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Daring to Be Free: Britains Honor Suffragist, Emily Davison

Many people are familiar with the Suffragettes campaign and their fight for women’s enfranchisement and liberation. This cause has perhaps never been so relevant in recent times as with the current economic and political climate. With the global economy in such a delicate state and our job market failing, it appears women are the ones hardest hit. A recent Metro article made the case clear-

“women have been hit so hard in the spending review that progress on equality could be threatened. The cuts are so deep and will hit women so hard that they risk more than women’s financial security – they threaten hard fought progress we’ve made on women’s equality.”

Are we at risk of losing all of that important ground we have gained in terms of women’s rights and independence? It is my belief that we are still not considered equal to our male counterparts, and should therefore commemorate someone who fought so admirably for that cause.

Emily Davison was a suffragette activist who was trampled to death by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. Davison’s purpose in attending the Derby this day is unclear. Her friends and colleagues in the suffrage movement hailed her as having risked her life to call attention to the “great hardships endured by women by reason of their exclusion from any political status“. Anti-suffragists questioned her sanity and characterized her actions as “reckless fanaticism“. The general opinion is that she was attempting to pin a suffragette poster onto the horse so that when it crossed the finishing line, the suffragette flag would be flying. She purchased a return rail ticket from London to Epsom, which was found in her bag at the time of the accident, suggesting that martyrdom was not her intention; this was in fact just a terrible tragedy.

Running from May to September of this year, the Out of the Archives exhibition, which was born out of The Women’s Library collections, was the start of a journey for artists Hester Reeve and Olivia Plender. Focusing on the suffragette movements of the 1800s & 1900s, they based their works on such figures as Sylvia Pankhurst, Mary Richardson and perhaps most importantly of all, Emily Davison. These same women waged militant attacks on famous artworks, calling into question the separation between art and politics.

The original Emily Davison Lodge was established in 1913 by Mary Leigh and Edith New in order to:

“perpetuate the memory of a gallant woman by gathering together women of progressive thought and inspiration with the purpose of working for the progress of women according to the needs of the hour.”

The lodge then ceased to exist in the 1940s, but has been re-established by Hester Reeve and Olivia Plender as part of their artwork for the Out of the Archives exhibition. The artists took a number of photographs documenting The inaugural meeting of the Emily Davison Lodge, which took place in the Women’s Library’s archive room and utilised a number of suffragette relics including a tea-set designed by Sylvia Pankhurst.

Currently, Reeve and Plender are planning future events that they hope will convert others to the aims and ideals set out by the lodge. This includes a recent meeting with the Director of Tate Britain, which has led to a discussion about the possibility of showcasing the life and artworks of Sylvia Pankhurst in the gallery’s British History Collection. It also prompted an ongoing discussion regarding the representation of contemporary female artists and how best to tackle this issue. Alongside this activism, The Emily Davison Lodge is used as a place to further research Suffrage and the relationship between art and politics and is something of a studio for the two artists.

When Reeve and Plender began researching for the Out of the Archives exhibition, they saw an opportunity to make something of an idea that had occurred to them when they first met the previous year; the celebration of Emily Davison Day. Through a series of posters and chapbooks produced by the artists, they explored the suffragette’s actions and addressed the relationship that these women had with art and politics and how the two intertwined. One of these books, that was available for visitors to take away, simply stated “Celebrate Emily Davison Day, June 4th”in small writing on the back. The idea of Emily Davison Day was realised.

June of this year saw the first official celebration of Emily Davison Day, whereby Plender and Reeve paid a visit to the same event that turned out to be so fateful on that day back in 1913 the Epsom Derby. Plans for June 2011 are already well underway and with the centenary in 2013 not too far beyond the horizon, the creative workspace of the Emily Davison Lodge is a hive of activity. Having designed and displayed some earring-propaganda that promotes the celebration as well as bearing the suffragette axiom, ‘Dare to be free!’, they have now set up a website (http://www.emilydavisonday.co.uk) and the idea is catching on fast. The reason for celebrating Emily Davison as a public holiday, put simply, in their own words is:

Most British public holidays mark warfare events or royal birthdays: Emily Davison’s fatal deed at the Epsom Derby to win the vote for women seemed something far more worth celebrating.

Both women stated that they were genuinely surprised at the lack of public knowledge and interest in the suffragette actions and their contribution to British history. They believe that it is important to get the suffragette achievement more widely known and appreciated, especially in the light of how relevant it is in the present day. The lodge and their web domain have both been set up in the vein of an artwork rather than the headquarters for a campaign. Their desire to produce art highlighting the problems surrounding the representation of women in the art world today and to examine the links between art and politics are at the core of this operation. The suffragettes changed women’s lives and by remembering an event so instrumental in gaining us the right to vote, the hope is that the idea will spread and open people’s eyes, perhaps helping to change the treatment of women within the art world today.

http://www.emilydavisonday.co.uk

Beckie Jones
Beckie Jones graduated from Aberystwyth University in 2009 with a joint honours degree in Fine Art and Art History. As a practicing artist, she uses art as a way of expressing her most personal feelings and beliefs in a physical medium. Over her years in art education, she has produced a number of projects that are gender-orientated and represent her outlook on life and her own personal experiences as a woman. She is currently the Online Events Coordinator for Studio HCE Virtual Gallery.
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3  Comments
  • Cathy

    Hi Beckie
    What important work you are doing, thank you!
    I’m in the arts too – you might not be aware that some authors are looking at the actions of early feminists as inspiration for more strategies for ecological rights. Feminist author Lierre Keith refers to early feminists bravery, above and beyond discourse and petitions, for new thinking in regards to the urgent need to take action on ecological concerns, that often affect women and the poor the most. You might want to check out ‘Deep Green Resistance’ 2011
    Best wishes from another hercircle writer

  • Rachael Perrin

    Hi,
    Fantastic article!
    We are in the early stages of creating a festival based around Emily Davison. It would be fantastic to speak further about this. If you see this message please contact me at the address above,
    Best,
    Rachael

  • Kiki

    Hi Beckie,
    I’d absolutely love for you to contribute to my site, you are an excellent writer and it seems we have similar goals and interests in spreading information about women’s issues. I am also attending the conference in March in D.C. Are you talking about the Young Feminist Leadership Conference? II know there are several that month. I’m so glad to be linked to your site, its great!
    -Kiki Cardenas

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