05 November 2011

Emily Davison - Suffragette

Europe by Geert Mak, 2007, Excerpts

A brief section of newsreel has been preserved of the Derby [London] held in June 1913. We see the horses hurtling around the bend at high speed, neck and neck. In the background we catch a glimpse of the crowd, men in straw hats, here and there a woman. Then something happens, so quickly as to be almost imperceptible: a woman runs onto the track, there is whirl of bodies, then the horses are past and spectators rush towards a pile of clothing. That is how she entered history. Waving two flags, Emily Davison threw herself in front of the king’s horse for the cause of female suffrage. She died four days later.

Shortly before Emily was born, John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women in 1869. A man held absolute sway over his wife’s person and her possessions. University degrees were off-limits to women. Many professions barred women from their ranks. Many poor girls turned to whoring to survive. After 1870, women began making themselves heard on subjects such as education, charity work, health care, mandatory vaccination and prostitution. Starting in 1880, the major political parties established women’s organizations, and demonstrations for female suffrage began in 1900.

She was drawn into a current of political action, demonstration of solidarity and intense friendships. She was deeply convinced that ‘she had been called by God not only to work, but also to fight for the cause she had embraced, like Joan of Arc leading the French Army. Her prayers were always long, and the Bible always lay beside her bed.’ Emily united in herself the contradiction of her day; a hotchpotch of modern militancy and religious romanticism.

Within this field of contradictions, and driven by her own religious fervor, Emily Davison went further and further adrift. She became on the first to wield the new weapon of the powerless: the hunger strike. After she was arrested, she was force-fed through a tube and attempted to throw herself down the prison stairwell.

Slowly but surely, she began considering herself a martyr, a sacrificial lamb. On Tuesday 3 June, 1913 she walked at the ‘All in a Garden’ fair organized by the women’s movement, and paused for a long time before the statue of Joan of Arc. She told her friends cheerfully that she would come back here every day, ‘except for tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m going to the Derby.” She refused to elaborate. ‘Read the papers, you’ll see.” The next morning she rushed into the main office. ‘I need to borrow two flags.’ In everything now, she was Joan of Arc.

But dying was not a part of her plan. When she committed her ultimate act, the train ticket home, third class, was still in her pocket.

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