Emily Wilding Davison was arrested ten times, went on seven hunger strikes, and was force-fed on forty-nine separate occasions all in the cause of being allowed to vote. She is most famous for throwing herself under the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, an act that led to her death and which has obscured the rest of her life and work.
Having met and known the last living suffragette, Victoria Lidiard, I have some sense of the determination, courage and resilience of those who led the campaign for equality – and the extraordinary aggression and hostility that these campaigners were subject to. Davison was one of the pioneers of the movement and one of its most militant. She hid in the Palace of Westminster on the night of the 1911 census, one of three occasions she spent the night there. She set fire to post-boxes and hurled stones. She was a prolific letter writer to newspapers, and after stints as a teacher and governess, a full time official of the Women’s Social and Political Union from 1906, which Emmeline Pankhurst had founded three years earlier.
Davison’s life was dedicated to fighting the barriers women faced. She studied at Oxford, won a First and was denied a degree because women were not permitted to be awarded one. She was a committed Christian and Socialist – at a time when being both these things meant taking a lead in fighting injustices of many kinds.
Along the way she and her fellow campaigners faced extraordinary brutality and aggression from the state – some of which we would call sexual abuse today. Some politicians provided help and support, but too many others did not – notably many who travelled under the banner of the Liberal Party. As her life progressed she often stood outside of the mainstream of the suffragette movement in pursuing violent action, but the justice of the cause was such that it could not be denied. Then, as now, the obtuse dullness of ‘the system’ and the inertia that always mitigates against reform and change is something that has endlessly to be challenged.
I marvel at the fact that I knew someone who had to stand in Parliament Square and ask to be allowed to vote. Even now in this centenary year of women’s suffrage we are only marking the fact that some women (and some more men) were allowed to vote. It would be another ten years before all women were granted the privilege. Ten more years of campaigning, pushing, cajoling. In many ways our centenary celebrations have come too soon. They ignore the fact that women’s equality in terms of voting was a long drawn out battle, not a sudden victory.
Lucy Fisher is a fast rising star in the cut-throat world of political journalism, who takes up the post of defence editor on The Times this autumn. This elegant and well written biography will add lustre to a blossoming career and is an excellent portrait of an extraordinary life.
Emily Wilding Davison – The Martyr Suffragette, Biteback Publishing, £12.99