Interpretations of the Suffragette Movement (with focus on Emily Davison)


The Representation of the People Act of 1918, saw the vote given to all men and some women; this is arguably the greatest turning point in the history of British democracy (Historical Association, 2018). Despite women having to wait another decade to vote on equal terms as men, it was a breakthrough moment for women in terms of having a voice and taking control of their own lives (ibid.). This was a relative victory for the Suffragettes, who campaigned for women’s right to vote in public elections during the early twentieth century, under the banner “Votes for Women”.

This paper will discuss the role the Suffragette Movement can play in history education in secondary schools, identify the key interpretations of the movement and explain how these could be effectively taught in the classroom.

How can the Suffragette Movement contribute to history education in secondary schools?

The National Curriculum requires KS3 pupils to study ‘challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day’, suggesting women’s suffrage as an appropriate sub-topic (DfE, 2013). At KS4 and KS5, the Suffragette Movement sits within the wider context of Britain’s transformation, constituting thematic and breadth studies respectively; the expectations of various examining boards are explored in more detail in Appendix 1.

The contribution that the Suffragette Movement can make to secondary education is greatly significant. Indeed, it is one of the only topics primarily concerned with women’s history that students can remember being taught – that, and women’s role in the World Wars (Lockyer and Tazzyman, 2017). The Suffragette Movement is certainly one of the defining moments in women’s history and was the stimulus for a rapid change in politics, society and culture in Britain – and indeed, across the rest of the world. The fact that millions of young people have recently demonstrated against climate change, rallying behind Greta Thunberg in the ‘School Strike for Climate’, highlights that today’s young people appear to possess an understanding that activism can change society (BBC, 2019).

However, when it comes to voting in the likes of general elections, many young people do not go out and vote; this has been the norm for the last couple of decades. In the 2015 election, only 43% of 18-24-year-olds voted, compared with 78% of people aged 65 or over (Barford, 2017). Had 78% of 18-24-year-olds had voted in 2015, that would have equated to almost two million extra votes – this could have changed the overall outcome (ibid.). The 2017 election saw a small rise in turnout, with 54% of 18-24-year-olds having their say (Skinner and Mortimore, 2017; Iannucci, 2017); even so, that means 46% of young people were still not exercising their right to vote! The study of the Suffragette Movement, therefore, could further inspire more young people to become conscientious, politically active, citizens.

The study of the Suffragette Movement can provide more than just a knowledge of the events of the period, it can lead to a deeper understanding of the broader social and political history Britain prior to World War One and the international Women’s Movement (Holton, 2016; Historical Association, 2018). This topic provides an opportunity to compare the situation with countries that were, at the time – and potentially still are – more conservative about women’s role in society. Furthermore, Liddington’s innovative research into Suffragettes’ resistance to the census provides historians with a further opportunity to explore the relationship between the Suffragette Movement and the Welfare State (Liddington, 2014; Holton, 2016).

With regards to the use of the Suffragette Movement to communicate the key purposes of teaching history in schools, the subject contains rich opportunities to interleave the teaching of first and second order concepts. Democracy, Strike and Activism are among numerous concepts that can be taught to pupils studying the Suffragette Movement. Contrasting views on the actions of key individuals and groups, render this topic ripe for the study of interpretations, with much of this debate revolving around whether the Suffragettes advanced or delayed “Votes for Women!”. In addition, the study of the Suffragette Movement provides opportunity to for pupils to explore continuity and change and determine significance, thus pupils would not only be encouraged to enhance their historical consciousness, but also to develop their disciplinary skills. It would be appropriate, therefore, to link some women gaining the vote in 1918, to Britain’s electing its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in 1979. This would encourage pupils to consider the magnitude and pace at which women’s role in parliament changed over time.

Key Interpretations of the Suffragette Movement

As this work aims to identify the key interpretations of the Suffragette Movement, the interpretations will be approached based upon the broad category of interpretation that each fall into.  I have given my discussion on interpretations a focal point – Emily Davison (a militant Suffragette who died after throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby) – as this should accentuate the contrast between the interpretations.

This paper will consider both feminist and popular interpretations of the Suffragette Movement. I have chosen to give an equal amount of consideration to both academic and popular interpretations in light of McAleavy’s justification for popular representations being just as worthy of classroom study as academic interpretations (Davies and Williams, 1998: 25).

Interpretations are created for a reason – whether it is created by a historian to answer a particular question, or a town deciding to install a monument (Teaching History, 2019). Every interpretation is the product of an individual or group’s personal background and beliefs, the events they are living through and by outside pressures to conform to a particular view; these factors affect the way that historians select and thus interpret evidence contributing to their representation of history (Hammond, 2007: 4).

