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.
Davison's Death Catapulted Her To Martyrdom And The Suffragettes Organized A Huge Public Funeral To Honor Their Fallen SisterPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons
After Davison's death, her sister suffragettes quickly transformed her into a martyr who had sacrificed herself to bring attention to the issue of women's suffrage. So, they staged a public funeral as a symbol of the suffragette movement. Thousands of people from across Britain came to London for the funeral on June 14, 1913. Escorted by a mass of 5,000 suffragettes dressed in white, Davison's body was transported across central London in a carriage drawn by four horses.
The funeral was an opportunity for suffragettes to come together and use Davison as a symbol of what women had to endure in order to get the right to vote.
The Jockey Survived The Crash, But Committed Suicide Decades LaterPhoto: Edward Herbert Cooper / Wikimedia Commons
The hard and unexpected collision between Anmer and Emily Davison sent the horse's jockey, Herbert Jones, flying into the air. Jones suffered a hard landing and only got up once the horses and riders behind him had passed. The colt, Anmer, actually returned to his feet and trotted to the finish line. Jones and Anmer's injuries were not too severe - they even competed in another race two weeks after the incident.
Though Herbert Jones survived the crash, he was tormented by the collision. Tragically, he never could shake what happened at Epsom Downs that summer day and claimed that Davison's face haunted him. He killed himself in 1951.
No One Really Knows What Davison's True Intentions WerePhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons
Davison never told anyone about what she intended to do at Epsom Derby, leading many to question her motives. Was the goal to martyr herself? Did she want to stop the horse, or simply put a scarf declaring support for women's rights on him? Was she targeting the king's horse? Was she trying to commit suicide, or was it all a tragic accident? No one really knows.
Some historians believe that she was trying to attach a suffragette flag to Anmer. Others argue that she had practiced grabbing the reins of a moving horse with fellow suffragettes prior to the derby. Police investigators at the race concluded that it was clear Davison didn't intend or expect to die at Epsom Derby because she had a return train ticket in her purse.
Davison Had A History Of Being Involved In Extreme Acts Of Danger And ViolencePhoto: Unknown / Wikipedia
The infamous, tragic incident at Epson Derby was not Emily Davison's first brush with danger for the women's suffrage movement. Davison had been a suffragette since 1906. Like other suffragettes, Davison had a track record of putting her safety on the line. In her career with the militant WSPU, Davison had been arrested no less than nine times and endured 49 force-feedings to undermine her hunger strikes in prison.
One suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, described the force-feedings in painfully vivid detail:
"Then I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it gradually prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted—I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat."
Not only did Davison endure such torture nearly fifty times, but during a stint at Holloway Prison in 1912, she even protested the abusive treatment of suffragette prisoners by throwing herself off a prison balcony, thinking that "one big tragedy may save many others."