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Public Transmission, and Religious Symbolism in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement: The Cases of Emily Wilding Davison’s Funeral and the Pilgrimage of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies

Transmission publique et symbolisme religieux dans le mouvement pour le droit de vote des femmes en Grande-Bretagne : l’exemple des funérailles d’Emily Wilding Davison et le pèlerinage de la National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies
Chloé Clément


Cet article étudiera la manière dont le symbolisme religieux dans le mouvement britannique pour le droit de vote des femmes fut intégré, perçu et reçu à travers deux événements spécifiques : les funérailles de la suffragette Emily Wilding Davison et le pèlerinage organisé par les suffragistes de la National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Au fur et à mesure que le mouvement progressait et que les méthodes de transmission publique évoluaient, les organisations du mouvement ont dû trouver de nouveaux moyens pour justifier leurs arguments et propagande. D’abord diffusés principalement dans la presse des organisations du mouvement, les arguments pour le vote des femmes furent également transmis dans l’espace public. Les organisations coordonnaient donc des manifestations pouvant s’appuyer sur un symbolisme religieux adapté pour et par le mouvement. Que ce soit en célébrant la figure du martyr et le sacrifice de soi des suffragettes ou en organisant un pèlerinage national pour démontrer la force des méthodes constitutionnelles, processions et symbolisme religieux se mélangèrent pour entrer dans la sphère publique. Cependant, les raisons derrière l’utilisation d’un symbolisme religieux remettent en question les attitudes religieuses des organisations et de leurs membres. Les funérailles de Davison mettent en évidence l’importance des suffragettes martyres dans la propagande de l’organisation, et dans la compréhension du militantisme de membres influencées par leurs convictions religieuses. Quant à la NUWSS, les archives sur leur pèlerinage rendent compte des décisions visant à inclure un symbolisme religieux dans une marche nationale de cinq semaines. Ces processions publiques démontrèrent que le sacrifice, le dévouement et le courage des membres envers le même objectif politique, moral et spirituel pouvaient fonctionner comme motivations internes et externes afin de faire avancer le mouvement. Pourtant, bien que les organisations aient jugé leur transmission réussie, la valeur ajoutée du symbolisme religieux qu’elles ont déployé a été remise en question par la presse de l’époque. La redéfinition des notions et symboles religieux ainsi que les différends sur leur signification seront donc étudiés pour comprendre les raisons de leur intégration, transmission et débats sur leur efficacité.

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1When the suffragette Annie Kenney compared the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to ‘one of the big stores’ able to transform to the needs of its audience because ‘if one thing did not suit (and the audiences soon told [them]) [they] would take them into another department’ (Kenney 1924, 148), she highlighted the importance for organisations to adapt their means of transmission. The Victorian suffrage campaign and the beginning of the Edwardian one mostly relied on drawing-room meetings and petitions, but suffrage organisations soon organised demonstrations and processions. Shifting from one department to another, from the private to the public space, militant and non-militant organisations used streets as their political space in which they would imagine and reimagine their transmission based on processions and demonstrations adapted to rouse the public (Kenney 1924, 148). The ‘Mud March’ of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1907 launched mass public demonstrations for the vote (Robinson 69); the WSPU organised impressive processions to celebrate suffragettes out of prison, while religious suffrage organisations such as the Church League for Women’s Suffrage (CLWS) or the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (CWSS) amongst others often gathered to appeal to the religious dimension of the women’s suffrage movement. Processions relied on spectacularity: The Tribune for instance reported on a suffrage procession that ‘all the magnificent propaganda, all the concentrated activity of the last few months crystallised itself into a united woman’s suffrage procession’. Forming a ‘shared esprit de corps’ (Tickner 151), processions helped any public audience to identify key figures, arguments, and symbolism of the suffrage movement.

  • 1 See Tickner, Lisa. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907–14. Chatto & Wind (...)

