Monday, 3 June 2013

A century on, women are still suffering for human rights

Spare a thought today, 3 June, for a woman of 41 who, this time a hundred years ago, was preparing to spend her last night of health on earth: the following day she would make a gesture that would win her undying fame, by her death.

It now seems clear that Emily Davison had no intention of sacrificing her life as she prepared for her symbolic act. She had written to her sister about her forthcoming visit to her in France; in her pocket were found a return ticket to London and another to a suffragette dance that evening.

Neither would be used. Because in between, as the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913 was drawing to its close, she ran out onto the track towards the King’s horse Anmer and, it was thought at the time, deliberately threw herself under his hooves. She sustained a fracture to her skull from which she died in hospital on 8 June.

Emily Davison falls, fatally injured
But did she throw herself under the horse?
She was however clutching a cloth in her hand, believed to be the ‘Votes for Women’ sash later found nearby, and it now seems likely that her plan was to throw it round the neck of the horse. What a great gesture that would have been! As the King’s horse crossed the line, it would have been sporting a suffragette banner.

Instead, she was fatally injured and attained mythical status: the woman who gave up her life for the vote.

This evening I’ll raise a glass to her memory and try to imagine what her last night at home must have felt like. How nervous she must have been, knowing that the following day she was going to provoke shock in some, admiration in others, by an act that at the very least would expose her to great danger.

An admirable woman who deserves out heartfelt gratitude, not only from women but also from men: a century on, women voters are all that stands between the British electorate and a renewal of the mandate of possibly the worst government the country has seen since the War. Well, since the last Tory government, anyway.

Far too many men have been taken in by the jolly affability of an indolent, incompetent and brutally uncaring Prime Minister. A majority of women has seen through him. Thanks to Emily Davison and her fellow suffragettes, they have the vote and the opportunity, in 2015, to rid us of this wearisome cheat.

My only regret is that the Bank of England, when it designed the new five pound note and removed the only woman’s face other than the queen’s to appear on any of our banknotes, did not choose to replace it with Davison’s instead of Churchill’s. Can you imagine? Davison on one side, the Queen on the other. It would have been as deliciously ironic as the King’s horse carrying a suffragette banner a century ago.

Nor shall I be thinking 
only of Davison as I raise my glass tonight. My thoughts will also go to another woman, in a country at least as badly in need today of the kind of radical reform that Emily Davison sought back then.

Today, Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, jailed and shamefully treated in a Russia that has come a lot less far from the Soviet Union than we hoped when the Berlin Wall fell, ended an eleven-day hunger strike after extracting some concessions over the conditions of her imprisonment.

The Pussy Riot defendants in a Russian courtroom
I’m delighted she was able to end her hunger strike before it took her life, and glad she’s won concessions. But it would have been far better that neither she, nor her friend Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, had been gaoled in the first place.

Two regimes denying human rights. Women a hundred years apart suffering to resist them. Surely a cause that deserves a thought tonight.

2 comments:

Faith A. Colburn, Author said...

I'm thinking. Really thinking,

Have you seen the movie "Iron Jawed Angels" about the women, some of whom gave their lives, others who suffered force feeding in jail for the right to vote in the dear old U.S.

David Beeson said...

No, but I'll certainly try to get hold of it: apart from the theme, I admire Hilary Swank's acting.

Incidentally, did you see 'North Country'? Another of my favourite actors: Chalize Theron and not an unrelated theme. It isn't a classic, but a film worth seeing on the first ever US class action over sexual harassment. Lots of good clips, in passing, about poor Anita Hill: gosh, I wish the appointment of Clarence Thomas could have been blocked...