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Death on the path to suffrage

31 May 2013

Tomorrow's Epsom Derby marks the centenary of Emily Davison's death under the hoofs of the King's horse. Peter Street recalls the event, and Christians' conflicting attitudes to women's suffrage


Derby drama: the moment when Emily Davison brought down the King's horse, Anmer, and suffered fatal injuries

Derby drama: the moment when Emily Davison brought down the King's horse, Anmer, and suffered fatal injuries

NO ONE knows whether Emily Wilding Davison intended to kill herself when she was run down by King George V's horse in the 1913 Epsom Derby. She may simply have been trying to stop the colt, Anmer, ridden by Herbert Jones, not bidding for martyrdom.

The coroner returned a verdict of "Death due to misadventure", but the jury is still out. There is plaus-ible evidence for suicide, and also for foolhardiness (attempting to stop a galloping horse is not to be recommended). What is beyond doubt is that Davison's action, in ducking under the rail at Tattenham Corner, and running into the horse's path, turned her into a heroic, martyr-like figure for women's suffrage.

What is less known is that her militant activism was informed, at least in part, by her Christian faith - and she was not alone. But she and her compatriots were not unopposed within the Church.

The Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Queen Victoria, had described the campaign to secure votes for women as "This mad, wicked folly of 'Women's Rights'" - she had just learnt that Lady Amberley (the mother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell) had become president of a local suffrage society.

The Church of England was less dogmatic over the issue. It recognised, from the late 19th century, that the issue - and, indeed, "feminism" (a word coined at this time) - presented it with a challenge, in terms of both the governing of the country, and the conduct of church affairs.

As a result of what has become known as the Great Reform Act (1832), for the first time since the medieval era no woman could vote in parliamentary elections. This was because the word "male" now qualified "person" in that legislation - and it remained there until 1918, when most women over 30 years of age were formally admitted to the national franchise. 

THE campaign for women's right to vote may be said to have begun with the Chartists, although that demand was never formally adopted by the national leadership. The first suffrage societies, and attempts to secure legislative change, date from the mid-19th century, and the momentum increased thereafter.

In 1897, local women's suffrage societies formed the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). It was led by Millicent Fawcett, and believed that it could secure the vote for middle-class, property-owning women by peaceful means.

Its supporters were to become known as "suffragists". Six years later, under Emmeline Pankhurst, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded. This took a more active approach to the issue, and soon resorted to violent protests, and terrorism - although militancy was not confined to the WSPU. Those who supported the WSPU were to become known as "suffragettes", although many might

support both, or change affiliation.

For some activists, women's rights - and the vote, in particular - soon became known as "The Cause", and, as with many causes, was pursued by some with a religious fervour. Davison was a case in point.

She was born in 1872, and in 1895 was awarded first-class honours in English in the Oxford University examination for women. Being female, however, she was not allowed to graduate.

She went on to teach, starting with the Church of England College for Girls, Edgbaston. She taught there for a year (1895-96). As an external student, Davison then secured a degree in modern languages at London University. She joined the WSPU in 1906, but was never employed by them, as she was seen as too independent a spirit. 

ON THREE occasions, she hid in the House of Commons. She was there on census night in 1911, and the census transcript reads "Found Hiding in Crypt of Westminster Hall, Westminster." She is also credited with initiating the fire-bombing of pillar boxes in December 1911.

During her time as a suffragette, Davison was imprisoned eight times, for this and for other such offences (including whipping a Baptist minister, whom she mistook for Lloyd George).

She was a prolific writer. Her last piece was an article, "The Price of Liberty", published in the Daily Sketch a few weeks before her death. It revealed how her deep Christian faith influenced her approach to securing votes for women. She wrote "The Pearl of Great Price . . . is the parable of Militancy . . . the perfect Amazon is she who would sacrifice all even unto this last to win the Pearl of Freedom for her sex."

Although the NUWSS and WSPU have tended to dominate the account of the campaign, there were smaller organisations, too, which were often referred to as leagues. Among them was the Church League for Women's Suffrage (CLWS). This was founded in 1909 by the Revd Claude Hinscliffe. He was already a member of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage, and was the honorary secretary of the CLWS.

Maude Royden, a co-founder, was its first chairman. Royden, an Anglican, and a future advocate of women's ordination within the Church of England, was also a member of the NUWSS. She was one of the organisation's main public speakers, and, in 1913-14, was the editor of its newspaper, The Common Cause. As a league member she formed a fellowship of prayer, "to unite in intercession for the women's movement those who believe that prayer is work and that all work should be done in the spirit of prayer".

