“Miss Davison,
I am glad to hear you are in hospital. I hope you suffer torture until you die. You idiot. I consider you are a person unworthy of existence in this world, and should like the opportunity of starving and beating you to a pulp. Why don’t your people find an asylum for you?   
An Englishman”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except for the good grammar and spelling, this might well be the sort of message that feminist activists receive on a regular basis in 2013. It seems there will always be people who believe women should be silenced and who are happy to threaten violence and rape to achieve that aim. The letter above, however, is 100 years old, and was sent to the Cottage Hospital in Epsom, when suffragette Emily Wilding Davison lay dying after she had been knocked down by the King’s horse at the Derby. 

This month sees the 100th anniversary of her death, and newspapers, magazines and blogs have paid tribute to this most famous of the suffragettes, and a martyr to her cause. Clare Balding’s excellent programme Secrets of a Suffragette on Channel 4 (available on 4OD) will give you as much information as you could wish for about the woman, her cause and her death. 

On Wednesday evening, I was delighted to attend a memorial for her at the House of Commons, organised by Emily Thornberry MP. I’d never been inside the Mother of all Parliaments before and the line-up of speakers was impressive.

When Jane Garvey, Radio 4 presenter of Woman’s Hour took the podium, she looked around the room and said ruefully, “When Emily invited me to speak at this event; she said there would probably be about 40 people in a conference room.” Instead, she found herself standing in Westminster Hall, addressing an audience of around 900 people. Every seat was filled and more people were standing at the back. It was enough to lift my heart. 
The thing about feminism is, at least for me, you get tired. You get tired of the endless anti-female crap in the media. You get tired of the crap in the comments section of every article about feminism in the media. You get tired of abuse, sexism, inequality, infighting, women who wouldn't know the sisterhood if it bit them on the arse, and smug twenty-somethings who can’t be bothered to vote and won’t call themselves feminists because they don’t see why they have to be one. They have earned the privileges they have, obviously. No one else had to fight and die for them. Excuse the rant. But my point remains. The fight never seems to get easier, and on Monday, when Laura Bates of Everyday Sexism appeared on breakfast television, she instantly got a stream of tweets, emails and comments telling her to “get a grip, bitch.” So yes, you get tired, and it often feels like a very lonely fight. I imagine that is a feeling with which Emily Wilding Davison might have empathised.

But then, you get to attend an event like this one, and the stage is packed with some of the most powerful and influential women in the country – Harriet Harman, Theresa May, Diane Abbott, Salma Yaqoob, Sandi Toksvig, Jane Garvey, and Helen Pankhurst.  The audience is full of women (and men), who exude positive energy, and you feel a little, just a little, like maybe you are not so alone. And very sadly, I think this is not something Emily Wilding Davison would have experienced, outside of her own militant group.

Before the event began, one of the Doorkeepers took the microphone and said drily, “This event is due to begin at 6pm, and due to finish at 7.45 pm. I have no doubt we won’t start at six and we definitely won’t be finished by 7.45.” He was wrong. The speakers took the stage a few minutes after six, and finished promptly at a quarter to eight. One can forgive him for his pessimism. It probably doesn't often happen that an event in that building has an almost all-female line-up, and including ‘honorary sister’, John Bercow (Harriet Harman’s description), every single one of them spoke concisely and wittily.

Harriet Harman gave her seven principles of feminism (number two was: “If you’re being awkward and difficult, you’re making a difference”). Theresa May pointed out that while there have been 369 women MPs since 1918, there are currently 503 men in the House of Commons. Jane Garvey quoted figures which showed that in the 2010 election, 97 years after Emily Wilding Davison’s sacrifice, 36% of women didn't bother to vote. Diane Abbott talked about the changes she had seen, recalling that in her lifetime she had known a time when women couldn't get a mortgage and were forced to give up public sector jobs if they got married. Sandi Toksvig quoted legendary economist Beatrice Webb, who, when someone said to her, “Feminism is nonsense, any woman would rather be beautiful than clever,” replied, “That is true, but that is because so many men are stupid and so few blind.” Salma Yaqoob was impassioned and uncompromising, and urged us to see the links between race, class and gender discrimination. “Don’t divide people according to East and West,” she said, “Or into believers and non-believers, women and men. The only division is between the oppressed and the oppressor.” And even as my heart lifted with the speeches these women gave, there remained a niggling thought, which was articulated by Helen Pankhurst, the final speaker.
“This event and its speakers are anomalies,” she said. “We have not arrived at our destination.”

Every single one of the women who spoke echoed one consistent theme. “Are we opening doors for other women?” More than one mentioned the fact that when Margaret Thatcher left office, she left behind an all-male cabinet. I was struck at that moment how very lonely the journey must have been for every one of the very successful women on that stage. Diane Abbott spoke touchingly about how, even if we didn't want to go into politics and leadership, we might support the women we know who have.
“Ring them up,” she urged. “Ask how their day was. Take round a bottle of wine.”

And Sandi Toksvig made the poignant and powerful point that the world does itself a huge disservice in restricting education to so many girls and women. “If the solution to climate change, or a cure for cancer lies inside the head of a girl who hasn't been allowed to leave the house, let alone go to school, then that is a great tragedy,” she said.

When the speeches finished, the speakers all stayed to chat to members of the audience, and around me, I saw women begin to mobilise. Many were handing out leaflets for causes, events, theatrical performances and more.  I met Sophie Partridge, an actor and writer, and activist for disability rights, who was there urging people to sign a petition to save the Independent Living Fund. She saw the event as a chance to get into the Houses of Parliament and put her case to some powerful people, much as Emily Wilding Davison took the opportunity some 100 years ago to hide in a broom cupboard on the night of the Census so she could claim the Houses of Parliament as her address. Support Sophie by signing this petition if you can. Let it be your first step in empowering another woman.

