Emily Davison conducted an extensive campaign writing letters to the editors of over fifty newspapers. Well over a hundred of her letters written between March, 1911 and early 1913 were compiled into a scrapbook now in the Women’s Library Davison archive. The two years between the spring of 1911 and the spring of 1913 were a period of deep disappointment not only for Davison, who endured great physical pain during a lengthy imprisonment from January to June of 1912, but also for the woman suffrage movement whose hopes of success were dashed by repeated betrayals on the part of the Liberal Government. While the scrapbook collection likely does not comprise the entire corpus of Davison’s letters, it warrants close attention because it seems to have been assembled, and was certainly annotated, by Davison herself. Newspaper names, dates, and some marginalia in her own hand indicate her close connection with the collection. Taken together, the letters are a detailed guide to her thinking and to principal positions the WSPU took to defend its methods and its goals during two years of hope turning to frustration.
In addition to providing information and insight, the collection also raises a number of intriguing questions about how and why she wrote these letters. First is how and where she managed to gain timely access to so many periodicals. Her letters are written largely from London, from 31 Coram Street, an address in the Bloomsbury area, not far from Russell Square. They respond immediately to letters printed a day or two before her own are composed. She regularly responded virtually instantly to letters– and on occasion to news stories– that appeared in provincial as well as national newspapers. How did she find the time to read and to write so much so consistently? Did she have help? The WSPU was keenly aware of the importance of the press as a crucial agent of public opinion. Publicity was the lifeblood of the movement, and a close watch was kept on which papers were fair to, or prejudiced against, their stands and their militancy. Votes for Women, like Common Cause, the newspaper of the more moderate “Constitutionalists,” published records of how many suffragette stories were printed by various papers and what the tenor of their editorial opinion was in regard to woman suffrage. Identifying herself in her writing as a journalist who lived by her pen, Davison would undoubtedly have read a wide variety of papers; references in the letters indicate that she received journals from America, and that when she travelled, papers she read regularly were sent to her. Nevertheless, even allowing for professional interest and attention, the range of papers in which she published is extraordinary. A second issue the letters raise is why she wrote them. Did she write as part of a WSPU campaign, or was she independently supporting the cause by her own money and her own writing skills?
The letters below comprise all of Davison’s own letters from the scrapbook. They trace the arc of hope and ultimate disappointment she experienced during the two year span of their writing. They offer a complement to her other writing. Less witty, less free, they are more controlled, full of facts, decidedly argumentative. Designed to rebut and discredit those who wrote against the WSPU in particular and the woman’s suffrage movement in general, they also show a variety of styles evolving over the period of their writing. The earlier ones, written in the expectation of imminent parliamentary success of a bill for woman suffrage, are full of exclamation marks, bold assertions about the march of history, and confidence. The later ones, not surprisingly, especially those written after her six months’ imprisonment in Holloway, are darker, often invoking the Bible. The collection as a whole reveals her broad knowledge of history, of schools of intellectual thought, and of current events. All of them show her absolute moral conviction about the rightness of the cause she advocated and suffered for, as well as an open-eyed physical courage about facing down the brutality of the strong forces arrayed against the suffrage movement. She believed that the forces opposing the suffrage movement—embodied in the Liberal Government– would destroy themselves in trying to destroy the movement. She also believed that for that self-destruction to occur, women would have to stand intrepid, brave, and determined, opposing the government even in the face of death.
All of Emily Davison’s letters reproduced here are in the public domain. You are free to copy and reproduce them as you wish.
All other writing, including analysis and summaries, are copyright 2013 Carolyn Collette.
Photos used by permission of Mary Evans Picture Library/The Women’s Library @LSE and Mary Evans Picture Library.
Research supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation.