On 4 June 1913 an ardent and militant suffragette by the name of Emily Davison was struck by King George V‘s horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby. The blow fractured her skull, and she died a few days later, having never regained consciousness.
Eyewitnesses and historians dispute what she was trying to do on the track that day, but I believe (based on the evidence) that she was trying to stop the king’s horse long enough to drape a scarf with the suffragette’s logo on it over the Anmer’s neck. It would have been a fine stunt and political statement, getting the suffragette cause into the newspapers yet again. It was hella risky, though, and Davison would have known that. Considering that she had been arrested on nine different occasions for supporting women’s emancipation, and gone on hunger strike while in prison multiple times, in spite of enduring the agony of being force-fed 49 times, she wasn’t the type to let the danger of death stop her.
Davison, born on 11 October 1872 to a moderately well-off middle class family in London, was not an uncommon member of the suffregette movement. We tend to remember the suffragettes as quaint Victorians who marched in parades and wore ribbons until politicians were worn down and gave them the vote, but that is historical whitewashing and balderdash.
The suffragettes fought for the right to vote, including rioting, looting, and some acts which were (in spite of protests to the contrary) no less than domestic terrorism. Although there was no bombings of innocent bystanders, there was considerable destruction of property in order to scare and harass their political foes.
Militant suffragettes destroyed contents of letterboxes and smashed the windows of thousands of shops and offices. They cut telephone wires, burned down the houses of politicians and prominent members of society, set cricket pavilions alight and carved slogans into golf courses. They slashed paintings in art galleries, destroyed exhibitions at the British Museum and planted bombs in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and near the Bank of England.
That kind of behavior – regardless of how justified – IS a form of terrorism , because terrorism is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” And it worked too. While women had male allies, women were not “given” the vote by male politicians. They took it. And they took it from the men who had been beaten down so hard that they capitulated just to get the hullabaloo to stop. A political goal was won as much by violence and intimidation as it was by debate and modernization.
A her “funeral on 14th June 1913 … Thousands of suffragettes accompanied the coffin and tens of thousands of people lined the streets of London … Her gravestone bears the WSPU slogan, “Deeds not words.”