On June 4, 1913, Emily Davison stepped onto the track at Epsom Downs Racecourse as a horse came barreling around the bend. The horse and jockey crashed into Davison, and all three tumbled to the ground. It was a shocking moment in one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year. In the aftermath of the crash, it became clear that Emily Davison's act had been purposeful: she had done it to bring attention to the issue of women’s suffrage. Her actions would pave the way for other famous women's rights activists for years to come.
Born in 1872 to a middle-class British family, Emily Davison was a St. Hugh’s College graduate and a militant member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The WSPU had been founded in 1903 for the sole purpose of getting British women the right to vote. Though more and more British men of different classes were gaining the vote in the 19th century, British women were still denied this civic right. So, "suffragettes," or militant members in women's rights organizations, like Emily Davison took it upon themselves to protest the disenfranchisement of women in increasingly public and dramatic ways.
Emily Davison's act at the Epsom Derby was actually caught on film, and the Emily Davison video is a chilling glimpse of a tragic event. The picture of her bold stand is one of the most powerful photos of women, and her death was easily one of the most dramatic moments in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Davison ultimately died of her injuries, but the British suffrage movement would never be the same.
Emily Davison Wanted To Bring Attention To The Suffragette Cause At The Epsom DerbyPhoto: Arthur Barrett / Wikimedia Commons
Like many suffragettes, Emily Wilding Davison believed that only direct action would ultimately secure women the right to vote. So, on June 4, 1913, she traveled by train just south of London to reach the Epsom Derby, a famous horse race event that was held annually.
The Epsom Derby wasn't just any old horse race, either - in 1913, it was one of the most important horse races in the world. Davison hoped that she could use the popularity and profile of the event to bring attention to her cause.
When She Stepped Onto The Track, A Horse Crashed Into Her - It Was All Captured On FilmVideo: YouTube
As a pack of horses rounded a bend in the track, Davison moved past the rail that kept spectators safely out of harm's way, stepped onto the track, and shouted, "Votes for women!" Davison apparently made the motion to grab the reins of Anmer, a colt whose owner was none other than King George V. Unable to stop in the heat of the race, Anmer slammed into Davison. She crashed to ground, along with Anmer and his jockey.
Since crews from the Pathé film company were at Epsom Downs to record the race, Davison's dramatic decision was caught on film.
Emily Davison Didn't Immediately Die - She Languished For Days Before Succumbing To Her InjuriesPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons
Right after Davison was knocked down, a crowd descended on the suffragette and the wounded jockey. The collision fractured Davison's skull and left her unconscious. She was rushed to a local hospital. There was virtually nothing that the doctors could do for Davison, who remained unconscious.
She then died several days later on June 8, 1913.
Her Act Divided The British Public And She Actually Received Hate Mail While She Was Dying In The Hospital
The public's reaction to the horrific events at Epsom Derby was mixed. The press was largely focused on whether or not the king's horse and jockey would recover. But her death did open up a fierce debate in newspapers across the country about whether women who committed violent acts like this even deserved the right to vote. Generally, newspapers and many Britons dismissed Davison's act as wild and hysterical.
While dying in a hospital, Davison actually received hate mail from people who were angry at her. At least one letter-writer told her that she was insane, "unworthy of existence," and should be institutionalized.