originally published March 2, 2014
It was a beautiful sunny June afternoon at the 1913 Epsom Derby in Surrey. Thousands of people had gathered to watch horses run in a circle because it was 1913 and television was not yet invented. Also, the horse of King George V was among the competitors, which added the thrill of watching a celebrity to the event. No one expected to see a horrific crash – had that been on the program, I’m sure the stands would have been packed with an even greater crowd.
The crash was not notable for its carnage, nor was it significant because the king’s horse was involved. It stands out in history because Emily Davison, a famous figure in the world of women’s suffrage, martyred herself by leaping in front of the royal steed, taking her own life.
Or did she?
Recent analysis of the incident – and yes, there was actually film footage which could be reviewed obsessively like the Zapruder film – has called into question this alleged ‘suicide’. Either way, it succeeded in drawing attention to Emily’s cause. Not that she ever had a problem doing that.
Emily worked for her own education, first as a governess then as a teacher. She poured her earnings into classes at Oxford, studying biology, chemistry and English literature – despite the fact that she could never attain a degree. Oxford’s degrees were for dudes only back then. Emily was a first-class honors student, and this antiquated policy no doubt riled her toward the cause of women’s rights.
In 1906 she hooked up with the Women’s Social and Political Union. The WSPU believed that militant and loudly confrontational tactics were going to be necessary to level the gender playing field in England. They were the Black Panthers of the suffragette movement. By 1908, Emily had dropped her teaching career to focus on her cause full-time. She was not only on-board with the WSPU’s extremism, she was willing and ready to surpass it on her own.
The WSPU broke up men-only meetings. Emily was willing to go further, throwing stones and even committing acts of arson. She was constantly scuffling with police, landing herself in prison no less than nine times for her beliefs. One time she believed she’d spotted David Lloyd George, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer (a fancy British title that probably has something to do with hats and rare birds). She violently attacked him, and once again found herself locked up for it.
While in prison, Emily was not above staging a hunger strike. The prison guards would force-feed her, no doubt wanting to avoid the publicity of a woman dying on their watch. Emily didn’t seem to care – she wanted equality and was willing to go to whatever lengths she had to.
Emily hid in a cupboard in the chapel of the Palace of Westminster overnight so she could give her residence to the census as the “House of Commons”. I’m not certain how effective that protest may have been, but it made enough of a splash to warrant a commemorative plaque in the Palace. I’ve never done anything plaque-worthy. Maybe I should move to England – they’re big into plaques there, got ‘em all over the country. But I’m getting off topic here.
Toward the end of a six-month stint for arson in 1912, Emily and a number of other imprisoned suffragettes were once again being force-fed by the guards. In an effort to stop this harassment, Emily tossed herself down a ten-meter (30-foot) iron staircase. Again, I don’t know if this did anything to end the torture of her fellow prisoners, but Emily was willing to leap on the grenade and give it a shot. She suffered severe head and spinal damage, which followed her for the rest of her life. Which wasn’t much time.
It was easy for people to believe – particularly after the staircase debacle – that Emily’s actions at the Epsom Derby horserace would be yet another attempt to sacrifice her physical well-being for her cause.
Emily’s spot for watching the race was right against the rail on the inside of the bend. Her plan – or at least what we are to believe from the evidence at the scene – was to pin the flag of the WSPU onto Anmer, King George V’s horse, as it galloped by. No matter where the horse would finish, it would be a triumphant act of defiance to see the royal stallion blast across the finish line with the banner of a militant feminist organization flailing behind him. Emily ducked under the rail and ran onto the track just as the horses were beginning to zip by.
She clearly raised her hand to grasp Anmer’s bridle, but the horse collided with Emily and knocked her down under his hooves. Herbert Jones, the jockey, was thrown from the saddle as the horse did a somersault. Jones was knocked unconscious with his foot still hooked in the stirrup. Anmer kept motoring along, dragging Jones behind him for a bit until his foot fell free. People tried to revive both the injured humans with no success.
If you’re morbidly curious as to what this looked like (and don’t feel bad – I was), there is film footage online of the ordeal.
Emily died four days later from her internal injuries and fractured skull at the racetrack. Herbert Jones was treated for his injuries, but returned to jockeying, despite being “haunted by that poor woman’s face” for the rest of his days. The public perception was that Emily had flung herself to her own demise, but later evidence uncovered a very likely alternative. Emily had recently written to her sister, whom she intended to visit in France a few days later. And with the WSPU flags in her possession, it became clear that she was merely trying to “tag” the horse and flee.
The public was torn in their response. Some praised her bravery (and/or martyrdom, depending on what they believed her motivation to be), while others were disgusted by her interference in the race, or how her actions injured the poor jockey. In the end, most of the support landed in Emily’s favor, leading to the formation of the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage, a group of lawyers, ministers and town councilors who wanted to use their positions to swing the law toward a righteous balance.
Emily’s actions weren’t the lone catalyst for bumping the women’s suffrage movement toward its early 20th-century wins, but she did a lot to bring attention to her cause, and likely inspired a perpetuation of activism among her peers. It was a strange way to go, but at least it helped spread the message.