100 years on, why we should all remember Emily Davison

Nina Reschovsky on the suffragette who died at Epsom Racecourse

Emily Davison throws herself under King George V’s horse during the Derby

The recent passing of Lady Thatcher reminds us just how far women have come in the past century. Although she divided opinion, we will always remember the late prime minister as a powerful woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for her beliefs.  

But, like many great women, Mrs Thatcher would never have risen to such heights without the efforts of the countless women before her who gave their lives to the fight for women’s rights. In some cases, literally. 

On June 4, 1913, ardent suffragette Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of King George V’s racehorse, Anmer, during the Epsom Derby. Thrown violently to the ground upon impact, she never regained consciousness and died four days later. 

Next month marks the hundred-year anniversary of Davison’s death. Sacrificing herself to the suffragette slogan, “Deeds not words” in protest against Parliament’s refusal to grant voting rights to women, Davison remains a feminist icon, viewed by many as a martyr for women’s rights. 

“She is far and away the most memorable suffragette,” says Dr Diane Atkinson, women’s activist and author of The Suffragettes. 

“Anybody who reads her story and about the frustrations she expressed in such a dramatic way is sort of pulled up short. First of all in realising how ludicrous it was that women didn’t have the vote, but also in how incredible it was that she was prepared to give her life for it. She had a long and extraordinary career, and she continues to be very important.”

Davison, right, an Oxford graduate from Blackheath, London, was a militant agitator for women’s rights. On nine different occasions throughout her lifetime, she was arrested and sent to prison. Several times while in prison, she went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. On one such occasion, she hurled herself down a flight of iron stairs in protest. 

In commemoration of the centennial of her death, the Emily Wilding Davison memorial campaign has called for this year’s Epsom Derby to observe a minute’s silence in tribute to Davison. Supporters of the campaign, which was set up last November, include a variety of public figures such as women’s activist Dr Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. 

Peter Barratt, a supporter of the campaign and the great-grandson of Leicester suffragette Alice Hawkins, says: “The moment of silence would serve primarily to commemorate Emily’s tragic death in the course of women’s rights a hundred years ago but, for me, it would also serve to commemorate the severe hardships that many women like Emily, and like my great-grandmother, suffered during that time.” 

This year’s 100th anniversary is being widely recognised. Last April, at a private gathering of almost 70 of Davison’s extended relatives, a plaque honouring her courageous actions was unveiled at Tattenham Corner at Epsom Racecourse.

The following day, Philippa Bilton, a distant cousin of Davison’s, posted to her Twitter account: “Emily Wilding Davison plaque @ Epsom yesterday. Just amazing to be part of the next historical chapter. What a year! Roll on Derby Day…”

It’s clear that Davison is gone but not forgotten and, in honour of the mark she left on women’s rights in Britain, many are eager to keep her memory alive. 

Indeed, last year during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, she was honoured when, amid the depiction of monumental events in British history, there was a tribute to the suffragettes’ struggles, and the key moment in Davison’s crusade to win voting rights.

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