Emily Davison – why every woman in the UK should vote today

Although Emily Davison is one of the best-known suffragettes, I felt I had to include her in my blog as I get so sick of hearing young women saying they can’t be bothered to vote. Here’s why you should:

Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 and had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. She excelled academically and studied at the Royal Holloway College. But the death of her father, when she was 19, put the family finances under pressure, so she quit her studies and worked as a governess. Eventually she saved enough money to pay for a term at St Hugh’s Hall, a women’s college in Oxford, and earned a first class degree in English language and literature, but was not given it as Oxford did not grant degrees to women at the time.

After college, Emily was frustrated to find that career options for women were limited. She took the only route open to her – teaching – during which time she became interested in the women’s movement. In 1906 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and soon became a popular speaker because of her passion and wit.

For three years Emily tried to teach and campaign but eventually decided to devote all of her time to the cause, suffering financial hardship in the process. Her desire to draw public attention for the women’s suffrage led her to ever increasing acts of daring. In 1909, she was sentenced to a month’s hard labour in Strangeways Prison in Manchester after throwing rocks at the carriage of chancellor David Lloyd George. Her refusal to eat while in prison led to her being force fed, an ordeal she underwent 49 times over the next few years. When she blockaded herself in her cell to avoid another force feeding, a prison guard placed a hose through a cell window and drenched her with icy water.

The incident only spurred Emily on to more militant acts. In 1911 she hid in a cupboard in the House of Commons. She remained there during the census so that she could list her place of residence as the “House of Commons” on the census form. Later that year she set fire to a letter box. While in prison in Holloway in 1912, desperation at the torture her comrades were undergoing led her to throw herself down an iron staircase. After her release, she told one journalist that this had been a suicide attempt, as she felt that “by nothing but the sacrifice of human life would the nation be brought to realise the horrible torture our women face. If I had succeeded I am sure that forcible feeding could not in all conscience have been resorted to again.”

By 1913, the WSPU looked no closer to securing their aim of votes for women than they had at their inaugural meeting. 10 years earlier. Suffragettes were enduring increasingly brutal treatment in prison. And so Emily performed the ultimate publicity-seeking act. At the Epsom Derby, she stood by the railings, a flag of the WSPU tied around her. With the race in full flow, she ducked under the railings and tried to grab the rein’s of the king’s horse. The horrific event was witnessed by King George V and Queen Mary, and also captured on film. Historians have examined the footage and believe she was trying to attach her flag to the horse’s bridle, rather than throw herself in the path of the horse. The horse trampled her and unseated the rider, who escaped with minor injuries. Emily, however, was left with a fractured skull and internal injuries, form which she never recovered. She died four days later, exactly 104 years ago today, aged 40. Her funeral on saw thousands of suffragettes accompany the coffin, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets of London.

History hasn’t been kind to Emily. She’s been portrayed as an unbalanced fanatic, causing more harm than good to the cause. But her death highlights the extreme measures the suffragettes were driven to. So I beg women of the UK to remember that your vote costs you nothing. It cost Emily Davison everything.

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Sylvia Pankhurst – political campaigner who stayed true to her principles

The recent movie Suffragette has brought the story of the Pankhursts to public attention once more and, as usual, it’s Emmeline that gets the most attention. But for me, Sylvia is the most interesting member of the Pankhurst family. Like her more famous mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, she was active in the fight for women’s suffrage, but she preferred a more peaceful approach, presenting her ideas in journalism and books. And unlike them, she remained true to the socialist principles that her father taught her.

Sylvia was born in 1882 in Manchester and was a talented artist, winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1900, but was also interested in politics and in 1903 joined the new organisation founded by her mother: the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In 1906 Sylvia gave up her art studies to devote more time to the WSPU, and over the following years was frequently imprisoned for nonviolent protests. She was also active in the Labour party and became close to its leader, Kier Hardie. Although she was only 24, while he was 50 and married, it seems that their relationship went beyond friendship. By 1910, Sylvia became concerned that the violent methods used by the WSPU were not proving effective and she left the organization. As well as disagreeing with the violence, Sylvia disagreed with her mother and sister’s support for a limited franchise to gain middle class support. In 1913 Sylvia was imprisoned for two months, went on hunger strike, and was placed under the Cat and Mouse Act, repeatedly released to recuperate and then rearrested. She then formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes, a group that combined socialism with the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Following the outbreak of World War I, the WSPU supported the war effort and conscription, another move opposed by Sylvia. Instead she joined fellow pacifists to form the Women’s Peace Army, and helped open four mother and baby clinics in London, pointing out that while 75,000 British soldiers died during the first year of the war, over 100,000 babies (more than 12 percent of all births) in Britain had died. She helped and campaigned for soldiers’ wives who had become plunged into poverty. She also published a newspaper, the Workers’ Dreadnought, which featured Siegfried Sassoon’s famous anti-war statement in 1917.

