Emily Wilding Davison.
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Laurie Penny on the suffragettes: Emily Wilding Davison made the only choice she could bear

She made herself intolerable to a system she found impossible to tolerate.

It took Emily Davison four days to die. The injuries that the women’s liberation activist sustained when, a century ago, she leapt in front of the king’s racehorse at the Epsom Derby were not enough to kill her outright. She died in hospital on 8 June 1913 amid public condemnation; the queen mother sent her apologies to the jockey that his race had been interrupted by a “brutal lunatic woman” demanding, of all crazy things, the vote.

Parliament and the press were agreed: this was not legitimate protest, but a “mad act”, according to the Morning Post. What could prompt a person to do such a thing? Davison was born in Blackheath, London, in 1872, studied literature at Royal Holloway for as long as she could afford the fees, and then worked as a governess before joining the Women’s Social and Political Union – what we now call the suffragette movement – fulltime at the age of 32. She obtained the maximum amount of education and personal freedom permitted to a middle-class woman of her generation and it wasn’t enough. I imagine it felt a bit like drowning.

In old footage of the suffragettes, they look like a gang of angry bantams, flapping about in their outsized hats and ridiculous full skirts. The very word “suffragettes” sounds like the kind of fusty, village-hall girl band your auntie might sing in at weekends, rather than a revolutionary organisation whose members were prepared to die so that others might live free. The grudging account of the women’s liberation movement in official histories refers to force-feeding, but edits out the full extent of the torture of activists who were considered mad terrorists for asking that the state treat women of all classes as rational human beings.

Some historians mention that Davison had been reckless with her safety on other occasions as evidence that she was “merely” suicidal, arguing that she desired to die under any circumstances and that this somehow invalidates her decision to do so in public while waving the banner of women’s suffrage. Davison certainly had form for doing outrageous things in the name of women’s liberation. She was arrested nine times – for arson, for public nuisance and for throwing stones at the prime minister’s carriage.

During her imprisonment, when she and other activists were being force-fed – a process that was agonising and degrading and sometimes involved anal rape with metal tubes – she threw herself down an iron staircase in protest. In retaliation for her refusal to co-operate, the guards put a hosepipe into her cell and slowly filled it with water until she almost drowned.

Try to imagine, just for a second, what that must have been like. How long must it have taken for the cell to fill with freezing water, closing around your ankles, your knees, then your chest, your impractical skirts first buoying you up and then dragging you down? How long would it take until the choking, numbing water did not drown your nightmares every time you tried to sleep? What might it mean, under such circumstances, to be crazy, to be consumed with rage, to have a death wish?

Madness is often political. There are situations in which extreme emotional distress is the only rational response to overwhelming circumstance, where “sanity” is little more than the medical term for acquiescence. Women in the early 20th century, a time when female sexual and social freedom was pathologised, frequently went insane, killed themselves or suffered debilitating “nerves”, as documented by writers such as Zelda Fitzgerald and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Frequently those who rebelled in more tangible ways, by acting out, sleeping around or refusing to submit to men in the home or workplace, were declared insane and sent away to rot in asylums by their spouses and relatives. For many middle-class women, the suffragette sash became a way of organising sentiments that would otherwise have been sectionable. Undoubtedly, by the standards of her day, Emily Davison was deranged, her entire life a “mad act” – yet that does not make it illogical.

Oppressive systems are not all of a kind. They do, however, share an indifference to those whose inability to bear the privations of the imposed social order results in collapse, breakdown and death. The present British government, to give one example, has accustomed itself to the suicides of poor and disabled people cut off by its austerity programme. It encourages a narrative which suggests that such people are “merely” disturbed, that benefit recipients are selfish “scroungers”. What such systems cannot cope with is those who are able, by virtue of circumstance or force of personality, to turn that rage and distress outwards, rather than letting it consume them from within.

Such people often become known to the police. We call them rebels, or activists, or colossal bloody headaches, depending on our point of view and place of employment. Emily Wilding Davison made trouble. She made herself intolerable to a system she found impossible to tolerate. It is thanks to women like her, and the few men who supported them, that far fewer of us today know what it is to be forced to submit to a husband, to be politically disenfranchised, to be denied the right to control our own bodies and our own children – though that work is far from complete. There are situations in which you can choose to toss yourselves under the hooves of history, or choose to drown. Emily Davison made the only choice she could bear. We should remember that, when we remember her.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.