Just over 100 years ago, on a warm and festive day in June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison made history at a horse race at Epsom Downs.
Davison wasn’t merely a spectator at the race. She was there on a mission. And, in a way, she was a celebrity in her own right. At any rate, she was well-known to authorities.
Prior to 1908, Davison would have been notable primarily as a woman with more education than most, and one who had a real career.
In 1906, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Two years later, Davison quit her job to devote herself to the suffragette movement.
Davison’s intelligence was evident, but she was also a violent person. She may well have been unstable. Her crimes included smashing windows, throwing stones, disrupting the peace, arson, and physical attacks. She was arrested and jailed nine times.
What her motives were on June 4, 1913 remains a mystery. As the horses thundered by, Emily Davison ran onto the track and attempted to grab Anmer, the horse owned by King George V. The horse collided with her, throwing jockey Herbert Jones and trampling Davison. The horse fell too, but scrambled to its feet in a fright and ran away, dragging Jones behind it. Miraculously, Jones survived, with only a concussion.
Davison, however, had fatal injuries. She lingered for four days at Epsom Cottage Hospital, before dying at age 40. Her funeral was organized by the WSPU, and held two days after her death. It was a grand affair that drew thousands of curious onlookers.
There were four theories as to Davison’s motive:
- She simply wanted to cross the track
- She planned to commit suicide in a spectacular way
- She meant to pull down Anmer, the King’s horse
- She intended to throw a Votes for Women sash around Anmer
The first two theories have been discounted. It seems more in keeping with Davison’s history that she meant to bring the king’s horse down, but it’s at least possible she only meant to gin up some publicity for the suffragette movement by ensuring the king’s horse wore a Votes for Women banner as it crossed the finish line.
Today, Davison is celebrated as a heroine of the suffragette movement. While she certainly was one of the most visible characters of the movement and there’s no doubt of her sincerity, celebrating Emily Davison and her deeds seems misplaced. If anything, destroying others’ property and physically attacking people she disagreed with, probably set the suffragette movement back, just as surely as the more noble efforts of other suffragettes advanced the cause.