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Vote. Still Vote. Vote “for” Emily Davison.

June 4, 2017




Today in 1913, Emily Davison made the most dramatic of efforts to assert her electoral rights.  Trampled to death by George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby, she became the most high profile of suffragette martyrs.  Her tactics were and still are criticised as “counter-productive”.   However, recent film analysis indicates that hers was not a melodramatic suicide (she did have a return rail ticket in her purse after all), but rather a very dangerous publicity exercise.  She was attempting to have a Derby horse carry a pro-suffrage banner across the finish line.  The attempt may have gone lethally wrong, but Davison (a highly intelligent and well educated individual) must surely have been aware of the inherent danger of trying to intercept a speeding horse and deemed the attempt worthwhile.  She didn’t “give her life” but she risked it, believing that some things were more important than self preservation.

Every year I visit Emily Davison’s old college.  I visit the college for completely different reasons, and it was a while before I even knew it was Emily Davison’s old college.   Fifteen years ago, she was barely memorialised there – but she is now.

People like Davison were denounced, a century ago, as “radicalised” and “extremists”.  For their day, they were indeed radical, and they were extremely committed to their task.  Davison was not, however, trying to kill anyone (although the jockey was extremely traumatised by the incident).  We are now familiar with concept of people who kill girls who are going to their first concert or who drive heavy vehicles on city pavements just to smash into as many random people as possible.  Such people are only in the vaguest sense attempting to tie terror to any sort of political outcome.  For such people, terror and misery are inherently cherishable outcomes.

The dramatic demonstrations and disruptive extra-legal tactics of people like Emily Davison were designed to expand peaceful civil society, not destroy it.  And whether reflecting on events last night or events all those years ago, the best reaction to the senseless murders in London or the sacrificial tragedy at the Derby is to determine to vote.

Emily Davison died protesting her right to vote in order to draw attention to the primacy of electoral participation.  She was passionate about the idea of becoming a citizen with electoral rights and was trampled to death as a result of a passion that we should be ashamed of ourselves for sneering at.  Every time we allow ourselves to feel too jaded and cynical about the electoral process, we should transport ourselves back to 1913 and imagine the deafening thunder of hooves bearing down upon the passionate Emily Davison.



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