Deciding whether a violent militant is heroic or simply a terrorist is one of life’s great and intractable questions. Stepping back and looking at the history of militant political figures, one can conclude that whether a specific individual acted heroically in advancing his or her cause or carelessly with little regard for the harm inflicted on others depends at least in part on one’s perspective regarding the nature of the underlying agenda. Certainly, with respect to the treatment of women in most societies for thousands of years, the case can be made for the actions of Emily Davison as having been justified on the grounds of the legitimacy of her cause: women’s suffrage. For proponents of civil disobedience more in line with the late Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance, Davison’s actions could easily be considered less than meritorious. Stone-throwing, bombings, and other violent acts are hardly the stuff of which heroes are made except in extraordinary circumstances, and Davison, to this educator’s mind, was no hero. While the treatment of women in Victorian England, or in Colonial America, was wrong, the suffragist cause did not warrant the kind of violence represented by the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organization to which Davison belonged. As the suffragist movement in the United States demonstrated, the avenue to equal rights, as protracted as it can take, can be accomplished through nonviolent means in a democratic society. Davison was an extremist, and the actions that led to her death were thoughtless and could easily have resulted in the death of the jockey with whose horse she collided through the criminally-stupid act of rushing onto a racetrack for the purpose of advancing a political cause. That the jockey was not killed was fortuitous, but Davison had no right stepping onto that track so that she could score political points by hanging a banner on the king’s horse.
Violent tactics such as those practiced by Emily Davison certainly bring attention to one’s cause, but so do nonviolent tactics like strikes and boycotts. No horses are threatened with injury in the case of the latter. Whether Davison hurt or helped her cause is immaterial. We really don’t know, because she did not function in a vacuum. Hers was part of a broader movement that successfully, if belatedly, advanced the cause of equal rights. On balance, one conclude that such successes materialized despite, not because of, Emily Davison.