Tag Archives: WSPU

Emily Wilding Davison and the Political Disruption of Sport


Davison’s martyrdom reported in The Suffragette, 1913

Over the last month, many people have been marking the centenary of Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s death. Davison died in June 1913 after falling under Anmer, King George VI’s horse, at the Epsom Derby. She walked on to the racecourse as the horses thundered past, apparently with the intention of pinning a scarf to his bridle so that the Votes for Women message would be seen by the thousands of racegoers (including the royal family) and, through press and newsreel coverage, by millions beyond Epsom. Davison tragically misjudged the speed of the horses, and she died as a result of the injuries she received when Anmer hit her at full speed. While her death was an accident rather than suicide, she has become famous as the  martyr of the campaign for women’s votes.


Emily Davison’s grave, St Mary the Virgin, Morpeth

To mark the anniversary, Davison’s story was told by Clare Balding in Secrets of a Suffragettean excellent Channel 4 documentary, which used forensic techniques on newsreel footage to chart Davison’s final steps and the fatal impact from Anmer. In Morpeth, where Davison is buried, the Emily Inspires group organised a range of memorial and celebratory activities, including workshops, music, and a 100-strong bicycle ride. Her story also inspired various dramatic reinterpretations, including Tim Benjamin’s opera Emily, which premieres in Todmorden this week, and Kate Willoughby’s touring play To Freedom’s Cause, which I was lucky enough to see at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London. Here, Davison was presented as a fun-loving, vivacious woman who was dedicated to improving the lot of her gender. Willoughby’s portrayal emphasised her humanity in a way that is often lost in the official hagiography, with the rest of the cast playing off her to show the connections of family, friendship, and the WSPU that informed her decision to walk on to the racecourse. Tim Bennett’s portrayal of Anmer’s jockey, Herbert Jones, was similarly compassionate, as we watched a man who was catapulted, against his will, into history trying to deal with this tragedy. This was an intense, moving, and insightful play which deserves a wide audience. 


Dutch campaign against the 1936 Berlin Olympics

As a sports historian, I’ve found the process of reinterpreting Davison’s death to be fascinating: and when we put these reinterpretations alongside some other events that have gone on recently, we can see some possibly jarring juxtapositions. Davison chose a sporting event for her protest. The WSPU had done this before, from sailing a boat along the course of the University boat race in 1908 to their arson attacks on gold club houses, cricket pavilions, and racecourses. Like many other political organisations since – including the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Black September in 1972, and trade union and Jewish groups opposed to the 1936 Olympics – the WSPU targeted sport because their attacks were bound to be noticed. Sporting events, then as now, have large audiences and press coverage, and any disruption to the event gets attention. Most such disruptions then generate a scripted knee-jerk reaction from people who think that sport should be apolitical, and this has been what has been so fascinating over the last month. Just as many people were retrospectively praising Davison for her bravery and risk-taking in a political cause, so we saw 2012 boat race protester Trenton Oldfield facing deportation, and the instant ‘snuffing out’ on anti-gay marriage protests on the tennis court at Roland Garros in the French Open final. Then, over the last week, we have witnessed the protests in Brazil that have focussed on the expense of hosting the Confederations Cup, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Olympic Games.

How we react to these different protests depends, of course, on our own politics. From my liberal perspective, I share more ground with Trenton Oldfield (anti-elitism) and Emily Davison (pro-democracy and sexual equality) than I do with the anti-gay marriage protesters in France, who I was happy to see ‘snuffed out’. However, that’s too obvious to be worthy of note. Instead, we need to recognise that there is a long history to political disruptions of sporting events, and that what one generation sees as a loathsome expression of trying to politicise sport, a later generation can see as the turning point in a struggle.



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Queenie, Madge, and the Duchess: new book on the women of the 1908 Olympics


Madge and Edgar Syers, Olympic ice skaters from 1908

I'm delighted to announce that I have just signed up to write a new book with Palgrave as part of their exciting new series,  Palgrave Pivot. The book, which I am starting work on now and which will be out in 2014,  is going to be a microhistory of the women of the 1908 Olympic Games. In the wake of London 2012, which the organisers claimed were the first 'gender equal' Olympics, I'm intrigued to see how the presence of women was managed at London's first Olympics, those of 1908.

In 1908, women had three medal sports formally open the them: archery, tennis, and, as part of the first Winter Olympic programme, ice skating. In the archery, which took place in the Great Stadium at Shepherd's Bush, they were given only one event, the Double National Round, where Queenie Newall won gold at the age of 53 – her record as the oldest female Olympic gold medallist is still unbeaten. In tennis, held at Wimbledon,  there were two events, singles on the lawn and singles in the covered court. The ice skating was held at Prince's Club in Knightsbridge, where the women's programme consisted of the Ladies' Individual and the Pairs. Madge Syers of Kensington took gold in the singles and, skating with her husband Edgar, took bronze in the pairs.


Gymnastics display, 1908 Olympics

As well as these events, two Olympic sports – yachting and motorboat racing – did not specify any gender restrictions in their competition, and three women took part. One, Sophia Gorham, raced with her husband in the mo

torboats on Southampton Water, while two others, Clytie Rivett-Carnac and the Duchess of Westminster, sailed on the Solent. Finally, the organisers staged demonstrations for women in diving and gymnastics.


WSPU meeting, Manchester, c1908

The number of women involved in the Olympics is disputed, and that is one of the questions I wish to settle in my book. The bigger themes will be about how these women's  Olympic appearances fitted in with their wider  sporting and social lives. I am going to explore census and birth/marriage/death evidence to help me situate them in the social and economic fabric of Edwardian society. Where were they from? To which social classes did they belong? Did they marry? I also want to look  at the legacy of their presence in the Olympics, and how 1908 was a watershed for women's involvement, and I want to compare and contrast the sporting women of 1908 with the women who carried out ceremonial roles at the Games, like Queen Alexandra and Lady Desborough. Underpinning the whole study will be the wider context of women's history. The Olympic year was a key moment in the campaign for women's suffrage,  as witness Women's Sunday in Hyde Park on 21 June, a demonstration of c250,000 people just a month before the Olympic began, as well as the Women's Social and Political Union's increasingly confrontational tactic of 'deeds not words'. The growth of women's competitions at the Olympic at this exact moment has got to be explored.

I'll be blogging and tweeting (#1908women) about my research as it takes off. I'll also be doing some talks and conferences on the research, which I'll advertise here. For now, I'm off to the census reports to uncover the lives of these pioneering sports women.

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