Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Emily Wilding Davison and Restoring the Balance

One Easter, many moons ago as a child I dragged my parents through a Northumbrian cemetery in a hailstorm in search of the grave of the suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison, who died after being trampled by the king’s horse when she crossed the racetrack at the 1913 Derby. On finding the grave, I was greatly moved to discover a bunch of faded flowers attached to a little card, coloured around the border in suffragette green, white and purple, on which was written in shaky handwriting (as though written by an elderly person) and the ink smudged by the hailstorm, a message of fond remembrance of a ‘brave comrade’. This was in the 1970s and, at that time, the history of the suffragettes had become so fascinating to me because, as a little girl, I had often noticed that not only were very few girls/women ever written about in history books (there were dozens of great heroes but the only heroines that ever appeared at that time were Florence Nightingale, Queen Elizabeth I and Grace Darling) but, apart from Jane Austen and the Brontes, nearly all the great writers were men, even though women spent more time writing than men did.

Emily Wilding Davison, a First Class Honours graduate in English Literature, was a
very intelligent person and she had discovered, as did Christabel Pankhurst, who gained a law degree but was not allowed to practice law because she was a woman, that educated or clever women were prevented from using their intelligence in any sphere other than teaching. She was also an extremely devout Christian and gradually came to the belief that God was calling her to stand up against this suffocation of women’s intelligence and contribution to society and, perhaps more importantly, the lack of representation of half of the human race in government and law-making. Imprisoned several times (for non-violent offences – the suffragette rule was that no life, whether it be that of an animal or of a person must be endangered) she was treated horrendously in prison, repeatedly forcibly (and dangerously) fed and on one occasion having an ice-cold hose-pipe turned on her till she almost drowned. Eventually in 1913, she went to the Derby and made her protest by crossing the race-track and shouting, “Votes for Women!” Various theories about her intentions have since emerged – she had a return ticket to Morpeth in her pocket, so she intended to return home. She was close to her elderly mother and would not have intended to turn herself into a martyr without sending some kind of letter or explanation to her, and she was a devout Christian to whom ‘suicide’ would have been anathema. What was more, by the time the King’s horse came around the corner in the race, the leaders were already racing towards the finishing line. Emily might have believed that all the horses had passed and simply meant to cross the track. The response of the papers to her death, however, seems appalling to me. Many complained that she had spoiled the race. Others dismissed her as mad or wicked and, worst of all, came the usual tirade of opinion that the suffragettes were all ‘frustrated spinsters’ who were in need of psychological help.

About ten years after the visit to the Morpeth graveyard, by which time my interest had largely waned, I went to Manchester to see the home of Mrs. Pankhurst (founder of the suffragette movement) and felt a deep unease to discover it was filled with feminist literature which advocated many things that seemed incompatible with all the suffragettes were fighting for. It seemed to me that the genuine quest for political freedom that the suffragettes had struggled for, had been hijacked by an aggressive feminism, which had nothing to do with restoring the natural balance between the Masculine and Feminine. It seemed then that, rather than accentuating the beauty and compatibility of men and women, the women were behaving like men and expecting the men to behave like women! This was nothing like the aims of the suffragette movement. A large part of the suffragette manifesto and inspiration was the desire to protect and recognise the dignity of women as mothers, as intellectuals and as human beings on equal terms with men. It was not about making women more aggressive, or making men more effeminate. It was an attempt to restore the natural balance. Feminism really looked like trying to create women who behaved like aggressive men (hence the plethora of dramas featuring aggressive businesswomen and policewomen that came in its wake).

This is a very complex subject and the way in which women of the past were treated by (or ignored by) historians has led to many spurious myths about prominent women – Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, Alexandra of Russia, Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra to name but a few. These and many other strong women were described as insane or, if that didn’t work, attempts were made to portray them as depraved. In response, it sometimes seems as though the natural feminine tendencies of intelligence, compassion, maternal instincts etc. have been belittled. Sooner or later, the balance will be reached and, in the meantime, it seems correct to dispel some of the out-dated myths.


Val said...

Such a nice tribute to Emily! What a very brave, intelligent and amazing woman! She was (lucky for us!) quite ahead of her time. It's very difficult to think about her tragic end... doing all she could to make sure a woman's voice was heard. I quite agree about the suffragettes of yesterday, and the aggressive feminism of today. One can have equal rights with men, and still celebrate the differences between our genders without trying to become more masculine or aggressive!

Christina said...

Thank you, Val :-)

laBiscuitnapper said...

Great post. I've always been a suffragist sort of feminist rather than a suffragette (and I've never been too impressed with the Pankhursts apart from Sylvia - and she was the Communist!) but this is a great tribute to a woman who is still much maligned. I had no idea she was a devout Christian. It's funny what the books neglect to mention...

Christina said...

Thank you :-). I don't think Emily's devout Christianity fit so well with some feminist literature but it was certainly her religion which drove everything she did. I think she would probably be very shocked and disturbed by the way in which she has been hijacked by feminists!!
Oh, the Pankhursts...Christabel was very hard to take, and Emmeline, though courageous, was not a warm person. They took the credit for what a lot of others suffered. Sylvia, I also liked, and think she did a great deal of good in the Easy End of London, but her communism and joyful response to the Russian Revolution are way off the mark!!

Christina said...

Easy End of London??? I meant East End!!