Today marks the centenary of what is, for the feminist movement, a similar event to ‘the shot heard around the world’. On June 4 1913, Emily Wilding Davison, long term campaigner for women’s rights in England, stepped in front of the King’s horse and tried to attach a purple, green and white banner, emblazoned with ‘Votes for Women’ to the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby. She died 4 days later from her injuries after the horses trampled her as they rounded the corner, and the horrifying tangle mess of human and animal was caught on the early news cameras and repeated across the country and around the world.
Another militant suffragette called Emily the ‘Supreme Sacrifice’, a women who had given up her own life in the fight for recognition that the society that they lived in did not accurately reflect or represent half of it’s members. But I don’t want to talk about Davison – she is well remembered by history and a figurehead of the Suffragette movement. I want to talk about a life that has been hidden from our historical memory, equally as important, and equally as significant in the fight for women’s rights.
Kitty Marion was a music hall star and militant suffragette. She endured 242 force-feedings to Davison’s 49, multiple imprisonments – and subsequent releases under the Cat and Mouse Act – and was responsible for a host of arson attacks, including the destruction of the MP Arthur Du Cros’s St Leonard’s home (which British Pathé has some great footage of ), window breaking, and other destructive activities, one of which I believe was the laying of a pipe bomb that destroyed Alexandra Park’s cactus house in Manchester in November, 1913. You can hear me talk more about that attack, and Kitty, on BBC Radio 3’s NightWaves with Dr Matthew Sweet as part of my New Generation Thinker’s work – although I have to confess I’m not quite a Dr. yet!
Kitty Marion had seen Emily only a few days before Epsom, they had discussed the fact that a protest ‘must be made’ but Kitty believed no specific action had been decided. What she did remember was Emily passing her a small green purse of money to use to buy ‘munitions’ and whatever she might else she might need to continue her destructive activities at the behest of the W.S.P.U. On hearing of Emily’s death on the 8th of June, Kitty and another militant Suffragette, Clara Givens, travelled to west London and waited for night to fall.
In the early hours of the morning they dragged a large carpetbag filled with paraffin-soaked wood chips through the streets of Kew, and down towards Hurst Park racecourse, near Hampton Court Palace. Reaching their destination at 2 a.m they decided that the racecourse’s bandstand was the best target, and set about scattering ‘Votes of Women’ leaflets around the area so that everyone would know who had been responsible.
‘We turned off the road at one end of the course, towards the river between which and the course was a cricket field with a tool shed near the ‘unclimbable fence’ as the Press called it later, where we had decided to climb over with a foot hold on the tool shed. How we got over and back again beggars description. We both regretted that there was no movie camera’s to immortalise the comedy of it.
We carried our “baggage” through the long grass, wet with dew, to the Grand Stand at the other end of the course…leading into a pavilion. We spread our munitions…and left a piece of candle burning which should have lasted at least an hour to give us time to get away before igniting its oil-soaked base.’
The fire started quicker than they had expected and the soon made they escape and began to head back to Kew. It’s possible that Kitty was already under surveillance by the police at this time, who new her as a violent and dangerous women, and had probably been expecting her to commit an act of violence in response to Emily’s death. She was quickly arrested at her lodging’s within hours of returning there and was soon jailed for three years as her guilt was unquestionable. Kitty’s was quickly released under the Cat and Mouse Act and spent the next two years dodging the police as she committed many other acts of suffragette violence, occasionally returning to prison, only to be released after force-feeding made her too ill to remain. She was, in my mind, Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman, sent by the WPSU across the country to engage in, and instruct others in violence militant tactics.
To younger scholars, especially those who have grown up in a post IRA and 9/11 world, the language of terrorism is an easy one through which to understand political violence. The militant suffragette’s operated in small groups, often only pairs of women, funded in secret, and using tactics that were designed to intimidate and terrorize the members of their society, who they saw as responsible for the sexual inequality and degradation of women. There has always been huge debate about whether the term ‘terrorist’ should be applied to the suffragettes – even though that is how they were seen in their own time. Personally, I think we need to look far more closely at these violent women, and the actions they committed to fully understand the depths of subjugation and inequality that existed for women in the pre-1919 world.
This week I’m going blog on a couple of ideas around this theme of #violentwomen and #terroristsuffragette – come back and tell me what you think!
*Kitty forms the main case study of my PhD, and I’m lucky enough to have had the Society for Theatre Research fund a research trip over to America to see the hand annotated copy of her autobiography and letters which has been left in New York since she died. Totally going to blog about that too.