Us Brits go to the polls today to choose who can f*ck things up the least for the next five years. It’s easy to feel despondent about the state of democracy on our fair isle right now – what with the impact of misleading media spin, the assumption that in ‘safe’ boroughs one’s vote makes very little difference, and the frustration that anyone suggesting we do things even slightly differently is considered a few ballot papers short of a ballot box. Therefore it’s fortuitous that today’s election coincides with the anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, to remind us of the lengths people will go to have the precious vote – however imperfect its impact may be – and why we should get off our bum bums and use it.
The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison begins with a reprint of Gertrude Colmore’s 1913 biography of Davison, published shortly after her death:
…she spoke more than once of her idea that a life would have to be given before the vote was won…
[she] died that other women might find it possible to live truer, happier lives…fought that other women might have freedom…gave herself to the Women’s Cause, without grudging and without fear…
The challenge for Morley & Stanley is to uncover the real Emily, and her real motivations, behind Colmore’s very readable but clearly politically-motivated ‘martyrdom’ piece. Did she intend to die for the cause? If so, does this make her the fanatic many have labelled her? Or was there something slightly more complicated going on during Derby Day 1913?
Fantastically, rather than just presenting us with a bog-standard chronological biography, Morley & Stanley have presented their findings like a detective novel, taking us with them on their investigative journey. They start with an exploration of the original Women’s Press that published Colmore’s biography, uncovering a well-oiled propaganda machine operating in the face of a national press intent on misreporting the movement (sound familiar?). A section on suffragette militancy reveals the clash of the ‘command and control’ Pankhurst leadership with localised self-directed militancy, perpetuated by Davison and others who had lost hope that change could be achieved by peaceful dialogue when the government was closed to debate but open to increased violence against suffragettes. Finally, the stories of lesser-known suffragettes who shared Davison’s militancy includes an analysis of their wider political beliefs (which included some real surprises like animal rights and vegetarianism…it takes a big person to give a crap about bunnies when you can’t even own property), and of the friendship networks that influenced and sustained these women, providing a seductive vision of a great Edwardian sisterhood that will make you want to Hi Five the lady next to you on the bus (a move perhaps best saved for the nightbus given the reaction I got on the 261 at 5pm). Mary Leigh, for example, became my new favourite following this description of her swift reaction to a boy throwing stones at her head during a rally:
…Mrs Leigh leapt from the waggonette, caught the boy by the collar, held him till he humbly apologised before the crowd…and was back on the waggonette before the astonished audience realised what a narrow escape she had.
She’d be useful on the nightbus too I reckon, when it all gets a bit lively.com on the upper deck.
The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison reveals much about Davison and the suffragette movement, as well as the nature of biography and the challenge of truly understanding people’s motivations. Perhaps we’ll never know precisely why Davison took such drastic action – although Morley & Stanley present a compelling case – but we do know that she and other women were then, and many people across the world are now, prepared to make every sacrifice to secure their part in the democratic process. So Brits, whatever our reservations about the choices open to us, let’s at least exercise our right to choose. Vote!