This paper, therefore, will aim not just to identify the key interpretations of the Suffragette Movement, but also to offer some explanation as to why these contrasting interpretations have developed.

Popular Interpretations

For the purpose of this essay, the term ‘popular interpretation’ is used to define an existing representation of history that intended the general public to be its primary audience.

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and ‘suffrage antics’ have dominated popular histories of the suffrage movement (Morton, 2019: 50). Controversially, authors such as Simon Webb, have labelled the relatively extreme WSPU members as terrorists. This radical interpretation of the Suffragette Movement has provoked ‘fierce debate’ from established suffrage scholars who acknowledge the great lengths WSPU activists went to, to ensure that no one was harmed as a result of their militant actions (ibid.).

Perhaps scholastic antagonism was an intention of Webb’s when writing The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists in 2014, marking100 years since the WSPU’s campaign was suspended upon the outbreak of World War I (Webb, 2014).  Webb’s argues that the militant activities of the Suffragettes were counterproductive to their cause; their actions delayed, rather than accelerated, the granting of the parliamentary vote to women (ibid.).

The chapter Webb dedicated to Davison is entitled ‘Emily Davison – Portrait of a Terrorist’; if it wasn’t already implied from the title of his book, Webb undeniably makes it clear to his audience how he was going to represent Davison now (ibid.: 71-86). Webb challenges the popular memory of Davison as a ‘gentle martyr’. With a century now distancing him from Davison’s death, Webb does not hesitate to paint her as an ‘extremely volatile and unpredictable woman, rootless and unemployed’ (ibid.: 74).

What is most profound about Webb’s interpretation of Davison and the wider Suffragette movement, is the perspective in which he writes from. Whilst Webb was documenting the history of women’s suffrage, he was doing so from a male perspective; this is most apparent when discussing Davison’s death. Webb blamed Davison’s actions for the subsequent suicide of Herbert Jones, the King’s jockey who played an ‘inadvertent role’ in her death:

It was little short of a miracle that Herbert Jones, the jockey of the horse in front of which Davison ran, was not also killed that day. His horse turned a complete somersault and landed on top of him… Herbert Jones said in later years that he was ‘haunted by that poor women’s face’ and he was greatly affected psychologically by Davison’s death beneath the hooves of his horse (Webb, 2014: 80-81).

Throughout his chapter on Davison, Webb condemned her for the ‘injury’ and ‘senseless brutal assault’ of men including an ‘innocent clergyman’ (ibid.: 73-74). Webb further implied that Davison was singlehandedly the first Suffragette to use arson as a weapon and carrying out England’s first bomb attack of the century. However, Webb failed to provide an ounce of hard evidence to support these claims; perhaps Davison was one of a group who were complicit in these actions, as opposed to being solely responsible – though this phrasing would not conform with Webb’s extreme portrayal of Davison and would likely be less profitable. Certainly, Webb’s wording of the scenarios he chose to include in his chapter, do paint Davison to be ‘the more aggressive type of suffragette who cheerfully engaged in acts of violence and destruction, giving no thought at all to those who might be injured or lose their lives in the process’ (ibid., p.74). Of course, Webb’s portrayal of Davison makes for fantastic entertainment – which is the purpose of his popular interpretation – to sell to the masses. Webb is renowned for similar sensationalist titles including Suffragette Fascists: Emmeline Pankhurst and Her Right-Wing Followers (2020) and Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain (2015); Webb can also be attributed to a dozen Western novels written under various pseudonyms.

Other popular interpretations of the Suffragette Movement include the way in which we – as a nation – celebrate and remember the likes of Emily Davison, through the commissioning, design and maintenance of monuments. Statues of Davison seem to have been commissioned in 2018 – 105 years after her death. Why were these statues not commissioned sooner? Arguably, it would not have been as poignant to unveil a statue of Davison immediately after her death in 1913, as women had not yet secured their right to vote; thus, Davison’s significance could not be determined. However, it seems more likely that monuments commemorating women’s achievements and sacrifices were simply not considered until 2018. Celebrations for the centenary of votes for women saw Westminster’s Parliament Square introduce its first monument dedicated to a woman: Suffragist Millicent Fawcett (Evans, 2019). This breakthrough moment appears to have set the ball rolling for the installation of similar monuments across the country.

