Last week saw the centenary of the death of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913), who died from her injuries four days after being knocked unconscious by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. The Victorian Commons’ Dr. Kathryn Rix went to one of the events held in Parliament last week to mark this anniversary. She writes here about some of the online resources available through Parliament and elsewhere to study not only the women’s suffrage campaign, but also the broader history of female involvement in Parliament.
Emily Wilding Davison’s fatal protest at the Epsom Derby was the culmination of her efforts to generate publicity for the women’s suffrage movement. Parliament itself was the site of many of her actions, so much so that she was banned from the premises in 1910, when the Speaker wrote that she was ‘evidently not a desirable personage to have hanging about’. She was undeterred, however, and famously concealed herself in a broom cupboard in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft on the night of the 1911 census, meaning that the census form recorded her as ‘Found hiding in crypt of Westminster Hall’. The Speaker’s letter, census form and police reports regarding her protests in Parliament can all be seen online as part of Parliament’s ‘Living Heritage’ material.
Several other interesting resources are also available to mark the Davison centenary. These blogs from the National Archives provide details of their holdings on Emily Wilding Davison and on other women’s suffrage activists. This excellent online exhibition from the LSE (now home to the Women’s Library) includes letters written by Davison from prison, which contain her accounts of being force-fed, as well as her race card from Epsom. Davison’s funeral service programme was chosen as this month’s ‘Object of the month’ by the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Among the ways in which Davison was commemorated by her fellow suffragettes was the Emily Davison Club, which features in this interesting blog from the British Library.
The resources relating to Emily Wilding Davison form only one part of the material on the history of women in Parliament available through the Parliament website. Of particular interest to parliamentary historians will be the full lists of every female MP since 1918 and every female member of the House of Lords.
Several female MPs have already been interviewed for our new oral history project at the History of Parliament, among them former Labour MPs Maria Fyfe and Alice Mahon (available to listen to at the British Library), former Conservative MPs Elizabeth Peacock (available at the BL) and Jill Knight. In Baroness Knight’s interview (available in part on our website) she discusses life in the House for a woman:
I remember one Member saying to me when I went in the smoking room for instance – I don’t smoke, I never have, but that was where you had a glass of wine or whatever – this very much sort of old fashioned conservative said ‘Jill I thought you were a nice girl!’
Our Victorian Commons blog has focused on some overlooked aspects of women’s participation in politics, looking at those women who voted in local government elections in the first half of the nineteenth century. It also highlighted the sartorial dilemma of Florence Horsbrugh, the first woman MP to move for the address in response to the King’s speech, who, as Hansard noted, wore evening dress for the occasion. As she began her speech on 3 November 1936, she reflected that
If… I acquit myself but poorly, when I sit down I shall at least have two thoughts for my consolation – it has never been done better by a woman before, and, whatever else may be said about me, in the future from henceforward I am historic.
The centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death seems a fitting moment to explore the wide range of resources available on the many women who have made their contribution to parliamentary history.