Wearing White

By John Blankley

The Greenwich Historical Society has an extraordinary exhibit, well worth seeing, on Women’s Suffrage marking the centenary of the passing of the 19th amendment to the constitution which gave women the right to vote. Wearing white is the way that elected women officials are commemorating the event; you may have seen for example many Democratic congresswomen at the State of the Union paying tribute in this fashion to the women of the suffragette movement. Worthy of note is that they were also drawing attention to work still to be done, embodied in the attempt to resurrect the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA) which failed in 1982 and that was designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. And I would add, while we celebrate the centenary, we should not forget that voting rights for African-American women were not truly enshrined in law till 1965. 

I write this piece today however to go further back in history and to give an account of one woman’s fight for the fundamental right to vote and her amazing act of self sacrifice in the early days of the suffragette movement.

Over 100 years ago thousands of women showed remarkable courage, marching in the streets, protesting and risking arrest. And nor was this bravery confined to these shores. In my country of origin, the United Kingdom, the suffragette movement started in 1872 with the formation of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage coming 40 years after the Great Reform Act of 1832. Though a major step forward in ridding the parliamentary system of so-called “rotten boroughs,” that act had explicitly denied women the right to vote! 

Decades of protest followed, becoming increasingly violent and culminating in the action of one woman which will remain forever a symbol of the fight for women’s rights.

The scene was Derby Day, 14th June 1913 when thousands of Londoners headed south to Epsom Downs in the Surrey hills for a day of horseracing and betting. The king’s horse was in the race and the king himself, George V, was in the stands watching with his binoculars. As the horses thundered round Tattenham Corner Emily Davison slipped under the rails into the path of the king’s horse and caused all to come crashing down. Her spine was fractured and she died four days later. 

Was it foolhardiness or bravery? History has chosen to record that Emily Davison’s act showed that her belief in the cause was so great that she was willing to die for it. Her motto was: “Freedom from tyrants is obedience to God” and she declared in a pamphlet that “I give my life as a pledge of my desire that women shall be free.”

It took a war however, The Great War, for women in the UK, thanks to their contribution to victory in that war, to gain the right to vote which came in two acts of Parliament, in 1918 and 1928. I had three great aunts (formidable ladies, let me tell you!) and all were able to vote, for the first time, in the general election of 1929 that incidentally brought Ramsay Macdonald,  the first labor prime minister, to power.

Many remarkable women in history, in America, the U.K. and all round the world made great sacrifices of a kind not often seen today to achieve what we now regard as a self evident right and we owe them all an immense debt of gratitude. But I salute in particular Emily Davison. 

Here’s the epitaph from the journal ‘Votes for Women’ written in 1913:

Waiting there in the sun, in that gay scene, among the heedless crowd, she had in her soul the thought, the vision of wronged women. That thought she held to her; that vision she kept before her. Thus inspired, she threw herself into the fierce current of the race. So greatly did she care for freedom that she died for it.

The League of Women Voters, among other initiatives commemorating the passing of the 19th amendment to the constitution which gave women the right to vote, is sponsoring an essay writing competition in the schools which asks “what if women could not vote?” I hope entrants will be inspired by the courage of Emily Davison and recognize an incredibly important concept in our ever-evolving and improving democracy: that we all stand on the shoulders of brave forbears. 

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