2As the movement progressed and public methods of transmission evolved, suffrage organisations also found new means to justify their suffrage arguments and propaganda. Religious symbols and concepts gradually came to represent the political and social movement. The suffrage press first transmitted religio-political arguments. Front covers introduced readers to Joan of Arc as a saint-like figure guiding suffragette prisoners (The Suffragette 1913b), a suffragette receiving a laurel wreath from angels while holding the Instruments of the Passion (The Suffragette 1913a), or a bugler girl preparing herself to burst the walls of Jericho (Common Cause 1913). Speeches of suffrage leaders also carried religious metaphors, eschatological vocabulary, or adapted psalms to illustrate and justify their campaign. As the suffrage press overflowed with religious symbolism, some processions visually represented and brought it to the public by bursting the limits a woman’s suffrage press organ could have. Some scholars have already studied the use of religious symbols and concepts in the British suffrage movement. Amongst others, Lisa Tickner’s wonderful analysis of the visual spectacles offered by suffrage organisations presents their religious imagery; Jacqueline De Vries’s study observes the hybridity of the movement blurring the limits between secular and sacred by focusing on revivalist connotations; Carolyn Christensen Nelson gives key examples of religious uses by the militant suffrage campaign and more recently Robert Saunders examined the theological aspect of the movement with the CLWS.1 However, drawing upon existing scholarship on religion and religiosity in the British suffrage movement and archival sources, more can be said about the transmission of religious symbolism, the processes behind its integration and debates over its meaning.

3Whether associated with the militant ‘holy war’ interpretation of the movement or appearing to appeal to the more moral, spiritual side of the movement, religious symbolism reached its peak in 1913. The changing tone in the movement and the rise of the militant campaign influenced the religious symbolism chosen by suffrage organisations as demonstrated by two major processions: the funeral procession of Emily Wilding Davison used by suffragettes to illustrate the urgency of obtaining the vote, and the Great Pilgrimage of the NUWSS spreading the word of the organisation across the country. These two events are well known and yet, much is to be said about their religious symbolism and ensuing debates and reactions. I thus aim to comprehend to what extent the religious symbolism characterising the transmission of these two events was integrated, perceived and received. One can of course question the place of religious elements in the secular suffrage movement. The hybridity mentioned by De Vries (102)—a process drawing on religious patterns for secular purposes—leads to wonder about the methods the organisations put in place to soak an event in religious symbolism. Suffrage organisations tended to redefine religious notions and symbols to fit their arguments and characterise their transmission which is to convey a message to participants and those outside the suffrage movement. Yet the reasons for that redefinition and debates surrounding their efficiency tend to be overlooked.

4First, I will thus observe how the organisations used religious symbolism, drawing mostly from Christian imagery, in these two events. Both exploited religious symbolism differently but eventually for the same objectives: transmitting suffrage arguments, attracting spectators to support their respective campaigns, and expressing their collective identity. Then, exploring discussions emanating from their conception would help understand if the integration of religious symbolism in Davison’s funeral procession or a five-week national march followed strategic choices to keep with the movement’s Christian tone or if it instead resonated with members’ religious attitudes influencing their transmission. Moreover, the perception and reception by members and outsiders of the suffrage movement question religious symbolism’s importance and its added value to the organisations’ propaganda.

Identifying a Religious Symbolism in Davison’s Funeral and the NUWSS Pilgrimage

  • 2 Davison was then brought to Newcastle by train and buried at Morpeth.

