Suffragette: Emily Wilding Davison


Deeds not Words

In June 2013 it was 100 years since Emily Wilding Davison died after stepping out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby.  Around this anniversary there was much debate about whether she deliberately or accidentally sacrificed her life for the suffragette cause and the extent to which her action helped or hindered the movement. After the recent release of the new film, Suffragette, the debate is alive and well again.

What is not in doubt is the reason why Emily Wilding Davison put herself in danger: in 1913 women in the UK did not have the vote, and patient, reasoned argument with our men folk was failing to win the day.

It is hard for us these days to imagine how it must have felt to be denied the vote, just for being a woman.  Pause a moment to construct a few sentences to answer this question: ‘why didn’t women have the vote in 1913?’ and you will begin to inhabit the space Emily Davison was living in. (It is a space which continued to exist for another 15 years after Emily Davison’s death, until women were granted the vote on equal terms with men in 1928.) My blood begins to boil if I think about what ‘reasons’ the male establishment would have given to the question in 1913.

Emily Davison funeralMy two teenage daughters are only mildly interested in the story of the suffragettes. From their perspective, it really is a very long time ago and anyway “we’ve got the vote now, haven’t we?”

They are too young to see how women remain the “weaker” sex behind the thin façade of equality. Yes, opportunities for women in the UK are abundant compared to 1913, but the facts and figures on women’s pay, power and influence are still lamentable.

For example, less than a third of our MPs are female and our parliament now sits at 36th in the global league table for women MPs – behind both Zimbabwe and Algeria. Decisions of national importance are still being made with too few women around the table.

In business, anyone can get to the top, but most of the time, the bosses are still male. Anyone can care for children and ageing parents, but most of the time, the carers are female.

The fact is that in the UK we still have a long way to go to reach gender equality and the pace of change is painfully slow. According to the Electoral Reform Society

At the current rate of change, a child born today will be drawing her pension before she has an equal say in the government of her country.

Perhaps it is time once again for deeds not words. My deed this week will be to drag my daughters out to the cinema to watch Suffragette. I’m hoping they’ll understand Emily Wilding Davison a little better and why she gave up on patiently and politely asking nicely.