Suffragettes, feminism and twitter abuse

Emily_Davison_portraitI realise I am a little behindhand with this, but June 2013 marked the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King’s horse on Derby Day and died of her injuries four days later. Today she is mostly celebrated as a martyr to the cause of women’s suffrage. I finally got round to watching Clare Balding’s programme Secrets of a Suffragette yesterday, and found it very interesting. I know a fair amount about the Suffragettes anyway, but was interested in the information about Emily Davison’s life, and how she went from middle-class respectability to being a militant suffragette.

What I found especially intriguing was the examination of her final act; for example, the assumption has always been that she didn’t mean to kill herself because she had a return train ticket, but it seems that only returns could be bought on Derby Day. Yet ultimately the programme concludes that Davison’s intention wasn’t suicide, but simply to attach a “Votes for Women” scarf to the King’s horse, based on forensic analysis of newsreel coverage, and the unexpected appearance of just such a scarf which was sold by a member of staff at Epsom (and now, appropriately, hangs in the House of Lords).

What really got me thinking, though, is the hate mail she received while she lay in a coma in hospital. She never recovered, and so never knew what people were saying about her, but I imagine such things weren’t uncommon. There is an excellent online exhibition on the London School of Economics website devoted to Davison’s centenary, which is well worth a look. The final item is the letter, which reads:

Miss Davisonimage

I am glad to hear you are in hospital, I hope you suffer torture until you die. You Idiot.

I consider you are a person unworthy of existence in this world, considering what you have done, I should like the opportunity of starving and beating you to a pulp “You cat”.

I hope you live in torture a few years, as an example to your confederation.

Why don’t your People find an Asylum for you?

Yours etc

An Englishman

It is clear that this patriotic chap felt strongly not only about what she had done, but about the Suffragettes more generally. While his language is restrained compared with that which is more commonly used today, the sentiments remind me of some of these threats which have been circulating on twitter recently. These, in case you’ve been on holiday, involve high-profile women (feminist women) receiving death, rape and bomb threats via twitter, leading journalist Caitlin Moran to instigate a day of #twittersilence in protest.

The hatred that some people (men and women) feel for feminists is a constant source of surprise and sadness to me. Internet forums seem to be a focus for emotional, angry rants against women, and this seems to be a trend which is escalating. While there may be people who do not think that we need full equality (yes, equality – a big misconception seems to be that “feminism” means “aiming for superiority over men”), the vitriol directed towards high-profile women is shocking. And clearly it has not changed in the last century; but now, in a more permissive society and with easy access to targets over the internet, it is more pervasive and even more violent. Women may have the vote, but they remain targets of violence and hatred; Emily Wilding Davison and her contemporaries would have been horrified.


  1. What an excellent article and I wish I’d been able to see Clare Balding’s programme. How sad that such hate mail was sent to Emily Wilding Davison who was only fighting for what she believed in.

  2. Thank you Vanja. As you can see, I am rather behind with my TV viewing! It is sad that so little has changed, I think.

  3. Hi Serena,
    Great article. You might be interested to know about our project, Fight for the Right: the Birmingham Suffragettes. We’re showing the film at the new Library on November 1st if you’d like to see it.

  4. Thank you – I didn’t know about Fight for the Right but it looks great! Thanks for getting in touch.

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