In 1913, the “votes for women” campaign in Britain was several decades old. Women had marched, campaigned, and lobbied, and some had burned and bombed as well. The government struck back by jailing suffragettes and force-feeding those who went on hunger strikes. What would convince Parliament to give women the vote?
A new book by Carolyn Collette, professor emeritus of English, focuses on one woman’s quest to answer that question. In the Thick of the Fight: The Writing of Emily Wilding Davison, Militant Suffragette focuses on a woman most know only—if they have heard the name at all—because of her spectacular death.
Davison drew Britain’s attention during the 1913 Derby, the country's preeminent horse race. As the pack approached a turn, Davison ran onto the track, apparently trying to stop the king’s horse, and was killed by the collision. This dramatic death made her a martyr to the suffrage cause, but, Collette argues, “all but erased her identity.”
By editing and publishing Davison’s voluminous writings, Collette shifts attention away from Davison’s death and toward “the complexity of [her] contributions to modern feminist discourse, giving the reader a sense of the vibrancy and diversity of Davison’s suffrage writings.”
These include essays, reviews, and letters to the editors of British newspapers and magazines. Together, they explain why Davison was willing not only to defy societal expectations, but to destroy property, commit arson, endure repeated imprisonments and forced feedings, and ultimately die for the suffrage movement.
Collette said that, in her writings, Davison “continually revisits and restates the principles that guided her, that woman suffrage was necessary to improve the lives of men, women, and children; that the freedom and justice women sought was sanctioned by God and unjustly withheld by humans whose opposition constituted a tyranny that had to be opposed; and that the evolution of human progress demanded that women become fully equal citizens of their nation in every respect—politically, economically, and culturally.”
The book, to be released September 30, is published by the University of Michigan Press. Collette learned about Davison’s work by accident, because Collette lived for part of several years in Davison’s UK hometown, Morpeth. Later she did extensive research among Davison’s papers, which were housed in the Women’s Library at London Metropolitan University.
—By Emily Harrison Weir