100 years of disobedience and still a long way to go


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On this day in 1913, a 41 year old governess went to the derby and, whether she intended to or not, became a martyr.

When Emily Wilding Davison stood in front of the King’s horse 100 years ago she already had a long record of militant action and she had the physical and mental scars to show it.

In school we are taught the suffragettes were the radical branch of the suffragists who fought the status quo with civil disobedience; setting fire to post boxes, hiding in the Houses of Parliament on census night and slashing paintings.

In retaliation the men in parliament willfully ignored them till they did their duty in the First World War and ‘earned’ their right to vote.

But the reality, as always, is more complex. Instead of a few women’s agitation this was a civil war between the lawmakers and their wives.

The suffragettes were far more violent than history often realises. One suffragette even tried to horsewhip Winston Churchill who was Home Secretary at the time. Wilding Davison even went to prison for 10 days for assaulting a vicar she mistook for a cabinet minister.

But they resorted to these measures because they were fighting fire with fire. As time progressed police attacks got more and more brutal. Police dispelling the Black Friday march in 1910 were even alleged to have sexually assaulted the protesters.

The suffragettes had to fight dirty because they were backed into a corner. Their assault on the society around them was such a shock to the people around them because they weren’t behaving the way they were supposed to.

Women weren’t granted the vote in 1918 because of their contribution to the First World War like conventional wisdom says. The idea that women were rewarded for putting down the placards and behaving themselves is laughable. The war was a catalyst which sped up women’s suffrage but it didn’t cause it.

Women got the vote because the establishment now knew after four years of war and suffering women weren’t going to wait any longer. Rebellion and concession was sweeping Europe and Britain was no exception. Between January and August 1919 there were a series of bloody riots in towns and cities across Britain were former soldiers were said to have played a large part.

In fact, the artificial reinflation of the economy in 1918 to prevent recession temporarily is considered by some historians to be the only reason Britain didn’t see more rebellion.

The actions of women before the war like Emily Wilding Davison should women were not the weak willed pushovers they had been expected to be for generations. True there were women who did not support suffrage, (including famous suffragist Virginia Woolf’s own mother) and some them even campaigned against it, lead by Mrs Humphry Ward.

These women won because they knew their enemy and knew how to fight it.

Unfortunately this is where modern feminism falls down.

For all the suffragettes, suffragists and their feminist’s successors’ successes, we still have a long way to go.

Approximately two women a week are killed by their current or former partners, a figure that hasn’t come down in 15 years. Rape reporting rates are still ridiculously low and when a case does come to light there always seems to be a celebrity or Twitter hate mob on hand to dismiss it as the victim’s fault. Women are still told it is more important to be skinny then happy.

And how do some (though I concede probably not most) deal with this? Bitch at each other about ‘privilege’ and campaigning to change the gender of a beloved children’s TV character for no real reason.

The suffragette movement was successful because it sent a message that they wanted the power to control their own lives. For the modern feminist movement it needs to send the message to young women that they are in charge of their own destiny.

Emily Wilding Davison has been portrayed as a mad women because she refused to play by anyone’s rules, not even the WPSU. Whether she was accidentally or intentionally stepping into the path of that horse she was defying what society thought was becoming of a lady.

Feminism should not be about conditioning every microscopic detail of society around the common needs of ‘women’ and arguing over a set of preconditions women need to feel ’empowered’.

It should be the simple message for each and every individual; do what you want, say what you want, think what you want and make sure people know to get out of your way.

Because there is nothing more empowering than that.

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Published by

Caroline Mortimer @CJMortimer

Freelance journalist.

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