Later that year, a life-size replica of Davison was unveiled in her hometown, Morpeth to mark 100 years since some women were first granted the right to vote (Appendix 2). The statue proudly depicts Davison while on hunger strike in prison throwing her food on the ground in defiance (BBC, 2018). Glen Sanderson, the county council ward member for Longhorsley (seven miles north of Morpeth), stated that “Emily Davison was a true local hero who helped bring about votes for women and it is right that we recognise her achievements – especially in this centenary year” (Parveen, 2018). Penni Blyth, of Morpeth-based heritage group, ‘Emily Inspires’, also commented on the statue, stating that “Emily Wilding Davison’s past has changed and inspired our present – hers is a legacy to also inspire the next generation” (BBC, 2018). The statue was accompanied by an information panel, mapping a walking trail that highlighted Davison’s close links with the area (Parveen, 2018). It is clear then, that Morpeth’s intention for the statue was threefold: to celebrate the centenary of women being granted the right to vote, to inspire the next generation, and finally, emphasise Morpeth’s heritage and thus promote tourism.

The following year, Epsom also commissioned a Davison statue, with plans for a QR code to encourage spectators to find out more about her (Appendix 3). Epsom’s statue served two purposes: to celebrate Emily Davison’s contribution to the town’s history and to promote Epson’s University of the Creative Arts (Evans, 2019).

Feminist Interpretations

Historians have been working to raise the profile of women’s history since the 1970s (Lockyer and Tazzyman, 2017). As Webb has just shown, it is possible to acknowledge women’s history from a contemporary male perspective. Feminist historians, therefore, do not merely acknowledge women’s role in history, but document and engage with it from the perspective of contemporary women. The 1990s saw feminist historians of the Suffragette Movement delve beyond the Pankhurst’s narrative and instead, turn their attentions to the lesser known suffragettes (Liddington, 2014; Smith, 2007).

Liddington is renowned for her collective biographical approach to the history of the Suffragette Movement (Smith, 2007). Liddington demonstrated that the activists were often ‘relatively ordinary women until their lives were transformed by the suffrage campaign’ (Smith, 2007: 200). Her work has been applauded for making a ‘fine example of the contribution that microhistory can make to larger fields of study’ (Holton, 2016: 513). What is – in my opinion – most poignant about Liddington’s work, is her continuous referral to Davison as ‘Emily’ verses Prime Minister Asquith who is referred to only by his surname. The use of first names only enhances Liddington’s biographical approach as it provokes a sense of familiarity – almost as if Davison were the reader’s friend (Liddington, 2014).

Through Liddington’s work, we hear about Davison’s determination in pursuing higher education and her struggle to make a living in a man’s world. In stark contrast to Webb’s popular interpretation, Liddington painted Davison to be the victim, having been ‘forcibly fed’ and subject to ‘brutal treatment’ in prison (Liddington, 2014: 126). Liddington also acknowledged that Davison ‘was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve her propaganda goal, whatever the personal cost’ (ibid.). Here, Liddington implied that Davison was a selfless woman, who only put herself at risk. Liddington’s innocent interpretation of Davison could be explained by the academic’s purpose: to explore of ‘a largely neglected aspect of suffragism’: civil disobedience and passive resistance, including the practice of hunger striking and resistance to the census. This means that Liddington is likely to be selecting completely different evidence to those focusing on the militancy of the Suffragette Movement (Holton, 2016: 514). Digital innovations have largely enabled Liddington to pursue this alternative history of the Suffragette Movement. Archive materials, including the 1911 census, have recently become accessible online; this development has allowed scholars to ‘[enrich] the tapestry of suffrage stories, strategies and identities’ (Morton, 2019: 51).

Liddington’s innocent picture of Davison could also be explained by her blatant sympathy for the Suffragette cause. On her website, Liddington admits ‘I’ve always been fascinated by discovering the history of forgotten suffragists and suffragettes, wherever they lived. Indeed, ‘Votes for Women – everywhere!‘’. Clearly, Liddington is a feminist; this has evidently sparked her initial interest in the history of the Suffragette Movement, and subsequently determined her approach (Jill Liddinton, n.d.).

How could historical interpretations of the Suffragette Movement be taught in the classroom?

First and foremost, the teaching of interpretations – at all levels – needs to be driven by an enquiry question. Given the stance of my historical and popular interpretations, I had initially considered pose the provocative enquiry question: ‘Emily Davison: martyr or terrorist?’ to an A-Level class. However, this type of question could lend itself to pupils creating a rash judgement as opposed to analysing the interpretations of others (Teaching History, 2019). A more suitable enquiry question might be: ‘Why are popular historical views of Emily Davison so different from those of academic historians?’ as this not only encourages pupils to note the differences between the interpretations, but consider why they are different (Card, 2004: 9; Howells, 2005: 33).

