On April 2, 1911 women all over Britain were holding all-night parties, staying out at concerts and late-night restaurants, skating at ice rinks until the morning and generally having a very good time.
But this was also a huge act of civil disobedience because the April 2 was Census night and these women staying out all night were refusing to have their details recorded in protest at the government’s refusal to grant votes for women.
Meanwhile, one woman, the militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, stole into the crypt of Parliament’s Westminster Hall and hid in the broom cupboard there. It appealed to her sense of irony that, as a woman with no right to have any say in who was elected to Parliament, her very place of residence on Census night would have to be recorded as the House of Commons.
This story has recently come back to public attention as the press observed that on the night of April 16, the same crypt was occupied by another woman, this time the body of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Victory for women?
Commentary in the Telegraph and on Radio 4’s Today Programme have gone further, drawing parallels between Thatcher’s actions in office and the suffragette slogan “Deeds not Words”.
Moreover, press reporting of Thatcher’s death has constantly tried to claim her premiership as a victory for women — proof that a woman could get the top job in politics.
Like so much of the coverage of Thatcher’s funeral, this is shamelessly re-writing history. This is more than innocent stupidity; it is an attempt to subvert the struggles of the past into a weapon to attack the struggles of the present.
They reduce the hopes and ideals of hundreds of thousands of women to the career ladder of just one woman. The implied message is: the struggle is over, and those who remain oppressed, exploited and downtrodden are only there because they did not “strive” hard enough.
However, in all this gushing rhetoric about Thatcher being the heir to the suffragette movement next to nothing is said about the suffragettes themselves and what they felt they were fighting for. That would reveal some rather inconvenient truths, and one of the most inconvenient suffragette voices comes from the broom cupboard, from Emily Wilding Davison herself.
Only a tiny fraction of the suffragettes could be said to have been fighting only for women to join the existing political system.
Christabel Pankhurst, one of the suffragette leaders, tried to steer the movement away from radical contemporary struggles. But the fact she made this effort points to the fact that the movement had emerged out of the labour movement. Most suffragettes wanted to fight injustice and campaigned for the vote so they could change the society in which they lived.
Davison was one of these women. One of the most committed and militant of the suffragettes, she saw this struggle as part of a wider struggle against the inequalities bred by the rigidly class-divided society in which she lived.
Unlike Thatcher, she never saw the battle in individual terms. Having had her own education jeopardised when her father died and she could no longer afford to study, Davison fought for greater working-class access to education.
She joined the executive of the Marylebone branch of the Workers Educational Association. She also took part in the labour movement’s May Day demonstration.
As a suffragette, she protested against the particularly vindictive treatment that working-class suffragettes experienced at the hands of the authorities. When she first set fire to a pillar box (a militant tactic that she invented), it was partly in protest at the much longer jail term given to a working-class suffragette than given to suffragette Lady Constance Lytton, a member of one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families.
In 1911 thousands of women factory workers in South London marched out on strike against poverty wages and horrific conditions. Davison went down to support the women and she championed their cause in the press.
She wrote letters comparing the liberating experience of fighting for political rights to the women’s experience of strike action: “What the girls enjoyed and what the 'Suffragettes' have enjoyed in undergoing their most horrible experiences has been that joy in at least asserting their individuality as freeborn Britons.”
The writer Rebecca West later remembered that in the summer of 1912, Davison was collecting money in the street for the wives and children of the dockers who were then on strike.
Davison’s politics, her hatred of class oppression, her support for the right of people to take strike action and her acts of practical solidarity with striking workers, were in fact the antithesis of everything Thatcher represented.
In another attempt to make Thatcher more palatable the media made much of the emphasis on Christianity at Thatcher’s funeral, where George Osborne wept tears for his departed leader. Truly the money lenders had re-entered the temple.
This, too, had nothing in common with Davison’s profound commitment to Christianity that inspired her to fight on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Davison’s favourite motto “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God” would have been an alien concept to Thatcher, who supported the brutal Chilean dictator General Pinochet.
A tale of two funerals
Davison is most famous for her last militant action when on Derby Day 1913 she ran in front of the King’s horse and was killed by the collision.
Like Thatcher, she had a huge funeral in which her coffin was carried through the streets of London. But while Thatcher’s funeral was organised and attended by some of the most powerful people in this country, Davison’s funeral was an act of resistance organised by the suffragettes.
Women out on bail joined the procession and suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested on her way to the service.
Davison’s funeral was attended by people fighting for their rights. Alongside the hundreds of suffragettes were mourners from the Gas Workers’ Union, the Central Labour College, the Daily Herald League, the General Labourers’ Union as well as “a great body representative of the Dockers’ Union” whose cause she had supported the year before.
There is something unbearably crass about comparing Thatcher, who let the Irish Republican prisoners starve to death in their hunger strike demanding recognition as political prisoners, to the suffragettes who themselves went on hunger strike for the very same purpose.
Davison and her comrades joined the struggle for the vote because they wanted to see a more equal society where poverty and oppression would become things of the past. These are still struggles that have to be fought today, and much of the intensification of poverty and oppression can be blamed directly on Thatcher’s policies and her legacy.
Thatcher was diametrically opposed to the things the suffragettes were fighting for. The real legacy of the suffragette in the broom cupboard can be seen wherever people are resisting injustice.
Today women face huge attacks on their jobs, their hard-won rights, and the services they use with the austerity cuts. Austerity across Europe has meant a huge attack on democratic rights and has seen a massive increase in inequality and poverty.
These were the things that Davison wanted to see an end to. Her legacy belongs to those struggling against austerity and those resisting everything that Thatcher represented.