Davison, Emily (1872–1913)

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Davison, Emily (1872–1913)

English militant suffragist. Born Emily Wilding Davison in Blackheath, England, in 1872; died on June 8, 1913; daughter of Charles and Margaret Davison; graduated B.A. from London University; obtained a first at Oxford in English Language and Literature.

Emily Davison was born in Blackheath, England, in 1872, the daughter of a Northumbrian couple. Productive at school, she won a place at Holloway College to study literature. Two years later following her father's death, she was forced to leave Holloway because her mother could not afford the £20 term fees. Instead, Davison took a job as a schoolteacher in Worthing.

In 1906, she joined the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and, by 1908, was one of the chief leaders in the June WSPU demonstration in London. Becoming deeply enmeshed in the militant activities of the group, she eventually gave up full-time teaching. She was also involved with the Worker's Educational Association.

In March 1909, Davison was arrested while attempting to hand a petition to Herbert Asquith, then prime minister. Found guilty of disturbance, she was sentenced to one month in prison. Four months later, for trying to enter a London hall where the chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George, was making a speech, she was again imprisoned. After a five-day hunger strike, she was released.

A few days later, along with Mary Leigh and Constance Lytton , Davison was arrested for stone throwing. The stones, wrapped in paper with the words "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God," were being hurled at Lloyd George's motorcar as it wended its way toward Newcastle. Sentenced to one-month hard labor in Strangeways Jail, the women went on a hunger strike and were force-fed 49 times. Davison, to thwart the force-feeding and prison brutalization, barricaded herself in her cell. When a prison officer climbed a ladder, inserted a hose pipe through a window, and blasted icy water at her, slowly filling the cell, she still refused to allow access. Before the cell had been completely gorged with water, the door was broken down.

Keir Hardie, leader of the Labour Party, expressed concern in the House of Commons over the treatment of Davison. Public sympathy was also on her side. She litigated against the men at Strangeways who had been responsible for the hosepipe incident, and damages were awarded in her favor on January 19, 1910. Then Davison's militant attacks escalated. In 1911, she was sentenced to six months for setting fire to a mailbox. To draw attention to the cause, she attempted suicide by throwing herself down an iron staircase at Holloway in 1911; she landed on wire-netting, 30 feet below, and suffered severe spinal injuries.

Emily Davison became convinced that the conscience of Parliament would only be awakened by the sacrifice of a life. Thus at the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913, in full view of King George V and Queen Mary of Teck , Davison rushed onto the course wrapped in a WSPU banner, grabbed the reins of Anmer, the king's horse, and was trampled; she died four days later. Her skull had been fractured, and she never regained consciousness.

Though the British at large generally dismissed Davison's actions as that of a mentally ill fanatic, representatives of many unions, including the gas workers', dockers' and general laborers', attended her funeral, as well as graduates and clergy. Though the police had banned the procession, the streets were lined by respectful crowds as her coffin was escorted through London by 2,000 suffragists. Buried at her mother's home in Morpeth in Northumberland, her tombstone is inscribed "Deed, not words." Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested during the march.

suggested reading:

Colmore, Gertrude. The Life of Emily Davison. Women's Press, 1913.

Morley, Ann, and Liz Stanley. The Life and Death of Emily Davison. Women's Press, 1988.

Roberts, Marie, ed. The Militants, 1995.

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Davison, Emily (1872–1913)

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