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She Laid Down Her Life for Her Friends

June 16, 1913 — London Pavilion, London UK


As a non-militant woman, a minister of religion, who, unlike the lawyer, has to look beyond the mere result of action to the motive prompting it, I have come here to bear testimony to the high character, the heroic nature of one who gave her life for the faith that was in her. “Greater love has no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Ancient, memorable words these; true both in the spirit and the letter yesterday, today, and forever! Emily Wilding Davison had worked hard for her convictions, had suffered imprisonment and the hellish tortures of forcible feeding — and now as a last desperate yet symbolical act of protest, she hurled herself amidst the wild racers on Epsom Downs.

Here was the aristocracy of England. Headed by Royalty, the wealth of England, young sports from all over the world, women in glittering toilets, matrons high in society, and young girls with the first bloom of youth on their cheeks, all breathless with excitement, aglow with the mere joy of living; and all of a sudden a solemn hush falls on that gorgeous assembly — something has happened, something untoward — the professional better is seized with fear for his confidently expected gains, the women stare wide-eyed toward the edge of the course. What has happened? The King’s horse is rolling on the ground — a beautiful, sleek creature — furiously kicking at a woman who lies huddled up there, unconscious; the jockey also lies there more or less stunned, but not seriously hurt — but the woman, why does she not move? Why does she not at least withdraw herself from the range of the horse’s hoofs? Stewards are seen hurrying to the place, a doctor is fetched – a man doctor, a woman doctor also is there — the woman Is placed in a car and driven to a hospital, where she dies a merciful, painless death, a last pale flush on the waxen features telling of victory gained, battle accomplished — race finished! And that other race on Epsom Downs goes on with a renewed zest, the only difference being that there are more police, a larger staff of detectives. The party papers proclaim the woman’s deed mad, wise-acres paint gruesome pictures of what might have happened. But nothing has happened but that a woman has laid down her life for her friends . . . . has done so of her own free will, has done so in the midst of overwhelming difficulties, in order to remind her country with the whole power of her being of the injustice, the cruelty, the wrongs, the sufferings of women. 

Hers was not a common life, hers was not a shattered career; she had brilliant gifts, a great intellect, a greater heart. Because there was such a deep ache in her heart, a gaping wound that cried out for healing, she did this thing, the “pathetic futility,” as one paper has called it, this “mad act of folly,” as another, and not how she did it; without telling anyone, neither numerous friends she met with on the day preceding — no one was implicated, no one should suffer but she alone.

She laid down her life for her friends.

Who were these friends? The very same that are always with us: the poor, the oppressed, the heavy-laden; women sweated in factories, women driven by the grim spectre of poverty on to the streets of our large cities, children outraged by brutes of men, innocent girls decoyed by wealth and lust, wives betrayed by husbands without adequate legal redress under an unequal divorce law, professional women underpaid, women debarred from important professions, kept out of all higher places in the Civil Service, women paying taxes without a voice in the expenditure of them, women driven to desperation, women protesting clapt into prison, women tortured — all these — all give her that meed of honour which she so richly deserved.

“Greater love hath no man . . . “ but there is another verse following on this. “For,” says the Apostle, “for the good someone would even dare to die, but Jesus Christ died for sinners.”

Emily Wilding Davison also died for sinners.

What sinners? Ah, we know well. First, the indifferent, misguided multitude of the very type and stuff which nineteen centuries ago uttered those hideous cries: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

Second, the newspaper proprietors who willfully misrepresent a great movement, willful suppress a thousand little details which are absolutely essential to the establishment of truth.

Third, those politicians who are quick to make promises and equally quick to break them in the interest of party or self.

Fourth, all those who oppose the political emancipation of womanhood from a mere lay, self-indulgent prejudice.

Fifth, those who believe in it, yet do little or nothing to make it come. To them applies the ancient saying: “To him that knoweth to do the good and doeth it not, it is sin.”

Sixth, those who are merely ignorant, merely misinformed, and take no steps to inform themselves.

Seventh and last, those refined hypocrites who are always ready to see the mote in other’ eyes without being aware of the beam in their own.

It is for these — all these — that Emily Wilding Davison laid down her life. It is to these that her mangled body has made its piteous appeal; it is for the redemption of these that she surrendered her beautiful, glorious life.

Will they heed her voice, or has this supreme sacrifice of hers been made in vain?

Never – never! As sure as there is a God in the heavens — as sure as Jesus Christ died on Calvary for the sins of the world, so sure will the spirit of this woman call forth the best that lies dormant in the hearts of this present generation. She will whisper her message into the ears of the judge, the Cabinet Minister, the Member of Parliament; she will call on the man in the street, the harlot in the public house, her country will awake at last, and the sun of freedom will rise on us all with healing in his wings.



Source: Speeches and Trials of the Militant Suffragettes: The Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1918. ed. Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), 1999, pp. 292-294.