5Sacralising a political cause with specific symbols draws attention to the movement and calls on people to share that experience (Gentile 79) by bringing this symbolism directly to them. Religious imagery and metaphors to sacralise the ‘Cause’ were often used to obtain and maintain public support and approval. The vote became a moral purpose to reach at all costs for secular and religious suffrage organisations alike regardless of their denomination. The WSPU saw a ‘sacred object, invoking the support of the Almighty in their rightful struggle’ (‘Sacred’) and the CWSS, for instance, qualified the vote ‘a small weapon wherewith to right a great wrong’ (‘Catholic’). Overall, using specific religious symbolism set the tone of the movement and Christian imagery emphasised values contextualising Davison’s funeral procession and the NUWSS Pilgrimage. Davison’s funeral was a means to represent the notion of martyrdom abundantly employed by the WSPU. Following the sacred purpose of the movement, suffrage organisations promoted a self-sacrificing behaviour soon transformed into martyrdom. While non-militant organisations sometimes referred to the notion of martyrdom, it especially burgeoned in the WSPU and emerged from public transmission and reception. Suffragettes in prison being met with approval as victims of governmental authorities rather than rebels comforted the WSPU in ‘the pose of martyrdom of which [they] had been rather ashamed until then, and it strengthened that curious mental and moral duplicity which allowed [them] to engineer an outbreak’ (Billington-Greig 73). The main organ of the WSPU until 1912, Votes for Women, also began to promote this image and advance suffrage arguments using religious notions. The word ‘martyr’ to characterise a suffragette first appeared in their newspaper in 1908 coinciding with the first suffragettes sent to prison. At first, martyrdom only described the persecution women suffered when they participated in the militant campaign to further their sacred purpose. The WSPU figure of the martyr was not necessarily linked with one’s death but rather with other virtues of a martyr: self-sacrifice, selflessness, or desire for justice. Its transmission then soon evolved from the newspaper to the public stage responding to a growth of public approval. While suffrage newspapers printed detailed accounts of suffragettes’ prison experiences, public processions made martyrdom visible and more accessible to a public audience. Suffragettes dressed in their prison gowns in dedicated procession sections drew attention to their self-sacrificing spirit and appealed to the ‘sensibilities of the watching crowds’ (Tickner 55). In June 1913, the figure of the suffragette-martyr promoted by the WSPU was renewed. Emily Wilding Davison, a WSPU and CLWS member, walked in front of the King’s Horse to tie a cockade in the WSPU colours. She was trampled on and passed away days later. Debates still surround Davison’s action but for the WSPU, she became the ideal suffragette-martyr to use in their public transmission. Public space was reappropriated to recognise Davison’s action and celebrate her martyrdom in front of an audience. The first funeral procession in London2 was nothing short of spectacular. Twelve different sections guided Davison on her last journey. Group captains led women doctors, graduates, provincial suffragettes, other suffrage organisations and the general public. The Hearse section was located in the middle of the procession with relatives, WSPU members and former hunger strikers. Banners also continued to transmit adapted religious symbolism for the movement with writings such as ‘Fight on and God will give the victory’ or the Bible verse ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend’. With a cross-bearer, suffragette Elsie Howey guided the procession dressed as Joan of Arc on a white horse. The imagery was strong: Joan of Arc, considered by the WSPU as the ideal woman warrior and martyr was guiding Emily Wilding Davison, the ideal suffragette. The WSPU had developed over the years the glorification of the suffragette-martyr willing to sacrifice, but Davison’s death brought them a new opportunity to use public space with their ideal version of the suffragette-martyr; a ‘resource’ to prove the righteousness of their struggle (DeSoucey 100).

6Previous studies have mostly focused on the militant side of the movement as militancy brought an array of religious metaphors transforming the movement into a holy war. Yet, non-militant organisations also employed religious symbolism to spread their suffrage arguments and constitutional methods. As militancy increased in intensity in 1913, the NUWSS had to find means to revive the constitutional campaign (Tickner 10) and further the movement outside militant circles. Public audiences were the main targets, and instead of processions confined to the capital, the NUWSS organised a national pilgrimage. From June 18th to July 26th, 1913, four hundred societies from seventeen NUWSS federations marched and organised public meetings and processions in towns and villages in England and Wales. Leaving from about ten different routes, they would reach London to form a final procession to Hyde Park and bring over petitions to the Prime Minister. The advertisement surrounding the pilgrimage emphasised how suffragists could bring forward ‘this religious spirit’ (Harley). Songs adapted to the pilgrimage with lyrics asking to ‘scatter seeds of Righteousness’ so ‘God will give Increase’ (‘Marching’) accompanied the ‘prayerful, solemn spirit’ (Harley) some suffragists attributed to the pilgrimage. Weekly news in the Common Cause detailed meetings and processions when entering towns to appeal to spectators. For instance, the Exeter demonstration organised with three hundred suffragists offered ‘a most picturesque spectacle with their gallant show of banners’ (De Misick). The scale, the nature and the symbolism of the pilgrims’ national processions accounted for the power of the renewed strategy. Chosen routes reached as many people as possible—some followed traditional pilgrimage routes. A final procession to Hyde Park and a church service at St Paul’s Cathedral announced the end of the pilgrimage. It was a good opportunity to remind public audiences of the procession’s essence and finalise the atmosphere driving Pilgrims up to London. Pilgrims had been concerned about London’s reception of a mass procession as it ‘had had militant outrages’ but they finally confirmed London at last ‘underst[ood] the difference between militant and law-abiding Suffragists’ (Meikle 292).