One of Emily Thornberry’s aims with the event was to propose the erection of a statue of Emily Wilding Davison in Parliament. “Of the 100 statues in these buildings who are not kings and queens,” she said, “94 are of men. There are even two of John Major.”  If you’d like to support this, you can write to your MP to support Emily Thornberry’s Early Day Motion. There will also be an e-Petition on the HM Government website soon.

It was an inspiring event, and I feel like I gained heart and hope from being there. I can believe in a better future for women now, although sadly not the Utopia we glimpsed during the event itself. As Diane Abbot was concluding her speech, a bell began to ring incessantly, and all the MPs in the meeting, including Harriet Harman, Theresa May, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and John Bercow were called away to vote. “We won’t be long,” said Emily Thornberry, “But while we’re away, Sandi Toksvig is in charge.”

Now there’s a leadership I could support…


V Wharton
06/10/2013 07:10

Its hard to fight for equality for our daughters and ourselves when we are so often faced with intimidation and shunning within our own families and friends for even mentioning the F word. The media has done alot by selective reporting or downright bias to portray extreme anti male viewpoints as the central message of feminism. From witch to bitch isn't empowerment, its still discrimination, just with different words of hatred. I fight for my daughter's right not to be hit or baited just for being female and therefore seen by her male class mates as inferior to them. I've watched teachers laugh at boys shouting 'boys are better than girls' in the playground and not calling the boys out on this basic discriminatory talk. I'm fed up of parents laughing at their son's use of violent sexist porn under the guise 'boys will be boys' and I am very very over a world where 1 in 3 girls suffers violent sexist assault at school and Ofsted and the Dept of Education has no strategy and will not admit that this directly effects girls' ability to gain a decent education when their basic safety at school is under daily threat. We need to stop concentrating on the victim's behaviour and start concentrating on the aggressors, and like racism, sexism kills people and is not something boys grow out of but rather something they are conditioned in to.

Rachel D
06/10/2013 07:45

Thanks, Rosie, for an excellent, and thought-provoking post.

06/10/2013 17:22

It sounds like a wonderful memorial with some inspiring speakers. If you'd like to help celebrate Emily's legacy (and have fun at the same time), the Wilding Festival starts this week and has lots of events, including a procession from Russell Square to St George's Bloomsbury. Many of them are free and family friendly - lots more info at www.thewildingfestival.co.uk. Hope to see you there dressed in white, purple and green!

06/11/2013 01:24

"You get tired of abuse, sexism, inequality, infighting, women who wouldn't know the sisterhood if it bit them on the arse, and smug twenty-somethings who can’t be bothered to vote and won’t call themselves feminists because they don’t see why they have to be one."

I don't think this is as much about being a woman anymore, people are abusive in general. I work in a male dominated industry where if anything being a woman has helped open doors. I’m on a better salary than my male peers and generally things are good. I think personally statements like the above is what’s holding us “sisters” back, sure there are people who don’t appreciate (or even know what women, like Emily and the Suffragettes went through to give us the liberties we have today, but there are an equal measure of men that don’t know what important role models throughout history have done for them. The sooner we stop seeing each other as ‘enemies’ then the sooner we can be united, and stronger too.

My point is you’ll get unappreciative people in all walks of life from both genders. All people should be equal. I appreciate that women had it tough 100 years ago, but things are definitely on the up (my guy does the washing up AND the ironing, wink) And I think that modern men in general don’t see the line like the old fuddy duddies of yore, like “An Englishman” did. These modern men are replacing the old-stuck-in-their-ways men and they don’t see me as a woman, they see me as a person.

Now i’ve also seen the other side of the line. I’ve been to several Fathers for Justice meetings where good guys are struggling to get access to their kids. I’ve heard the stories, seen them crying over their heartache and if anything we need a movement now which address the inequality there. Woman get all the rights. My own partner is the same, his ex uses his daughter against him all the time, he fights tooth and nail to spend time with her, and if anything he’s teaching her the values that a modern woman needs in the world, while her mother is just teaching her how to manipulate men to get what she wants.

Now conversely I know i said at the start that being a woman has opened doors for me in a male dominated industry, and that contradicts things a little, but when its everyone’s ass in the fire, mines in there just the same as the guys and I come under equal scrutiny as them. Not seen as a woman, not seen as a man, I am just one of the team. My point is that having lived in both worlds and seeing both sides of the coin, people should have equal rights and the sooner we lose this them and us attitude the better.

And no, I am not a feminist, , I guess if anything I am a humanitarian.

Maryon Jeane
06/14/2013 06:09

Are you joking?!? I'm afraid your attitude is part of the problem, certainly not of the solution. Do we have equal pay? Can we speak out - on any subject at all, let alone Feminist-related ones - without attitudes like that in the Emily Davison letter being demonstrated (only now invariably including words like 'bitch', 'slag' etc.)? Can we go about our lives without the ever-present threat of sexual violence? Are we properly represented in Parliament or in any of the major forums? Do we have equal access to anything at all, from public toilets through to senior public positions? Do we receive equal treatment in law?

I, as an older feminist, am brought to despair at this type of half-asleep atittude which does seem to be worryingly prevalent in many younger women now. We fought and lobbied and protested and tried to make a difference by the way we led our own lives - although not actually sacrificing our lives as Emily Davison did - and is this all we've achieved?

Wake up - and fight for freedom or lose it.


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