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Emily Davison (1872 – 1913) (taken from BBC History: Historic Figures series)
Emily Davison, the militant suffragette and martyr to the cause of the political advancement of women, had a favourite quotation: ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.’ In 1909, she wrote these words on slips of paper, tied them to rocks and threw them at the carriage of the chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George, as it drove by.
She was sentenced to a month’s hard labour in Strangeways jail as a result, but to Emily, imprisonment was only one of a series of setbacks she considered worth suffering to advance the cause of women’s suffrage.
As a young woman, the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, had caught the attention of Davison. In 1909, she gave up her job as teacher and went to work full-time for the suffragette movement. She was frequently arrested for acts ranging from causing a public disturbance to burning post boxes.
In prison she went on hunger strikes, a tactic favoured by many of the suffragettes, as a hunger strike meant release from jail. The Cat and Mouse Act of 1913 addressed this: a female hunger striker would be released from prison long enough to regain her health, and then, once strong, she was put back inside to finish her sentence.
It was in the late spring of 1909 that Emily was caught throwing stones at Lloyd George. During her month in prison she attempted to starve herself, and resisted force-feeding. A prison guard, angered by Davison’s blockading herself in her cell, forced a hose into the room and nearly filled it with water. Davison, it’s claimed, seemed content to be martyred this way. Eventually, however, the door was broken down, and she was freed. She subsequently sued the wardens of Strangeways, and was awarded 40 shillings.
By 1911, her illegal actions increased. She began to believe that the suffragette cause needed an actual martyr to bring it the publicity it needed.
Her final act was to run out onto the racetrack at the Epsom Derby, and grab the reigns of the king’s horse running that day. In so doing, she was trampled on, and died a few days later. The public disregarded the act as that of a crazed woman.
Despite the public’s indifference, Emmeline Pankhurst, in her autobiography, wrote what she felt Davison’s death meant to the suffragette movement: ‘Emily Davison clung to her conviction that one great tragedy, the deliberate throwing into the breach of a human life, would put an end to the intolerable torture of women.’