Integrating the Religious Symbolism: Reasons, Discussions, and Influences

  • 3 Her new organisation, Votes for Women Fellowship, sent two representatives and offered a floral wre (...)

7Processes for using religious symbolism for transmission question the religious attitudes of suffrage organisations and members. Davison’s funeral procession—with or without religious symbolism—was spectacular. Yet, its full meaning emerged in how the religious imagery deployed echoed the WSPU’s. The WSPU transformed and finalised martyr glorification into a public process with a public funeral. Davison’s action emerged when the figure of the martyr was more frequent in the WSPU’s propaganda. While one could not deny the treatment of—for instance—suffragette prisoners, using the term ‘martyr’ was sometimes criticised. The Anti-Suffrage Review wrote the ‘word martyr [was] too loosely used’ and a ‘misunderstanding of its true meaning’ (C.B 176). Still, martyrdom accounted for the hybridity deployed in the movement, and thus, limits were blurred as the WSPU established its definition by combining characteristics of secular and Christian martyrs (Gullickson 476). The interaction between these characteristics was a complex one (Wolffe 2) and met in the organisation’s values and imagery supporting the promotion of faith in the movement. While suffragettes could be willing to die for a political cause, the way suffrage propaganda approached martyrdom suggested they also suffered for a religious sacred cause. For some WSPU members, using and integrating this concept bordering religious meaning was not far-fetched. Its Christian connotation supported WSPU transmission. For example, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence’s Methodist background influenced her participation in the movement. The Votes for Women editor was raised around non-conformist beliefs, involved in the Salvation Army, and once ‘connected with a type of narrow Evangelicalism’ (Pethick-Lawrence 1938, 95), so articles she penned drawing on Christian imagery were not surprising. Viewed as heiresses of martyr virtues, suffragettes established a part of their collective identity around other martyrs to familiarise their audience and readership with the continuity created between past and present militants. Pethick-Lawrence even suggested the creation of a ‘Calendar of Saints’ to honour suffragette prisoners, and ‘recognise that the saints and warriors of to-day have been called to be partakers of the cross and passion of the martyrs who, by their agony endured for their faith’. While she was not a WSPU member anymore during Davison’s funeral and did not participate in its organisation,3 her views on suffragette martyrdom certainly biased it.

8The religious symbolism of the procession linked militancy and religion. Scholars such as De Vries, Nelson or Saunders have treated the inspiration the WSPU drew from the Salvation Army for instance. Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst admitted having ‘adopted Salvation Army methods’ (E. Pankhurst 56). Therefore, what seemed important for secular suffrage organisations was not necessarily to adopt the true meaning of the religious symbolism they used but rather adapt it enough to use in the public space (Tickner 128) and associated with women’s suffrage demands regardless of religious denominations. The message Christian imagery and martyr glorification could deploy over the movement was more important to finalise the hybrid definition of martyrdom they used. Martyrs have the power to unify people around the same purpose, but it is only possible through a calculated transmission. A martyr indeed emerges because of the way their death is interpreted and transmitted in society (Billoré & Lucuppre 11). By organising a funeral with former suffragette prisoners marching with the ideal suffragette, public audiences were reminded of the martyrdom surrounding the militant campaign.

  • 4 Imprisoned in January 1910, Lytton saw ‘the shape of the three familiar crosses at the scene of Cal (...)

