Series 2: Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913)

Emily Wilding Davison is best-known as the suffragette who died after attempting to stop George V’s horse, Anmer, during the 1913 Derby. What is less well known about Davison is that she was part of the first generation of women to study – and succeed – at the University of Oxford.

Davison was an intensely committed member of the Women’s Social and Political Union – the suffragette group led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. The WSPU were militants, who believed that violent protest (including acts we would today consider terrorism) were defensible in pursuit of the vote. After enduring brutal force-feedings and the use of a police hose whilst in prison, Davison survived one suicide attempt intended as a ‘desperate protest’ against the ‘hideous torture’ of imprisoned suffragettes. Her experiences convinced her that only the death of an activist would give women the franchise. She died four days after the Derby, without ever regaining consciousness.

In 2018, Davison has become the ultimate symbol of suffragette rebellion and defiance: but her early history was one of unseen struggle, perseverance, and disappointment shared by many Victorian women.

Born in London, Davison grew up in a large and initially affluent, middle-class family: governesses, a year in France, and a privileged education at Kensington High School for Girls, where she adored Medieval literature, especially Chaucer.

In 1892, Davison won a place to read English and Mathematics at Holloway College (today Royal Holloway): the progressive women’s college, founded in 1879. But in February 1893, Emily’s father Charles Davison died unexpectedly.

Like many Victorian wives, Margaret Davison had little knowledge of her husband’s finances: to the shock of bereavement was added the appalling discovery that Charles Davison’s wealth had dramatically dwindled, possibly via bad investments. He left his family only £102 1s 4d. Emily’s Royal Holloway fees were £20 per term. Margaret moved North-East to Morpeth and attempted to work as a baker, but inevitably, Emily had to leave Holloway.

Emily’s English tutor, the splendidly named Ms L. M. Faithfull, wrote in distress: ‘It is a matter of great regret to me that she is unable to finish her course at College, as I had every reason to think she would do well in her final examination. She is […] one whom it has always been a pleasure to teach from her real love of the subject. […] She has immense perseverance and energy in overlooking obstacles’.

For the next two years, Emily Wilding Davison worked as a governess, desperately trying to keep up with her friends via evening classes and borrowed lecture notes. By 1895, she had saved enough for a single term at university: long enough to sit her Finals. In April 1895, at the start of Trinity Term, she arrived at St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford.

Although much of the area was fiercely anti-suffrage, Oxford had had a suffragist presence since the late 1860s, when the city submitted its first pro-suffrage petitions. In 1873, early suffragist Lydia Becker addressed a meeting in the drawing room of Emilia Pattinson, the feminist and trades unionist wife of Lincoln’s Rector – and, according to early biographers, George Eliot’s inspiration for Dorothea, the heroine of Middlemarch. Later, suffragists held open-air meetings at factory gates, and outside the Clarendon Press, home of Oxford University Press.

St Hugh’s Hall, today St Hugh’s College, was founded in 1886. It was the third of Oxford’s women’s colleges, following Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville in 1879. Both LMH and Somerville would have been far too expensive for Emily Davison: LMH charged £75 per year for food and accommodation, and Somerville £60. By contrast, LMH Principal Elizabeth Wordsworth founded St Hugh’s specifically for young women on lower incomes: annual charges were just £45.

Like Emily Davison, St Hugh’s in 1895 was a progressive, independent entity. The college had recently refused amalgamation with LMH, and in the year of Davison’s arrival, became fully self-governing with its own council and constitution.

Davison sat her Finals at St Hugh’s in June 1895, and gained First Class Honours in English. But, of course, she couldn’t take a degree: Oxford was markedly slow to grant degrees to women, not extending that right until 1920. Nevertheless, her tutors rejoiced. One of them, Elizabeth Lea wrote: ‘She is a most industrious and painstaking student, and one who takes a real interest in her work. She has well deserved the great success she has just achieved’. Given Davison’s love of Medieval literature, her rapport with Lea is easily understood: Lea called The English Dialect Dictionary ‘more poetical than any other work of the age’ and published numerous philological works with her husband, the dialectologist Joseph Wright.

Davison spent the next few years working as a teacher, and studying for further degrees in London. In 1906, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, becoming a full-time activist in 1909. That March, she was arrested for attempting to enter the House of Commons to present a petition – a Parliament in which many of her male Oxford contemporaries were sitting as MPs. In court, she complained ‘that certain members of Parliament jeered at the women. That was not the act of gentlemen or men but of curs’ (Times, 1 April 1909). Later that year she was force-fed in prison, writing afterwards that the experience would ‘haunt me with its horror all my life’. A doctor forced a steel instrument between her jaws, forced it opened, pinched her nose and gripped her tongue. With outstanding courage, Emily later successfully sued the men who force-fed her. In total, she was imprisoned eight times and force-fed on forty-nine occasions.

Meanwhile, Oxford’s own battle for suffrage was intensifying. St Hugh’s, Emily’s college, formed a pro-suffrage society in 1908; that February, the WSPU opened an Oxford branch. By 1910, the WSPU was running its own ‘suffragette shop’, selling pro-suffrage literature, at 15, High Street (where Whittards is today).

Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst both visited Oxford; the latter was pelted with stones by the male undergraduates of St John’s. The non-militant suffragists were also prominent; for two summers, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies ran residential programmes at LMH. Five months before Davison’s death, a torchlit procession of activists processed from Cowley Place (outside St Hilda’s) to St Giles, only to be attacked by men. Within weeks of her tragic death, the NUWSS suffrage pilgrimage saw activists pass through the town on the long march from Carlisle to London.

Today, some historians doubt whether Davison intended to kill herself at the June 1913 Derby; she had a return train ticket about her person, and had left no message for the mother she adored. What is certain is that she believed martyrdom would advance the suffrage cause; her suicide attempt in prison indicates her willingness for self-sacrifice. A passionate Christian socialist, she had an especial devotion to St Joan of Arc: another woman who died for her beliefs.

Emily Wilding Davison’s return train ticket for the 1913 Derby.

Davison time in Oxford illuminates the city’s role in women’s education and the suffrage movement. However, at a time of devastating educational inequality, for every woman who scraped together the fees for St Hugh’s, there were hundreds of working-class women and men for whom tertiary education remained a distant possibility. Davison knew this: perhaps inspired by her own experience, she volunteered for the Workers’ Educational Association alongside her WSPU activism. Today, the WEA is the UK’s largest charitable provider of adult education. There is so much more to Davison’s story than her controversial and calamitous death. In this year of suffrage commemoration, upholding her beliefs in gender and educational equality would be her best possible legacy.

Dr Sophie Duncan is an academic specialising in literature, drama, and women’s histories.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (2001)

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