Val Graham reviews: ‘Emily Wilding Davison- the one who threw herself under the horse’
No not Emmeline, Emily- the one who threw herself under the horse! Thousands now know about Emily Wilding Davison because this Derby day, a century ago, she was fatally injured in action for ‘the Cause’ of women’s suffrage. At Manchester Peoples History Museum I watched a new play about her life in the cause produced by Cambridge Devised Theatre. This engaging, well written and beautifully acted play is the fruit of collaboration among writer Ros Connelly, director Kath Burlinson and actor Elizabeth Crarer, each of whom finds in Emily, the struggle for political representation and their histories valuable lessons for today.
Elizabeth plays Emily for 70 minutes with intense passion, sympathy and humour, interacting with a few props, the audience and sound effects which allude to her public activity and shock the audience into a realisation of the brutal response of the state to the suffragette’s militancy. We are repeatedly dragged back into the prison cell where the drama centres on Emily’s time inside.
Behind the cause was a coalition of suffrage groups and of different class interests but Emily was a militant suffragette of the Women’s Social and Political Union. No one more embodied their slogan Deeds not Words. She was a super militant viewed as a maverick by the authoritarian Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Emily hid in the House of Commons on census night 1911 so she could give it as her address and on stage we meet her first after her arrest for assaulting a vicar she took to be Lloyd George.
Little is on show about Emily’s internal life or motivations. She is known through her public writing and what others said about her. The divising process has created an Emily who loves her parents, esteems education and resents having to work as a governess when she has a first class degree. Emily was in her thirties when she espoused militancy and my own feeling is that, highly educated, she was escaping a life which for her, simply because she was a woman of no means, was no life at all and from which there was no escape unless she married or took the veil.
She finds inspiration in the WSPU, the poems of Walt Whitman and in her religious faith to resist and resist again. Imprisoned many times, she is wedded to militancy but increasingly distressed by the state violence meted out to her comrades and the abomination of forcible feeding. She grows desperate about the failure of militant campaigns which graduate to arson but do not get the vote. She is sceptical about the Pankhurst leadership and supportive of workers struggles and strikes. All this is conveyed in the drama as the militant campaign progresses through its phases until 1913.
What shocks is the treatment that these ordinary women received at the hands of the state– imprisonment and then forcible feeding when they demanded to be treated as political prisoners, the police brutality of Black Friday and the torture of the Cat and Mouse Act. Emily was hosed with water when she barricaded herself in her cell. She must always resist. Protesting at brutal treatment, she threw herself headlong down stairs. Deeds not words- the play ends as she buys her return ticket to Epsom where we now know that she intended to attach a Votes for Women scarf to the King’s horse and not to kill herself.
What impresses is the tremendous courage and determination of these women and there were thousands of them, all over the country engaged in direct action for the vote and many more thousands involved in non militant activity. Emily died before the war but I do not think she would have followed the elder Pankhursts into the arms of jingoism and the Coalition. She allied her militancy with the cause of the working class, taught for the WEA and was seen collecting money for dockers. She can no more be dismissed for not working in a cotton mill that the teachers of today.
As the present day Coalition turns back time on women’s gains, we can argue about tactics and strategy but we also need a new coalition for our liberation and we need to rediscover the passion, determination and courage these women embodied and which has largely been forgotten. This play ‘Emily Wilding Davison- the one who threw herself under the horse stimulates and illuminates. Hopefully it will go on tour again later in the year. Go and see it.