9The Christian imagery deployed during Davison’s funeral also echoed her religious convictions. Religion had a significant role in Davison’s understanding and involvement in the movement. A member of both the CLWS and WSPU, she was deeply influenced by religious symbolism. In ‘The Price of Liberty’, one of Davison’s articles republished in The Suffragette on the first anniversary of her death, she had transformed the Parable of the Pearl into the Parable of Militancy. She referred to militant suffragettes sacrificing the ‘pearls of Friendship, Good Report, Love and even Life itself’ to reach their freedom. She also claimed, ‘to lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring!’ and ‘to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn’ was ‘the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant!’. Davison’s last action was not the first time she had attempted to sacrifice for her cause. As an imprisoned suffragette in June 1912, she reported having thrown herself from an iron staircase to protest against the forcible feeding suffragettes experienced (‘Writing’). She believed ‘one big tragedy might save many others’ (‘Writing’) and was willing to sacrifice her pearl to save others. Knowing Davison’s militant experience, the banners with biblical verses during her funeral procession become even more meaningful. Davison’s funeral was a fitting tribute to her perception of the movement: ‘she had felt the call . . .  She had given her life for us and all humanity’ (‘Some Appreciations’). Constance Lytton, whose autobiography also refers to Christian imagery to illustrate her relationship with suffrage militancy,4 celebrated ‘the truest upholder of [their] Great Cause, and the most fearless of those who serve it’ (‘Some Appreciations’). Clergy members of the CLWS, Rev. C. Baumgarten, Cannon Todd and Rev. Claud Hinscliff, president of the organisation, conducted the memorial service following the procession. During the service, several hymns such as ‘Fight the Good Fight’ celebrating Davison’s self-sacrifice and martyr status resonated within the walls of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury (‘Programme’).

10The NUWSS pilgrimage similarly integrated religious symbolism. The NUWSS had participated in various processions, notably the Coronation Procession with other suffrage leagues, but described the pilgrimage as ‘the biggest thing it ha[d] yet done in the way of a demonstration’ (Fawcett 1913). It returned to basic strategic choices already proved successful before (Tickner 142). At first, the procession was not seen as a pilgrimage, but as a national march to promote constitutional methods. When Katherine Harley, president of the NUWSS and CLWS Shropshire branch, proposed the event she first talked of ‘marches’ and gave a basic outline of the event (‘Women’s Interests’). She also suggested the creation of a ‘special committee’ dedicated to its organisation, and on April 29th, 1913, the ‘March and Demonstration Committee’ met for the first time. One of the first points of the meeting was a letter from Helena Auerbach. She had been present in the previous meeting and would also point out the financial objective of the Pilgrimage in the next one (though the list of attendees does not include her). Her letter urged ‘that a religious element should be included: that the final demonstration should be of the nature of a dedication’ (‘Women’s Interests’). She did not explain why; neither did committee notes. However, one might find more in Auerbach’s religious convictions. She was indeed a treasurer for the NUWSS and served on the Executive Committee, but more importantly, she was also one of the vice-presidents of the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage (JWLS). Founded in November 1912, the JWLS ‘unite[d] Jewish Suffragists of all shades of opinions’ to join ‘a Jewish League where, otherwise, they would hesitate to join a purely political society’ (A.J.R. 43). The organisation also followed ‘constitutional lines, parallel with those of the existing Church, Catholic, Free Church and Friends’ Leagues’ (A.J.R. 43). Neither Auerbach’s letter nor the NUWSS reported her dual membership. The very few times she appeared as a JLWS member in Common Cause were in articles about meetings or when she spoke for the League. Harley agreed to ‘bring the matter before the Executive Committee’. In the letter the committee agreed to send to headquarters, Harley and Catherine Marshall proposed ‘that the name given to the scheme be ‘The Suffrage Pilgrimage’ (‘Women’s Interests’). One can only imagine how important it might have been for Auerbach to observe such a communal and spectacular suffrage work be converted into a Pilgrimage.