Sylvia believed in universal suffrage and, once the campaign to gain votes for women was starting to succeed, she widened her political activism. She supported communism and even visited Russia, where she argued with Lenin over his views on censorship. Political campaigning became a lifelong pursuit; she supported many anti-fascist and anti-colonialist causes and was a thorn in the side of the British government; in 1948 M15 considered ways of ‘muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’.

In the 1920s Sylvia began a relationship with the Italian socialist Silvio Corio, but refused to marry him because she disagreed with the concept of marriage and taking her husband’s name. At the age of 45, she gave birth to her only child, Richard Kier Pethick, enraging her mother, who never spoke to her again.

During the Second World War, Sylvia became a supporter of Haile Selassie, who was in exile in Britain after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. This gained her the respect and friendship of the Ethiopian royal family and, following the death of Silvio Corio, she accepted an invitation to move to Addis Ababa, at the age of 74. She died there four years later, and was so revered that she received a state funeral. In her homeland, however, she hasn’t received the recognition she deserves. While Emmeline and Christabel have been honoured for their role in gaining women’s suffrage, Sylvia’s, arguably more effective strategy has been ignored.

Millicent Fawcett – thanks for the vote

As it’s election day in the UK, it seems fitting to write about one of the women who helped gain British women the vote. I’m ignoring the usual subjects – the Pankhursts and Emily Davison – not because I don’t admire them but because one glance at Facebook this morning tells me that everyone knows them already. But the suffragettes, or Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were only a small, extreme part of a wider movement. Many historians have argued that the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), known as suffragists, were ultimately more persuasive in gaining women the vote. Their leader was one of the unsung heroes of the feminist movement – Millicent Fawcett.

Millicent Fawcett was born in Suffolk in 1846 to a progressive, middle class family, and together with her older sister Elizabeth Garrett, received a boarding school education in London. Elizabeth later became the first woman in England to qualify as a doctor. When Millicent was 19, she heard a speech by John Stuart Mill in favour of equal rights for women. It made such an impression on her that she became his loyal supporter and sought out fellow activists, including Henry Fawcett, an MP fourteen years her senior, whom she married. Henry had been blinded in a shooting accident and had been expected to marry Millicent’s sister, but Elizabeth was too devoted to the study of medicine to marry.

Millicent immersed herself into the world of politics, writing a book on political economy and becoming a popular speaker, even though the act of public speaking made her so nervous she was often physically sick. She also helped in the founding of Newnham College, the second Cambridge college to admit women. In 1884 her husband died of pleurisy, leaving her, at 38, a widow with a young daughter. She threw herself into political work, becoming involved with the Personal Rights association, which exposed men who preyed on vulnerable women. In 1886, when discovering that an army major had been harassing a friend’s servant, Millicent threw flour over him and pinned a paper on his back, drawing his actions to others, including the woman to whom he was engaged; she subsequently dumped him. In 1890 she was elected president of the NUWSS. As well as campaigning for equal rights for women, the organisation formed a relief fund for South African women and children during the Boer war.

In the years 1901-14, when the Liberal government refused to consider giving women the vote, the Suffragettes grabbed all the headlines. Millicent didn’t believe that theirs was the right direction to take; she believed that the violent actions of the WSPU were not only alienating supporters but also preventing the government from voting on the issue as they would be seen to be giving way to extreme tactics. By 1914, the women’s movement was divided. While the militant WSPU were supporting the war and encouraging young men to enlist, the NUWSS were pacifists. However, Millicent supported the war, causing other NUWSS members to resign.

In 1918, women aged thirty or over gained the vote, and the NUWSS was disbanded. From then onwards, Millicent’s work was less high profile. She became active in other areas of women’s equality, including education for Indian women and enabling female students at Cambridge to be awarded degrees. In 1928, she realised her ultimate dream when the voting age for women became equal to that of men. She wrote in her diary: ‘It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning.’ Her life’s work complete, she died the following year.

So when you cast your vote today, think of the women who chained themselves to railings for the cause, but also remember the woman whose long years of rational, constitutional campaigning played a key role in enfranchising women.