Before pupils can even attempt to answer the enquiry question, they need to understand that interpretations are always created for a reason and in a particular context (Teaching History, 2019). Pupils should consider how an interpretation might have been influenced by contemporary events, the interpreter’s personal background, moulded to suit intended audience; some pupils might even question how the interpreter’s purpose has determined their selection – and thus interpretation – of evidence (ibid.; Hammond, 2007).

In order for pupils to truly unpick both academic interpretations and popular representations of the past, pupils need to employ a sophisticated skill which Card (2004) has coined ‘double vision’. Pupils typically need to employ this skill when an interpretation is neither from their own period, nor from the period being interpreted (ibid.). In the case of the Suffragette Movement, the interpretations I previously discussed originated little over five years ago – therefore this skill may appear redundant. However, I would argue that it is still necessary for pupils to adopt ‘double vision’ and ask why the Suffragette Movement has been widely neglected until fairly recently. This would encourage high-level thinking about the variability of significance: how the significance of the movement has shifted in line with the values and priorities of time (ibid).

As mentioned previously, McAleavy argues that the study of popular representations of the history (such as films and monuments) are just as worthy of study as academic interpretations – particularly at Key Stage 3 (Davies and Williams, 1998). In fact, many history educators simulate the decisions of filmmakers in the classroom to explain how interpretations of the past are created. Freeman and Weake (2005) asked their pupils to come up with their own film depicting a historic event or figure, so as to highlight how the filmmaker’s purpose – popular entertainment and profit – affects their interpretation of a historic event or figure. Whilst this seemingly trivial activity may seem more appropriate at Key Stage 3, it may be beneficial to revisit the construction of interpretations at GCSE and A Level to ensure that pupils really do grasp the foundation of interpretations. History teachers are encouraged to take their time with interpretations as this will benefit pupils in the long term (Teaching History, 2019).

Having introduced how interpretations about the past are formed, pupils should be ready to tackle ‘real’ interpretations. In order for pupils to truly understand the how and why a judgement has been formed, pupils need to have full access to the interpretation – for example an unadulterated chapter from Webb’s book – as opposed to a shallow ‘textbook summary’ of his argument that is void of all context (ibid.). This is perhaps easier said than done as, in my experience, pupils don’t always see the benefit of reading beyond the textbook – particularly when they are trying to juggle the expectations of a several subjects at GCSE and A-Level. This is where our enthusiasm, as History teachers, can be particularly motivating. If pupils can see that we are enthusiastic about scholarship and can sincerely recommend a historian to them for challenging your view or for being ‘unputdownable’, then they are more likely to want to engage with scholarship (ibid.).

From here, I would encourage my pupils to identify what type of interpretation is in front of them, what is being said and why it was constructed. Further prompts, such as ‘What was the purpose (and intended audience)?’ could be provided – particularly for KS3 and GCSE pupils – in the form of a grid (Appendix 4) to guide them towards this high-level thinking (Teaching History, 2019: 25); at A level, pupils should be encouraged to automatically ask themselves these questions. I could extend this activity by including clips and posters from the film Suffragette (2015) to allow pupils to examine what this reveals about the views and influences of the creators and their intentions (Card, 2004); this activity would form a tangible link back to the introductory role play.

Davies and Williams (1998) advocate the inclusion of historic sites in the teaching of interpretations, as these tend to reflect national priorities and feelings and, as a result, their maintenance is in a state of flux. These sites provoke a different set of questions regarding the purpose of the interpretation: was the purpose to remember the dead, or was it to educate tourists? Perhaps it was even designed to encourage tourism. If my school were local to Epsom or Morpeth, I would consider taking my class to the statue of Davison and explore the interactive aspects in an attempt to bring history to life. Given that this is a standalone statue – as opposed to the countless museums and memorials on Western Front – showing pupils the photographs in Appendices 2 and 3 would be more logical if farther afield. In both instances, I would use the structured worksheet in Appendix 5 for GCSE pupils. At A-level, I would encourage pupils to create and answer their own questions, removing most – if not all – prompts, dependant on the class and/or individual.



Andrews, M. and Lomas, J. (2018). A History of Women in 100 Objects. Stroud: The History Press – A history of women told through the lens of objects used by women, created by women, and oppressed women.

Liddington, J. (2014). Vanishing for the Vote. Manchester: Manchester University Press – A collective biographical approach to the history of the Suffragette Movement, from a feminist perspective. Liddington focuses on a previously ignored aspect of the movement: their hiding from the census.

Webb, S. (2014). The Suffragette Bombers: Britain’s Forgotten Terrorists. Barnsley: Pen & Sword History – A popular take on the Suffragette Movement which brands the likes of Davison as a terrorist and condemns her actions for delaying the granting of the vote for women.

