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100 years on from Emily Davison’s death, her battle is not yet won

4 June 2013

7:06 PM

4 June 2013

7:06 PM

In April’s local elections, only one in three of those eligible to vote actually did so. What proportion of those voters were women? It’s difficult to get an exact percentage, but in most UK elections, women account for just under half of the turnout. In general elections, female turnout is just over 60 percent. Bearing that in mind, it might seem incredible that 100 years ago today, one woman died so that the rest of us could vote. On the day of the Epsom Derby – 4th June 1913 – Emily Wilding Davison ran out in front of the King’s Horse, a three-year-old gelding named Anmer, and died four days later from her injuries.

Many of Emily’s critics – both then and now – dismissed her actions by claiming they were the work of a madwoman. Just days after the Derby incident, Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother, described Emily as a ‘brutal lunatic woman’ in a telegram to the jockey, Bertie Jones. Fair enough, some might say. Throwing yourself in the path of a speeding racehorse isn’t what one might call normal behaviour.

But are the reports of what happened that day correct? Until recently, it was assumed that her death had been intentional. She had, after all, attempted to kill herself once before, throwing herself over the banisters of her prison in protest against the force-feeding of her fellow suffragettes. But many people now believe that she was actually trying to throw a ‘Votes for Women’ scarf over the horse, when her skirts got caught up in his hooves.


Far from throwing herself in front of a racehorse, Emily was actually attempting a publicity stunt that went drastically wrong. She wasn’t a madwoman – on the contrary, she was perfectly sane – but had been driven mad by frustration about the world she inhabited. With a degree from Royal Holloway College, as well as first class honours from Oxford (which at that time didn’t amount to a degree as she was a woman), she dreamt of being a political journalist. But, as a woman in the early 1900s, she had little hope of achieving her goal, and as a result ended up working as a governess for a number of years, before her militant protests and 9 trips to prison rendered her unemployable.

If Emily had been in the same circumstances today, 100 years on, would circumstances have been any less frustrating for her? According to recent research, just 22% of political journalists are female. Whether this is because women aren’t interested in being political journalists, or because they struggle to be accepted in the world of politics is open to debate, but it’s also worth bearing in mind that in the UK, the percentage of female MPs is the same – just 22%. Even with her degree from Oxford, she’d still have been more likely to achieve her aim had she been a man.

Much has changed in the past century, but the cause at the foundation of the suffragette movement – that of equal rights for women – is one that is almost as relevant today as it was in 1913. It is still most certainly a man’s world, particularly when you look at the age-old problems of the earnings gap between men and women and the lack of women ‘in the boardroom’ and high-powered jobs, be it as CEOs or as politicians.

‘Deeds not words’, was the motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union – a motto which still hasn’t lost its pertinence. As Alison Wolf pointed out in her recent book The XX Factor, it’s the average woman – not the high-flyer – who needs to fight for her rights.  Even if it’s just a matter of using the vote that Emily and the suffragette movement fought for, or taking an interest in politics, then at least those women will not have fought in vain. Perhaps we women just need reminding of exactly what was sacrificed in order for us to live the lives we do today.

As the former speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, said in a recent interview:

‘It is crucially important that young people and young women participate in the democratic process. It is no good for young women to sit back and say “I don’t care about it, I don’t know anything about it”. I think they should be ashamed of doing that.’


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