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Gay L. Gullickson Emily Wilding Davison Secular Martyr? ON JU N E 4, 1913, A TALL, SLEN D ER , 4O-YEAR-OLD WOMAN W ITH RED hair and green eyes stood quietly at the rail of the Epsom Downs race track, waiting for the running of the English Derby. Her name was Emily Wilding Davison and she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Under her coat she carried two suffrage flags. As the first group of horses passed her and a second rounded the corner, she slipped under the rail and ran onto the track. Newsreel films show her running toward the king’s horse and throwing up her hands, perhaps to stop the horse, perhaps to protect herself. In an instant, woman, horse, and jockey are on the ground. Only Davison was seri­ ously hurt; the horse walked offthe track and thejockey, HerbertJones, recovered quickly from his injuries. Kicked in the head, Emily Davison died four days later without regaining consciousness (cf. Stanley and Morley, 1988). Her spectacular death made Davison one of the most famous and controversial of British suffragettes. Her friends and colleagues in the suffrage movement hailed her as having risked her life to call attention to the “great hardships and privations endured by women by reason of their exclusion from any political status” (E. Pethick-Lawrence, quoted in “Suffragette Outrage at the Derby,” 1913:1). Anti-suffragists, equally quickly, questioned her sanity and characterized her actions as “reck­ less fanaticism,” “desperately wicked,” “entirely unbalanced,” “mad,” “demented,”and “anactofcriminalfolly” (“AMemorable Derby,” 1913:9; “The Distracting Derby,” 1913: 8; “The Derby Suffragette,” 1913: 8). social research Vol 75 : No 2 : Summer 2008 461 When Davison died on the eighth, the debate entered a new phase. The leaders of the WSPU hailed her as a hero and a martyr who had sacrificed her life to call the government to account for its treatment of women and advance the cause of women’s rights. She had been, according to Emmeline Pankhurst, “one of our valiant soldiers,” who had “gladly laid down her life for the cause of women’s freedom” (E. Pankhurst, 1913: 8). It was just the beginning of a campaign to claim and honor Davison as a martyr, a campaign that culminated in an enor­ mous funeral procession through London on June 14. Opponents of the enfranchisement of women and especially of the militant tactics of the suffragettes rejected the WSPU’s claims of martyrdom and continued to argue that Davison had been insane or suicidal or both. Debate over Davison’s death continued for three quarters of a century, as historians, like Davison’s contemporaries, took sides on her intentions, psychological health, and militant career. Only recently has opinion coalesced around the notion that she was willing to die, but hoped she would not—that is, she was not suicidal (she had, for instance, purchased a round-trip ticket from London to Epsom) (Stanley and Morley, 1988; Sleight, 1988). I agree with the conclusion, but it leaves the willingness of women like Davison to risk their lives for the suffrage cause, as well as the general issue of martyrdom, unaddressed. In this paper I discuss these issues by focusing on the WSPU’s rhetoric, its claims about Davison’s death, Davison’s own writings about death and sacrifice, the kind of martyrdom her death may have been, and the difficulty of distinguishing between sacred and secular martyrdom. EMILY WILDING DAVISON’S LIFE Frustrated by a decades-long campaign for the vote that seemed to be moving at a glacial pace, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester, England, in 1903. Possessed of enormous energy and political acumen, Pankhurst and her follow­ ers adopted a set of steadily escalating tactics to gain public attention and force the government to grant women the right to vote. In the beginning the WSPU held public rallies and demonstrations with brass 462 social research bands and choirs, spoke from soapboxes at county fairs, wrote letters to newspapers, and interrupted political meetings with questions about suffrage for women, questions that were often followed by the arrest and imprisonment ofthe questioners. (The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 461-484
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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