THE aims of the CLWS were "to secure for women the Parliamentary vote . . . to use the power thus obtained to establish equality of rights and opportunities between the sexes, and to promote the social and industrial well-being of the community". It, too, relied on prayer and education to further its aims, seeing itself as neither militant nor anti-militant.

The League's president was the Bishop of Lincoln, Edward Hicks, who later wrote that he was probably the only bishop able to commit himself to "a highly controversial movement". He supported the cause because he believed in the equality of women, and saw them as co-workers in his campaign for temperance.

Although he permitted Edith Picton-Turbervill to preach in a church in his diocese, Hicks was opposed to women's ordination, and resigned as president when the CLWS (as the League of the Church Militant) campaigned for this policy.

In the era before the Great War, the CLWS was an important suffrage organisation - the existence of churchmen willing to speak and act on behalf of the campaign lent it moral force. It was also, in effect, an umbrella group, as members of both the NUWSS and the WSPU would attend its meetings. Davison was also a member of the Church League.

The organisation faced considerable criticism from both Anglican clergy and laity. The Dean of Westminster argued that the name "Church" had been "usurped by a faction and exploited by fanatics". He said that, as the national Church, it should stand above politics.

The League's response was to argue that politics affected every aspect of the nation, and that the Church should take its place in any great movement for the raising of the life of the community. Canon Peter Green, of Manchester, refused to condemn militancy on moral grounds, saying: "The cause is greater than the method."

JUST as many were critical that the Church of England could give shelter to suffrage organisations, there were militants who saw the Church - both as an institution and a structure - as a target. A number of churches, such as St Catherine's, Hatcham, in London, were firebombed, and churches sought insurance specifically to cover themselves against suffragette attacks.

Groups of suffragettes targeted churches in protest at the government's treatment of those women who went on hunger strike in prison. Either they were forcibly fed, or released until they were fit, under what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act, or Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act of 1913.

Known as "suffragette choirs", supporters would attend services, and chant prayers such as: "O God, save all women who are being tortured for conscience' sake." Or they would boycott anti-suffragist clergy.

Not surprisingly, the issue featured in the correspondence and editorials of the Church Times. This was particularly so just before Davison's action, and death. In the issue of 23 May 1913, it acknowledged "many once-currently accepted formulas leak badly," and, in effect, supported votes for women as campaigned for by the NUWSS leader Millicent Fawcett, although, "with the Maenad furies [presumably militant suffragettes] we hold no parley". Since the paper championed each individual's right to vote, it said, why not women's? 

THE question whether Davison took her own life was much discussed then, as it still is. In June 1912, after throwing herself down a staircase at HM Prison Holloway, where she was imprisoned, she told the medical officer that "a tragedy was wanted". She was left with severe spinal injuries.

Film of the Derby incident clearly shows that she ran deliberately in front of the King's horse, causing the animal and its rider to fall. She remained unconscious for four days, dying on 8 June at Epsom Cottage Hospital.

Doubt was raised about her intentions, when it was discovered that she had committed to keeping a subsequent appointment, and that her possessions included a return ticket from Victoria Station.

The possibility that it was suicide complicated arrangements for the funeral. The WSPU decided to make it a public event, preceded by a grand procession from Victoria Station. Several London churches were approached to hold the service, but declined. The Revd Charles Baumgarten, Rector of St George's, Bloomsbury, agreed, partly because his wife was a member of the CLWS.

The coffin was brought to London on Saturday 14 June. The plate on Davison's coffin read, "Fight on; God will give you the victory," while the pall which covered it read: "She died for women."

The cortège was headed by a bare-headed woman in white, who carried a cross. This was a deliberate decison, since any WSPU symbol would have been likely to prove provocative, while similar previous occasions had demonstrated that the Christian cross would be respected, and the marchers remain unmolested.

Women carried laurel wreaths; the banners of various women's leagues were flown; and ten bands accompanied the estimated 6000 marchers, some of them men (including some robed clergy). Emiline Pankhurst's empty carriage also formed part of the procession - she had been about to join the cortège, when she was rearrested under the Cat and Mouse Act. It took two hours for the procession to reach St George's.

The service was conducted by the Archdeacon of Lewisham, Charles Escreet, Baumgarten, and Hinscliffe. They were joined by a congregation of about 2000, including delegates from various suffragette and other organisations.

Afterwards, the coffin was taken to King's Cross, whence it was taken to St Mary's, Morpeth, in Northumberland, the next day, for burial.

Dr Peter Street is a lecturer in religious studies and history at the Open University.

St George's, Bloomsbury, is marking the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison's death by hosting "The Wilding Festival", from 13 to 16 June. For more details, visit www.thewildingfestival.co.uk.

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