reform and extension of the franchise to non-property-holding and working men. (It’s worth pointing out that the King’s jockey at the 1913 Derby, Herbert Jones, was not entitled to the vote either.)

Photo showing a wood-panelled wall with a brass plaque dedicated to Davison's sit-in in the House of Commons. Above it is a second round plaque with a photo of Davison mounted or possibly etched on it.

The census sit-in commemorative plaque at the House of Commons, with the three suffragette colours shown as stripes on the corner of Emily's portrait

Davison is buried at Morpeth Church with the WSPU motto ‘Deeds Not Words’ engraved on her headstone. Memorials to her are hard to find – like the suffragette monument tucked away in Victoria – but one is in the House of Commons crypt, placed there by the Labour MP Tony Benn. It commemorates the night of the 1911 census when Davison hid in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster overnight so that on the census form she could legitimately give ‘the House of Commons’ as her place of residence that night. (Ironically enough, other suffragettes were spending the night evading the census in protest at their exclusion from the franchise.) The census documents from 2nd April 1911 state that Davison was found ‘hiding in the crypt’ in the Houses of Parliament. Whatever the suffragettes’ brand of protest represents today – a reckless eye for spectacle, a disregard for personal safety and security in pursuit of political goals, and a willingness to draw attention to oneself, all of which are valid weapons in the arsenal of political activists – escapades like that of Emily Davison on census night are the kind of minor gems that make the historical record sparkle.

Some links to suffragettes on the page, stage and screen – feel free to add your own in comments:

And of course Mrs Banks.

(I could say something on how the temporary alliance of Mrs Banks and her domestics with the chimney-sweeps at the end of ‘Step in Time’, and their consequent disruption of the bourgeois patriarchal hegemony of the Banks household through dance, is a commendable representation of a socialist-feminist popular front, but that’s a whole other post.)

Rhian Jones also blogs at Velvet Coalmine

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    March 30, 2011

    This post was by Rhian, not Rob, but can Emily Davison still join the super-team? She’s certainly awesome enough. I think Miranda’s pirates are probably a separate team.

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 30, 2011

      Rob’s series is about people who’re a little less well known (on the whole) than Davison, who is at least mentioned in several GCSE syllabus textbooks. I did my A Level history coursework on the women’s suffrage movement and she was definitely part o’that!

      I think if there are unsung heroes to be found among the suffrage campaigners they’re probably working class women who were treated on the whole far worse in prison (as Lady Constance Lytton discovered when she was arrested in disguise) and women of colour. I’ve been trying to find out more about women of colour and the suffrage movement lately – so far the resources I’ve turned up online have been about the US movement, but I shall share these links:

      * article on Ida B Wells, lynchings in the US, and the Temperance movement

      * this photograph of two women on a stall

  2. April 9, 2011

    loved this!

  3. June 6, 2012

    As an American I know more about the suffrage movement on this side of the Atlantic, but I’ve recently been looking for information about the movement in Britain. This was an excellent article. Thanks!

    • Rhian Jones permalink
      June 21, 2012

      Hi Susan, thanks for your comment – I’m really pleased that people are still discovering this post over a year on! :)

      • Bobbie Yardley permalink
        May 10, 2013

        Rhian, Just lisened the to talk on Radio Four,on Emily w Davison and went on to many links

        Thank You

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Two posts: Emily Wilding Davison | Clamorous Voice
  2. If I had to name five reasons why everyone knows who the suffragettes are, this would surely have to be one | Feminist Memory
  3. Deeds Not Words « St Albans School Government & Politics Weblog

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