Emily Davison: an early ‘suicide terrorist’?

One hundred years after she leapt in front of the king’s horse at Epsom, Davison death still divides opinion.

Ceri Dingle

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Topics Politics

On 4 June 1913, the Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison rushed on to the Derby racecourse at Epsom and was fatally injured trying to stop the king’s horse, Anmer. She died four days later on 8 June. On the one-hundredth anniversary, at a time when suicide terrorism has become quite commonplace, it is hardly surprising that the ‘did she or didn’t she plan to kill herself?’ debate has resurfaced. Was Davison’s political stunt an act of heroism, a tragedy to be commemorated, or comparable to today’s narcissistic suicide bombers?

In her book The Suffragette Movement, Sylvia Pankhurst, looking back on Davison’s death and her earlier suicide attempts, wrote the following: ‘Emily had long believed that the deliberate giving of a woman’s life would create the atmosphere necessary to win victory and bring all the suffering of the militants to an end. That had been her intention when in prison a year before she had flung herself over the corridor railings. A statement she then wrote revealed she had made three successive attempts to kill herself [by jumping over her corridor railings], twice being caught by the wire netting 40 feet below and finally throwing herself on to the iron staircase, sustaining injuries from which she had never entirely recovered. Her statement sent at the time to The Suffragette was not published until after her death, for there had been a general desire to discourage her from such tendencies; some of her colleagues suggested her attempt had been a sensational pretence. All such criticism was now forever silenced [after Davison’s death].’

Pankhurst said that on the day of the Derby, Davison had planned the protest with a fellow militant in whose flat she lived. It was to consist of waving the purple, white and green, the Suffragette colours, in front of the king’s horse, which it was hoped would stop the race. ‘Whether her first purpose was more serious, or whether a final impulse altered her resolve, I know not’, wrote Pankhurst. ‘Her friend declares she would not thus have died without writing a farewell message to her mother. Yet she had sewed the WSPU colours inside her coat as though to ensure that no mistake could be made as to her motive when her dead body should be examined.’

Many make much of the fact that Davison had an expensive return train ticket (8s 6d, about £40) in her purse, for travel between Victoria Station and Epsom racecourse – but it seems that ‘singles’ were not issued for this journey in those days. Like Pankhurst, we will never know if Davison intended anything more than to carry out a political stunt to stop the race; but in a sense, does it matter? The facts are interesting, of course, given her fame; but the situation Davison found herself in is in no way comparable to todays’ acts of ‘political suicide’.

The ‘did she, didn’t she mean to die’ discussion misses a key point. Which is that Davison had a political movement on her side; thousands followed her funeral; politics mattered to them, just as it had to Davison. The aspirations of women (and many men) for democracy and equality were what inspired Davison. She and her fellow Suffragettes were not afraid to take on the state, the police and the monarchy. The target of their ire was the establishment, not, as is the case for many of today’s narcissistic protesters, the allegedly ignorant public; indeed, the Suffragettes were keen to win the public’s support. Unlike today’s acts of individual terrorism, Davison’s was not an act of nihilistic human-hating, designed to cause maximum suffering and fear. These days, who really considers winning political support from the public as a key, important thing? Almost no one. Virtually all protesters now prefer to carry out isolated stunts, whether peaceful or violent ones, over engaging with ideas and people, as Davison and the other Suffragettes did.

After attending Davison’s funeral, and discovering that her own mother had just been taken off to prison, Pankhurst wrote a few a lines, and titled them ‘O Deed Majestic! O Triumphant Death!’. She eventually decided against publishing them. Here is an excerpt:

‘They carry the poor broken body through the streets, women in white with lilies, clergy in their robes, poor people who have gone without some needed thing even to come thus far to follow her.

All those four miles the roads are thronged with crowds who wait, silent and with bared heads, to see her pass.

One should be there – another woman whom they dragged back from following her, back to gaol where with starvation and weakness she fights great powers that be.

O dullard minds in power that cannot see great Freedom’s history-making; great tragic acts under their very eyes!

Parliament sat to govern us the while and not a man arose to speak of it.

In the wide stillness of the night, in the grey fields, under the quiet moon, that deed goes on. The beating of the horses’ hoofs, the rushing of the horses – she and they.’

Ceri Dingle is director of the education charity WORLDwrite.

Watch WORLDwrite’s documentary about Sylvia Pankhurst, titled ‘Everything is Possible’:

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