11Yet not everyone shared her enthusiasm. When Auerbach’s letter was read, Chrystal MacMillan and Helen Ward asked ‘that the religious element be avoided’ (‘Women’s Interests’). No explanation was given on their stance, and their religious attitudes were unclear. Helen Ward might have become a CLWS member after the Pilgrimage. The League included among new members in June 1914 a ‘Miss Ward’ in Islington. In 1919, she would appear in a meeting of the League (Acres 61) and would be part of a sub-committee to help organise meetings (‘League’ 60). When the League became ‘The League of the Church Militant’ in February 1919 following women’s enfranchisement, it continued to associate the Church with politics. The League hoped to ‘give active support to all well-considered proposals for the removal or mitigation of social evils’ (‘Title and Objects’). It is therefore difficult to give a proper explanation of these members’ disapproval. Both were nonetheless going to take part in Pilgrimage’s meetings. Ward even became part of the ‘Demonstrations & Decorations Committee’ to advertise the event. The minutes of the NUWSS Executive Committee on May 1st, 1913, mention the moment the committee learnt of the transformation of the march. The president, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, agreed and decided ‘to write an article for the “Common Cause” explaining the symbolic aspect of the March’ (‘Meeting’). Because further meetings did not mention the Pilgrimage’s religious dimension, the decision of the NUWSS leader seemed to have fully accepted its integration. The March Committee was then transformed into the ‘Pilgrimage Committee’ at the next meeting on May 8th, 1913. Fawcett’s article combined political aspects—‘hold meetings, distribute literature and information’—and a symbolical dimension: ‘the joyousness of self-dedication to a great cause’ (Fawcett 1913). Auerbach, as the NUWSS treasurer, explained in the same issue the religious-like meaning she set—a meaning suffragists should share: ‘be ready to take some part in this united act of dedication to the cause of women’s enfranchisement, so that our Pilgrimage shall stand out and impress the world as an object lesson in women’s power of self-denial, earnestness and enthusiasm’.

12The March from Edinburgh organised by Mrs. de Fonblanque who wished to ‘spread the Gospel of Women’s Suffrage’ (‘Procession’) in autumn 1912 first inspired the event. However, the religious element of the Pilgrimage was added following the suggestion of a JLWS member and support of the Union’s leadership. Fawcett accepting the Pilgrimage’s symbolism was not necessarily linked with her religious convictions, but more likely with the image she had of the suffrage movement and the spiritual dedication it inspired her. Fawcett was raised by ‘an intensely religious’ mother of ‘the strict Evangelical type’ (Fawcett 1924, 34‒35), but her biography written by Ray Strachey highlighted how Fawcett ‘cared intensely for goodness . . . , but creeds and beliefs seemed very unimportant’ (Strachey 140). Fawcett’s sister, Alice, also understood the importance of the ‘Cause’ in her life: ‘I felt, dear sister that the cause is to you what religion was to dear mother’ (quoted in Strachey 230). Involved from the end of the 1860s to 1918, the suffrage movement was indeed her lifelong commitment, and she could only express her feelings with Psalm 126 (Fawcett 1918). Harley would emphasise the spiritual, and religious symbolism deployed by the Pilgrimage too. Also influenced by Christian convictions, she explained the NUWSS needed ‘this religious spirit’ but ‘as apart from creeds and dogmas, in our struggle for freedom’ to unite suffragists regardless of their religious attitudes. Now, the pilgrimage of the NUWSS was not organised to travel to sacred places, but it still converted people by visiting places not reached beforehand or so impacted—in this case—to spread ‘a new understanding of the meaning of the Suffrage movement’ (Misick G.C.) preaching the vote like apostles.

