How British suffragettes fought for the vote
How British suffragettes fought for the vote? British suffragettes were masters of spectacle. Their mission was to win British women the right to vote, and to do that, they needed attention.
Their demonstrations were tightly-choreographed events, full of matching outfits and signs. But it was their radical actions that made them notorious. They smashed windows. Destroyed fine art. And set fire to the houses of their political opponents. All in the name of keeping their fight on the front page of the paper, and in the minds of the public.
Newsreels from the time show the destruction the suffragettes left behind. But there’s one act that stands out above the rest. It took place in 1913, at one of the most popular sporting events of the year, A horse race. Where newsreel cameras captured a lone figure, stepping onto the racetrack and doing this. She was holding a suffragette flag.
Women had been petitioning for the vote in England since the mid-1800s. They were called “suffragists,” and had a non-confrontational strategy of persuasion and education to convince legislators to give women the vote. But in 1903, a new branch emerged: the militant suffragists, whose motto was “Deeds Not Words.”
Frustrated by the lack of progress they began seeking attention by disrupting men’s political meetings with loud heckling and getting arrested for things like spitting on policemen. Prompting one newspaper in 1906 to call the noisy disruptors “suffragettes.” A name meant to diminish or mock the new militant activists as hysterical and childish.
But one they embraced, even changing the name of their newspaper, “Votes for Women,” to “The Suffragette.” The militant suffragettes had a bad reputation in the press, and drew criticism from the wider suffrage movement for “taking it too far” and setting progress back with their disruptive acts.
The suffragettes were depicted as unfeminine and crazed, so public pageantry and controlling their image was an important part of the movement. They delivered speeches. Made colorful banners. Marched. And got arrested in public again and again. Usually wearing their official color scheme: Purple for loyalty, green for hope, and white. Which represented the virtue of their campaign. But also read well in sepia-tone news photos. But the militant suffragettes’ publicity strategy changed in late 1910.
A riot breaks out in Parliament Square. And that day became known as “Black Friday.” Because about 150 women were physically and sexually assaulted by the police. From here forward, the suffragettes organized fewer public demonstrations, where they’d be surrounded by police. Shifting instead to a radical approach of random acts of property destruction.
The telephone wires are cut. Windows are smashed. Sporting facilities are attacked. As their actions became more and more extreme in the early 1910s, the militant suffragettes became notorious villains in the media – and in public opinion. But their message was clear. The destruction won’t stop until a suffrage bill passes.
Emily Wilding Davison was one of the most extreme of the militant suffragettes, and no stranger to violence. She once beat a man that she had mistaken for a specific politician with a horse whip. She also set fire to mailboxes, inspiring some suffragettes to follow her radical example. She was jailed nine times.
And while imprisoned, would go on hunger strike, and was subsequently force-fed through her nose. An extremely painful form of torture that the government enacted on many hunger-striking suffragettes to prevent them from dying of starvation in prison. Davison was willing to die in the name of women’s liberation.
During one of her imprisonments in 1912, she threw herself from a prison balcony in a suicide attempt. To draw public sympathy for the suffragettes undergoing torturous force feeding in jail. She said afterward: The following year is when Davison pushed her dedication to “deeds not words” to the most extreme. At the 1913 Epsom Derby.
The Epsom Derby is England’s most prestigious horse race – a beloved and historic event that’s been run since 1780. That year, over 500,000 people were in attendance. King George V was there too. His horse, Anmer, was running the race. And in the crowded inner track, Emily Davison stood near Tattenham Corner. It’s the final turn, right before the dead sprint to the finish line.
A prominent spot sure to be in view of the cameras, which were positioned around the track covering important parts of the race. In the footage, you can see Davison duck under the rail and wait for the leading pack of horses to go by. Then step out onto the track, right in front of Anmer, the king’s horse. She was holding the purple, white, and green flag of the militant suffragettes.
Emily Davison brought the two-ton racehorse crashing to ground, and flipped its rider. She died four days later of her injuries. After years of escalating militant violence was photographed after the fact… Or imagined in news illustrations…. This was the first – and only – act of militant suffragette violence captured on film. And it was a huge story. People responded with a mix of shock and outrage.
Davison was framed as a radical who ruined something everyone loves – the Derby. For the suffragettes, she became a martyr. The next issue of their magazine featured Davison as an angel on the cover, standing on a race track. They organized a massive public funeral, where 5,000 suffragettes, wearing white dresses and black armbands, marched in solemn procession through London.
Carrying Davison’s casket from Victoria Station to Kings Cross Station, to be sent to her hometown for burial. 50,000 people watched it go by. The spectacle of Davison’s funeral brought sympathy for the struggle for women’s suffrage to a global level.
And, as it turns out, was basically the last public procession of the militant suffragettes. World War I broke out the following year. And the suffragettes put their militant activities on hold to contribute to the war effort. Suffrage was extended to women over 30 in 1918, and full suffrage passed in 1928. Emily Davison’s shocking final protest at the Derby probably didn’t change many people’s minds about women’s suffrage.
And whether or not she intended to die remains unclear – she didn’t tell anyone her plan, and she didn’t leave a note. But this moment – caught on camera – became one of the most publicized acts of suffragette protest.
One so extreme that no one, not even the king himself, could ignore. There’s so many great archival photos and illustrations from the suffragette movement that I didn’t have time to include in this video — like this cartoon: It was published in a British magazine in 1910, and is called The Suffragette that Knew Jiu-Jitsu. It shows terrified police officers surrounding a lone woman, standing in front of a “Votes for Women” sign, with a few of their comrades tossed onto the fence behind her.
It might seem like a parody or a joke, but the thing is: suffragettes really did train in jiu jitsu. As a response to the continued aggression by London police during demonstrations – like on Black Friday – the suffragettes hired Edith Margaret Garrud, a professional martial arts instructor, to teach them how to defend themselves during riots. It’s sort of unclear how often the suffragettes used this specific skill set during their clashes with police, but newspapers at the time claimed these “jiu-jitsu experts” could throw a 200 pound police officer over their heads. Ouch.