On This Day

Emily Wilding Davison, Emily Davison
Emily Davison

On This Day: Suffragette Trampled by King’s Horse

June 04, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 4, 1913, British suffragette Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, becoming a martyr for the women’s suffrage movement.

“Militant Throws King’s Derby Colt”

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Emily Wilding Davison was a member of the Women's Social and Political Union, a militant women’s suffrage group in Britain. She was fanatically dedicated to her cause, engaging in violent protests, hunger strikes and several dramatic suicide attempts.

She decided to stage a dramatic protest at the 1913 Epsom Derby, a prestigious horse race in which King George V’s horse Anmer was running. Running onto the track from the crowd as Anmer approached, she appeared to try to attach a suffragette flag to the horse’s bridle. What followed was a violent trampling that felled the horse and left Davison and the jockey lying unconscious on the turf.

“She was bowled over like a nine-pin,” described one witness. “The horse stumbled over her body and eventually turned a complete somersault.” The witness added, “Her conduct was that of a mad woman. It looked almost as though she was seeking death.”

She was taken to a nearby hospital and treated for the next four days. She never regained consciousness, however, and died on June 8.

Some in the public were horrified by Davison’s act. The Times of London wrote, “A deed of the kind, we need hardly say, is not likely to increase the popularity of any cause with the ordinary public. Reckless fanaticism is not regarded by them as a qualification for the franchise.”

But suffragettes honored Davison’s devotion to cause. On June 13, the WSPU published a cartoon of Davison on the track with angel wings and light behind her head, under the words “love that overcometh.” Beneath the image are the words “She died for women. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’”

That same day, 5,000 women marched in her funeral procession, calling her the “first martyr to the cause,” reported The New York Times.

Her sacrifice, memorialized in a grainy black and white video, and her flag became symbols of the suffrage movement. Her death helped to advance her cause. In 1918, women gained partial voting rights and, in 1928, women gained voting rights equal to men.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement in England

The first women’s suffrage bill came before parliament in 1870, but it would be nearly 50 years until a bill was passed. In 1897, Millicent Fawcett brought together a collection of suffragist organizations and formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

The NUWSS, which favored political methods, would be joined by the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, which was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and five others. Under a purple, white and green tricolor and the motto “Deeds not Words,” the suffragettes of the WPSU held large demonstrations in London.

As the movement became more militant, many suffragettes were sent to prison, where they held hunger strikes. When World War I began, the movement abandoned its militant actions and began supporting the war effort, eventually disbanding in 1917.

The actions of the NUWSS and WPSU finally persuaded Parliament to pass the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which gave women over 30 the right to vote. Ten years later, the Equal Franchise Act gave all citizens over the age of 18 the right to vote.

Biography: Emily Wilding Davison

Emily Wilding Davison was a well educated woman who joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906. She was a dedicated member of the suffragette cause who was frequently sentenced to prison time for her protests.

In prison, she engaged in hunger strikes and was abusively force-fed. In 1911, she attempted to become a martyr by jumping down a prison staircase, but managed only to injure her spine.

On the night of the 1911 census, Davison snuck into the Palace of Westminster and hid in a cupboard. The next day, when found and asked for her home address, she said “The House of Commons.”

Years later, Labour MP Tony Benn secretly placed a plaque in the cupboard, draped in suffragette colors, in honor of Davison. He called it “one of very few monuments to democracy in the whole building.”

Opinion: Was Davison Committing Suicide?

There is some debate over whether Davison was attempting to kill herself. Many suffragettes argued that it was an accident, pointing to the fact that she bought a return train ticket home. Others argue that Davison wished to become a martyr for the cause and knew that she would die if she stepped in front of a racehorse.

Writer and women’s rights campaigner Barbara Gorna objects to the phrase “threw herself under the King’s horse,” arguing that it suggests Davison was committing suicide. She believes that Davison merely intended to attach the suffragette flag to the King’s horse, but got her skirt caught up and was trampled in a “tragic accident.”

Because Davison seemed determined to sacrifice her life for her cause and had attempted suicide before, author Diane Atkinson believes Davison knew exactly what would happen when she jumped in front of Anmer. Atkinson writes that Davison “may not have shared the religious conviction of today’s suicide bombers, but she had an equal disregard for her individual status within the struggle.”
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