Webb, S. (2015).Bombers, Rioters and Police Killers: Violent Crime and Disorder in Victorian Britain. Barnsley: Pen & Sword History – Another of Webb’s controversial books.

Webb, S. (2020). Suffragette Fascists: Emmeline Pankhurst and Her Right-Wing Followers. Barnsley: Pen & Sword History – Webb’s latest work, to be published in June 2020.


Card, J. (2004). ‘Seeing Double: How One Period Visualises Another’ in Teaching History (117), pp.6-11 – An article which emphasises the need for pupils to be contextually familiar with both the period being interpreted and the period of the interpretation.

Davies, I. and Williams, R. (1998). ‘Emotional response or objective enquiry? Using shared stories and a sense of place in the study of interpretations for GCSE’ in Teaching History (91), pp. 36-41 – An article discussing the benefit of using historic sites as an interpretation.

Freeman, J. and Weake, J. (2005). ‘Innovation, Inspiration and Diversification: New Approaches to History at Key Stage 3’ in Teaching History (120), pp. 40-43 – An article advocating the use of role play to explain how interpretations are formed.

Holton, S. (2017). ‘Vanishing For The Vote: suffrage, citizenship and the battle for the census, Jill Liddington’ in Women’s History Review (26.3), pp. 513-515 – A book review.

Howells, G. (2005). ‘Interpretations and History Teaching’ in Teaching History (121), pp. 29-35 – An article regarding the construction of enquiry questions that are centred around interpretations.

Lockyer, B. and Tazzyman, A. (2017). ‘Victims of History’: Challenging Students’ Perceptions of Women in History’ in Teaching History (165), pp. 8-15 – An article addressing the knowledge gap in women’s History.

Morton, T. (2019). ‘Polychronicon: Votes for Women’ in Teaching History (174), pp. 50-52 – A brief overview of the historiography of the Suffragette Movement.

Smith, H. (2007). ‘Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote – Jill Liddington’ in The Economic History Review (60.1), pp.199-201 – A book review.

Teaching History (2019). ‘What’s the Wisdom on…Interpretations of the Past’ in Teaching History (177), pp. 23-27 – A short guide on teaching interpretations, including the construction of enquiry questions.


Historical Association (2018). ‘100 Years of Suffrage’ [Online], Available at (Accessed: 18.05.20) – A short overview of the Suffrage Movement for the centenary of women first being granted the vote.

Historical Association (2019). ‘Three Cheers for Women!’  [Online], Available at (Accessed 18.05.20) – A brief piece about the Suffrage Movement in aid of Women’s History Month.

Liddington, J.(N.D). ‘About’[Online], Available at (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Jill Liddington’s personal website which provides an overview of her background, education and work.

Skinner, G. and Mortimore, R. (2017). How Britain voted in the 2017 election [Online], Available at: (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Statistics on the 2017 election.

Women’s Suffrage Project (N.D.). Women’s Suffrage: History and Citizenship Resources for Schools [Online], Available at [Accessed 18.05.20] – A relatively new electronic Suffragette database, including census records.

Newspaper Articles

Barford, V. (2017) ‘Election 2017: If More Young People Actually Voted, Would it Change Everything?’ BBC 19 May[Online], Available at (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Statistics on the 2017 election.

BBC (2018) ‘Statue of Suffragette Emily Davison Unveiled’, BBC 11 September [Online], Available at (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Article regarding the new Emily Davison statue in her home town, Morpeth.

BBC (2019) ‘Climate Change: Greta Thunberg School Strikes Began a Year Ago’, BBC 20 August [Online], Available at (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Article regarding young people’s activism today.

Evans, A. (2019) ‘Behind the Plans to Commemorate the Iconic Suffragette Emily Davison in Epsom’, Get Surrey 27 May [Online], Available at (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Article regarding the plans to create a statue of Emily Davison in Epsom.

Iannucci, A. (2017) ‘Can’t be Bothered to Vote? If You’re Young, You Simply Can’t Afford not to’, The Guardian 30 April [Online], Available at (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Statistics on the 2017 election.

Parveen, N. (2018) ‘Statue of Suffragette Emily Davison to be Unveiled in Morpeth’, The Guardian 11 September [Online], Available at: (Accessed: 18.05.20) – Article regarding the new Emily Davison statue in her home town, Morpeth.

The National Curriculum

Department of Education (2013) National Curriculum – The current national curriculum for KS3 history.


Suffragette (2015) Directed by Sarah Gavron [Film]. United Kingdom, 20th Century Fox – A popular interpretation of the Suffragette Movement, starring Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan.

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