Next week marks the centenary of one of the most tragic and famous protests in British history: on 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison leapt in front of King George V’s horse, Anmer, at the Epsom Derby; she was knocked unconscious and died of her injuries four days later.
Davison was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the Suffragettes. At the time of her protest, only men could vote in Britain. The Suffragettes campaigned to extend the franchise to women but they were largely ignored by the political mainstream and lampooned by the media.
Public condemnation of Davison’s Epsom protest was widespread. It was assumed she intended to kill herself for her cause, disrupting the race in the process. She was described by the Queen Mother as a “lunatic”; a “mad act” one newspaper said, whilst The Times described her as “demented”.
However, more recent analysis of newsreel by forensic experts reveal that Davison’s death was an incredibly tragic accident. The footage backs up the theory that Davison did not intend to kill herself. Instead, she was attempting to fasten a Suffragette sash to the King’s horse, such that it would cross the finishing line wearing it, drawing attention to the cause.
Emily Davison had bought a return ticket to Epsom, making it likely she intended to go home; she also had a ticket to a dance that evening and she was due to visit her sister in France the following week. Anmer’s jockey was haunted by his memory of Davison – he laid a wreath in her honour at the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst and, very sadly, later committed suicide.
The sash which Davison had with her on 4 June 1913 now hangs proudly in the Houses of Parliament. As is fitting, Epsom Racecourse have unveiled a plaque in Davison’s honour, although, disappointingly, they have refused to hold a minute’s silence at this year’s derby.
It wasn’t until five years after Emily Davison died that women over 30 were finally given a voice in our democracy. It took still longer – ten years – for women to achieve parity with men, being able to vote from the age of 21. It is entirely right and proper that Emily Davison’s death is now being commemorated as it always should have been. I am very much looking forward to attending a memorial in Parliament next week, hosted by Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry MP, at which MPs from all parties will speak.
However, the centenary of Davison’s tragic death also serves to highlight very starkly that far too few women choose to vote in elections. Research by Mori found that a third of British women did not cast a ballot in the 2010 General Election. The Hansard Society recently found that women are less certain to vote and less interested in politics than men.
Of course, low levels of participation and engagement in politics is something which applies to both sexes, not just in Britain but in most modern democracies. The best honour we – both men and women – can do Emily Davison is to exercise the right that she sacrificed her life for.