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?
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.
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…