One hundred years ago today, one woman made a decision that would come to define the sacrifices and spirit of the suffrage movement. Having travelled to the Epsom Derby, 39-year-old Emily Wilding Davison waited at the course’s Tattenham Corner, carrying two suffrage flags. As the horses rounded the bend, Emily stepped onto the track, into the path of the King’s horse, and was knocked unconscious. She died from her injuries four days later.
Emily had dedicated much of her adult life to suffrage – she was sent to jail multiple times and repeatedly force fed – and her iconic death (whether she meant to sacrifice her life for the cause is still disputed) combined with the actions of hundreds of other suffrage campaigners, eventually won all women over the age of 21 the vote in 1928.
For me, Emily represents my first encounter with women’s rights and and the idea of feminism. It is one of the history lessons from school that has always stuck in my mind, shaping my world view, and still serves me as a powerful reminder of what others went through to win the hard-fought rights I enjoy today.
Thinking back to that first lesson on the suffragists and suffragettes, I started thinking about the women who are still making sacrifices and taking action today. There has been much talk in the last year about the emergence of a new wave of feminism, and I hope that if she were able to see the women that are still pushing and still fighting, 100 years on, Emily Wilding Davison would be proud.
There is, for example, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, who has encouraged thousands of women to report incidents of sexism, and in the last week got Facebook to take action over photos posted to their site celebrating violence against women. Lucy-Anne Holmes, who started the campaign to end Page 3, is another who heeds the Women’s Social and Political Union’s motto, “Deeds not words”.
But words can be powerful too, and we have irreverent and insightful writers today like Caitlin Moran, Hadley Freeman, Helen Lewis, Laurie Penny, Emma Barnett, the team at Vagenda, and many, many more, constantly encouraging us to challenge sexism in our society – and ensure that younger girls growing up do the same. Lili Evans, of the Twitter Youth Feminist Army, is a great example of one of these young girls standing up for what she believes in – and a far braver lady than I was at 15 years old. As the momentum of the digital revolution has picked up speed, a plethora of female voices has come to the fore, and are demanding to be heard.
So although the organisers of this year’s Epsom Derby decided not to hold a minute’s silence in Emily’s memory, I will be taking a minute today to stop and remember her. Because without her, and others like her, we would never have been able to enjoy the freedoms afforded to us in 2013, or been given the chance to look up to the likes of the inspiring ladies mentioned above.
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