As British voters took to the polls earlier this month to vote in an election that was called the most unpredictable in decades, tweets like this began showing up, urging women to get out and vote:
Women that haven't voted today remember Emily Davison... She died in 1913 fighting for women's right to vote pic.twitter.com/MkQGuKycBw
— L I V I C L A I R E (@Livi_Claire) May 7, 2015
They’re common around elections, and the story usually goes like this: militant suffragist Emily Davison, hoping to draw attention to the cause, committed suicide at a 1913 horse race by throwing herself under the hooves of a horse. Or did she? It turns out the truth about Davison, and her motives, are more complicated.
Davison was one of England’s more devoted suffragists, quitting her job as a teacher to agitate for women’s rights full-time. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, a group founded by the inimitable and fearless Emmeline Pankhurst and comprised of women “impatient with the middle class, respectable, gradualist tactics” of their counterparts in the British suffrage movement. Davison quickly became a fearless campaigner, embracing increasingly more militant tactics that included arson (setting fire to mailboxes), rock-throwing, assault, and even hiding in a cupboard in the House of Commons so she could list it as her residence on the census.
Her extreme civil disobedience was rewarded with multiple stays in prison, during which she was force-fed and hosed down with cold water. Her behavior gained her little favor with her compatriots in the movement, many of whom tried to distance themselves from her tactics. In 1912, while serving time for arson, she even attempted suicide. “The idea in my mind was ‘one big tragedy’ may save many others,” she is reported to have said before jumping 30 feet from a prison window. Though biographers believe the move was in response to the threat of being force fed, Davison’s contemporaries saw an activist prepared to commit suicide for the cause.
This did, in fact, seem to be Davison's motive on June 4, 1913, when she attended the Epsom Derby. During the race, she jumped onto the track and ran toward Anmer, a horse owned by King George V. Horrified spectators looked on as she was dragged beneath the horse’s hooves. Though initial reports claimed that she had survived, she died of her wounds four days later.
The incident sent shock waves throughout the movement and all of England. “All this moral force and daring was not merely poured out to waste,” wrote one commentator. “It was spent on the immediate baseness of endangering the life of a stranger.” In a rebuttal, suffragist Evelyn Sharp wrote that “it is an insult, after the shameful record of the last half-century … to expect women to go on ‘seeking honourably and sanely the enfranchisement which is their right,’ when by honour and sanity you only mean submission and patience.”
But though Davison quickly became a symbol of the lengths to which suffragists would go to gain the right to vote, modern-day scholars believe her death was not suicide but a tragic accident. In 2013, a team of investigators from Britain's Channel 4 analyzed newsreel footage of the incident. They found that rather than trying to pull down the horse, Davison was “in fact reaching up to attach a scarf to its bridle.” Instead of using her own life to demonstrate the importance of her cause, historians now think that Davison hoped to use the race’s high profile to draw attention to a women’s suffrage banner. Whatever Davison’s intentions, her actions clearly resonate more than a century later. Perhaps her life is best summed up by the WSPU slogan that marks her grave: “Deeds, not words.”
Additional References: Literature of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign in England; The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison: A Biographical Detective Story.