104 years ago, suffragette Emily Davison died after incurring traumatic injuries from throwing herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby four days earlier. She was just 41-years-old.
Davison was a committed member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. In 1909, three years after joining, she gave up her job as a teacher to work for it full-time.
Her favourite quote was “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God” and she was frequently arrested for militant acts such as throwing rocks at the chancellor’s carriage, burning pillar boxes and causing public disturbances. Many of her stunts were not approved of by the WSPU, with whom she eventually fell out of favour.
Davison endured multiple stints in prison, where she was force-fed after going on hunger strike. While serving a hard labour sentence at Strangeways Prison, she resisted force feeding by barricading her cell door with prison furniture. The prison officer on duty forced a hosepipe through the window and began filling up the cell up with water. Davison was prepared to die for her cause then, but the door was broken down before she could drown.
In 1912, she suffered severe spinal injuries after attempting to kill herself by jumping down an iron staircase in Holloway Prison.
By this point, Davison had become convinced that the suffragette movement needed a martyr to succeed. On 4 June 1913 she attended the Epsom Derby with fellow suffragette Mary Richardson, slipped under the rail with a WSPU banner and grabbed the bridle of the King’s galloping colt Anmer, ridden by acclaimed jockey Herbert Jones. The impact fractured her skull and knocked her unconscious. Jones was said to be “forever haunted by that woman’s face” and was found dead in a gas-filled kitchen by his son in 1951.
There remains debate as to whether Davison intended to kill herself that fateful day, as a ticket for a suffragette rally later in the day and a return train ticket to London were found in her possession. Some historians believe she was merely trying to attach her protest sash to the horse.
Pankhurst, however, reportedly said that Davison “clung to her conviction that one great tragedy, the deliberate throwing into the breach of human life, would put an end to the intolerable torture of women”.
Today in 1913, Emily Davison died so that women could have the right to vote. Girls, we owe it to her. Use your vote. #shevotes
— ruby (@rubynaldrett) June 8, 2017
— Jane Wenham-Jones (@JaneWenhamJones) June 8, 2017
Emily Davison died in 1913. Amazing & humbling to think of the bravery of the Suffragettes. Bad-ass women are the BEST. Vote baby vote. pic.twitter.com/848MDbwZqF
— Hannah Sierp (@stop_hannahtime) June 8, 2017
104th anniversary of Emily Davison's death, don't be a dick and use your right that people lost their lives for
— maddie (@maddieeyoung) June 8, 2017
Tragically, Davison’s actions failed to move people as she had hoped, with public concern centred around the horse and jockey. Queen Mary referred to her as a “brutal lunatic woman” in a telegram sent to Jones as he recovered from mild concussion.
The WSPU, however, made sure she was given the funeral procession she deserved. Six thousand women marched through London in support of the movement before she was buried at St Mary’s Church in Morpeth. The WSPU slogan “Deeds not words” is engraved on her headstone.
The Representation of the People Act was eventually passed in 1918, but it only gave suffrage to women over the age of 30 with a property qualification. These women made up just 40 per cent of the UK’s female population at the time. Meanwhile, the same act had given the vote to all men over the age of 21 and lowered the voting age to 19 for those in the armed forces. Gender inequality remained rife.
Finally, after years of fighting for what we now take for granted as a basic human right, the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 ruled that all women over the age of 21 could vote. Fifteen million disenfranchised people could at long last make their voices heard.