Comment | Who’s (still) afraid of Emily Wilding Davison?

As the centenary of heroic suffragette Emily Wilding Davison's death approaches, a campaign is under way for it to be marked with a minute’s silence at the iconic Epsom Derby horse race. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is being resisted by the very same Establishment that tried to crush women’s rights back in 1913, argues Yvonne Ridley.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Friday, March 22, 2013 16:59 - 3 Comments

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Emily Wilding Davison Top - Ceasefire Magazine

Emily Wilding Davison was fatally injured when she deliberately ran onto the track during the 1913 Derby horse racing event and was knocked unconscious by the flying hooves of King George V’s horse Anmer.

Acting on the suffragette slogan, ‘Deeds not Words’, Davison’s protest against the refusal of Britain’s rulers to grant votes for women turned her into a martyr for democracy and women’s rights.

Despite newspapers writing off her actions as those of a suicidal, mad woman, Emily’s intentions were far more noble. She was trying to raise awareness about women’s rights and equality by pinning the colours of the suffragette movement onto the horse.

Isn’t it ironic that while the male-dominated media, government and establishment of the day tried to silence the demands for women’s rights, officials from the male-dominated racing world are trying to do the same a century later?

In some ways it would be unfair to hold the men in tweeds and trilbies at Epsom Downs Racecourse directly responsible, since the influence at the very top of the racehorse fraternity trickles down from the Royal Household. Add Her Majesty’s displeasure to that of sponsors, commercial interests, the Jockey Club and the police – to name but a few who were consulted – and you can see why there is absolutely no support for the minute’s silence from any of the Derby stakeholders.

It is worth remembering that while Emily was still unconscious in hospital, Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother, asked one of her flunkeys to send a telegram to the jockey, who was recuperating at home. The note read: “Queen Alexandra was very sorry indeed to hear of your sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman.”

Could it be that there is still very little enthusiasm in the Royal Household for a revival of the the spirit of Emily?

Supporters of the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign, the movement set up to commemorate the centenary anniversary, will be pleased to know they do have some powerful allies in the arcane world of horse racing.

Sally Rowley Williams, founder of Women in Racing and one of the most influential female figures in the industry, is baffled by the industry’s position, saying “It’s a tragedy that should be acknowledged, at the very least, by a minute’s silence. She was an important figure and I’d like to think that, in this day and age, such a historic event should be acknowledged. A minute’s silence seems like a pretty small gesture but one full of meaning”.

Williams says she is “baffled as to why it’s such a problem or even an issue,” pointing out that “at a football match it happens, so I don’t know why racing doesn’t embrace this. I’ve witnessed moments of silence at big football matches and I think it happens at rugby games as well”.

At a recent meeting, the centenary campaign co-ordinator, Katherine Connelly, and Elly Badcock, the campaign’s press officer, put their case for the one minute’s silence to Rupert Trevelyan, the London Regional Director for Jockey Club Racecourses, and Johnno Spence, the Director of Public Relations at Epsom.

At the meeting it was agreed the campaign could present its case at the next stakeholders’ gathering. However, that offer was mysteriously withdrawn shortly afterwards and the campaigners were informed that the plan for a minute’s silence had been rejected.

Connelly said: “The Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign is extremely disappointed by the decision not to grant a minute’s silence to mark the sacrifice that Emily made for women’s rights and democracy. We were particularly shocked that the offer to present our case and petition at the next stakeholders meeting was withdrawn. We are committed to continue the campaign for the recognition of this anniversary which is important to so many people.”

I put this to Johnno Spence, at his London PR headquarters in leafy West London, and asked him why the racecourse was refusing to mark the centenary event. “’Refused’ is a bit of a strong word. We are unveiling a plaque on the 18th of April and her great, great, great niece is coming to unveil it for us. You’re very welcome to come,” he replied enthusiastically.

And the minute’s silence? He spoke hesitantly: “The problem with a minute’s silence is that the Derby is not held in a controlled environment like other sporting events as in football or rugby when everyone turns up around the same time in one stadium. On Derby Day there’s 140,000 arriving at different times and there’s ten different enclosures and it wouldn’t work. All the stakeholders were consulted and the final decision was taken by the MD. No one supported the minute’s silence because it’s completely unmanageable with 140,000 people. It’s been done previously when perhaps there’s been no more than 2000 people attending.”

As if to push his female-friendly credentials Spence added of Emily: “I think what she stood for was absolutely fantastic but it’s not something we want to condone or for it to happen again.”

While few would disagree with his final sentiments the point is the Establishment do not want to give a minute’s silence to mark the centenary and the reasons are still not clear.

Dr Helen Pankhurst, granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst and an international development and women’s rights campaigner, recently said at a gathering for the campaign: “Really the issue of ‘Deeds Not Words’ still applies today; identifying concrete do-able actions such as this one to commemorate specific events and specific people and their contributions and their sacrifices to the wider changes. I think that’s massively needed and I think this is a very clever, single issue, do-able action which is incredibly important.”

Bearing in mind the world’s largest ever commemorative silence is held annually at 11am on November 11 for the war dead when every street, every town, every city in the UK comes to a halt with tens of millions taking part, the excuses coming out of Epsom over a refusal for 60 seconds in memory of Emily Wilding Davison look pretty weak and pathetic.

The truth is that, a hundred years on, we as women are still facing inequality and oppression. It’s vital that the sacrifice she made in the fight for democracy and women’s rights is never forgotten.

The Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign, has been set up to campaign for a minute’s silence at the 2013 Derby Day in her memory. Activists include Bonnie Greer, Miriam Margoyles, Frances O’Grady, as well as several trade unions including the NUT, UCU, UNITE and the WEA.

It is a safe bet these committed activists – both men and women – will make sure that the spirit of Emily will be remembered on the centenary of her sacrifice … with or without the blessing of the men running Epsom Downs Racecourse.

[British journalist Yvonne Ridley is a supporter of the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign To find out more about the campaign and sign the petition check out http://emilywildingdavison.org/?page_id=11]

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Yvonne Ridley

Yvonne Ridley is a British journalist and a patron of the London-based human rights NGO cageprisonners.com as well as being the Vice President of the European Muslim League. Her website is www.yvonneridley.org and she's on Twitter @yvonneridley.

3 Comments

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Driss Fékih
Mar 22, 2013 19:15

If your search is not taken into consideration, in my opinion you should continue. One day other men will pay to Emily Davidson. Thank you for your courage.

John
Mar 22, 2013 21:04

Amazing. You are a demagogue for Islam which relegates women to a second class status. Unsurprisingly you relish the accidental martyr Davison, as usual stimulated by murderous nihilism and the disposal of an unwanted self. Truly a mental aberration.

Yvonne Ridley
Mar 23, 2013 22:11

@John – typical of the sort of response I’ve come to expect from Islamaphobes … and a misogynists. You’re amazed but I am not surprised.

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