On June 4th 1913, forty-year-old Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of a horse belonging to King George V at the Epsom Derby. Colliding directly with the horse, Davison suffered an immediate skull fracture, and died two days later in hospital.
Observers were unclear whether Davison had intended to kill herself, or simply disrupt the race. But the clue to her motivation was in her hand: a flag bearing the distinctive colours of the suffragette movement.
Her death became a turning point in the struggle for women’s right to vote, and remains a story familiar today. Less well-known is the extent to which Emily Davison’s campaigning was driven by her Christian faith.
A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Davison was also involved with the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, an Anglican movement founded by the Revd Claude Hinscliffe and his wife Gertrude. It was an organisation which argued that the campaign for universal suffrage was not a matter of party politics, nor primarily about gender, but rooted instead (according to Hinscliffe) in Christian beliefs regarding the dignity and value of the individual, and the right of every human being to “fullness of life”.
Together with Catholic and Free Church suffrage movements, the Church League played a key role in changing public attitudes. In her autobiographical account of the suffrage movement, feminist campaigner Helena Swanwick commented that the movement had not been “political, but social, moral, psychological and profoundly religious.” Whilst the suffrage campaign also involved freethinkers, agnostics and atheists, the role of Christians was central.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the life of Emily Wilding Davison. A graduate of both London and Oxford Universities, Davison became well known among suffragettes for her daring stunts for the cause. She broke into the Palace of Westminster three times, hiding overnight in a broom cupboard in the chapel on one occasion so she could give her address in the census being taken that day as ‘the Houses of Parliament’. A plaque erected in the chapel in 1991 in honour of her remains, in the wry comment of Tony Benn, one of the few memorials to democracy in the entire building.
Davison was arrested on nine occasions, imprisoned, and repeatedly went on hunger strike. She was force-fed almost fifty times, describing the experience as “barbaric torture” which “will haunt me with its horror all my life.” It was a practice the British government later abandoned, in part because of the experiences of the suffragettes.
In her writing, Davison explicitly related her suffering in the context of campaigning to the suffering of Christ. In The Price of Liberty, an essay published after her death, Davison declared that: “In the New Testament, the Master reminded his followers that when the merchant had found the pearl of great price, he sold all that he had in order to buy it. That is the parable of militancy! It is that which the women warriors are doing to-day.”
This included the possibility of martyrdom or death. “To lay down life for friends,” Davison wrote, “is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the militant.”
Certainly, this is how Davison’s death was interpreted by her followers at the time. “Fight on”, read the inscription on her coffin, “God will give the victory.” It was a message reinforced on the order of service for her funeral, which described her as suffering imprisonment, enduring the torture of force-feeding, and finally offering up her life at Epsom “for her faith”. The programme ended with a quote from the Gospel of John: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.”
Buried in a private ceremony in a churchyard in Morpeth, Emily Wilding Davison’s gravestone bears the blunt but challenging slogan of the Women’s Social and Political Union: “Deeds not words”.
It’s a slogan we could all do well to live by.