Grasping the Meaning: Reception and Efficiency of the Religious Symbolism

13While organisations advertised their events as perfect tools of transmission, their religious symbolism altered their reception. Both processions first fulfilled an internal purpose: renewing the faith of the members of the movement by transmitting collective identities partly through the religious symbolism chosen by the organisations. Making Davison’s martyrdom visible to the public helped integrate it in the imagery of the militant campaign. Suffragettes might even rely on it to build their own experiences. Before Davison’s actions, suffragettes often compared their experiences to understand what it meant to be a suffragette. One suffragette stated she could finally call herself ‘that honoured name, a Suffragette, for she had graduated in the Suffragettes’ school, Holloway’ (‘What the Foreign Delegates Saw’ 628). The WSPU never asked suffragettes to die for the ‘Cause’, but the reproduction of martyr narratives surely glorified the idea of being a suffragette martyr. Suffragettes were often rewarded with medals and an illuminated address after a hunger strike, but Davison’s funeral was the ultimate celebration. It transferred her martyrdom into canonisation. It enabled the WSPU to stress its suffragettes’ spirit of self-sacrifice. Davison’s public funeral should also be considered as a means to revitalise the militant campaign, or at least as a justification to continue the fight. Emmeline Pankhurst mentioned it was up to those ‘who remain to carry on our Holy War’ to ‘dedicate [them]selves anew to service and sacrifice’ (‘Some Appreciations’); another suffragette declared they should ‘give to the cause’ to honour her sacrifice (‘Some Appreciations’). In a public speech following the funeral, Kenney also used Davison’s action as an example suffragettes ought to follow to fulfil their purpose: ‘I am a rebel; I shall be a rebel until we get the Vote. . . .  And if it means that, like Emily Wilding Davison, I have to die to get the Vote, I shall die to get the Vote.’ (Kenney 1913).

14The NUWSS also saw the Pilgrimage as an opportunity to mobilise suffragists with ‘the renewal of the dedication of personal service’ (Meikle 292). It encouraged people to engage in constitutional methods, but pilgrims also undertook a spiritual journey. The religious atmosphere transmitted by the organisation and other pilgrims emphasised the development of a community surrounding and surrounded by their faith in the suffrage movement. Reports of pilgrims highlighted the importance of sisterhood to spread the word of the movement. Annie Ramsay, nicknamed the ‘mother of Pilgrims’ due to her advanced age, shared her experience as a pilgrim from Land’s End and looked back on the community aiming for the same purpose. She ‘could not help thinking of those other Suffrage sisters, good, good women & true’ and was pleased to be ‘presented with a lovely bouquet of red & white carnations from the daughters of the Pilgrimage to their mother’ (Ramsay). Marjory Lees, a pilgrim from Oldham, offered side stories on the communal life on the road with other pilgrims. The stories could be amusing—she described ‘a very merry lunch’ between a suffragist dropping her so-desired grilled cheese sandwich and another falling from her chair—but also more stressful: heckled by a group of persons mistaking them for suffragettes, pilgrims had to barricade the doors of their caravans and ‘windows with cushions’ (Lees). These stories characterised Pilgrims’ progress in the country and emphasised the spirit with which they were to travel. During a service at the Ethical Church at the end of the pilgrimage, a suffragist gave an account of Maude Royden, a member of the NUWSS and CLWS, describing the importance of the ‘Pilgrimage Spirit’, and the power of its transmission and religious atmosphere in a political context:

She emphasised the presence of the spirit of joy as the essence of the Pilgrimage . . . . Sometimes the struggle having lasted so long, the necessary machinery, the compromises, the ‘politics’ of the movement, seemed more real than the vision that first inspired the Suffragists to their work; in the Pilgrimage was restored to us all its radiance and beauty. (‘After’)

  • 5 The Central Somerset Gazette also described pilgrims ‘suffragettes, members of the [NUWSS]’. In the (...)

15The sacralisation of the suffrage movement created a special collective experience. As with Davison’s funeral, the idea of bringing religious symbolism into politics transformed the way a political movement could be perceived (Gentile 79). Yet, people outside the suffrage movement sometimes overlooked the religious symbolism the organisations transmitted. Jane Robinson’s remarkable study of the pilgrimage states newspapers such as the Cambridge Daily News, the Manchester Guardian or the Daily News extensively covered the pilgrimage by informing readers of meetings and participants (Robinson 197). Although press coverage was mostly positive (Robinson 230), unfortunately, that does not imply religious symbolism was always noticed. The NUWSS Honorary Press Secretary, E. M. Leaf acknowledged ‘interesting reports of the Pilgrimage’ were sent to newspapers, but they ‘were either left out altogether or so briefly inserted that they conveyed nothing to the general public’. The anti-suffragist Pall Mall Gazette only wrote a few lines calling suffragists ‘non-militant Suffragettes’ wearing ‘Suffragette colours’5 (‘Women’s Pilgrimage’) and its longer account of pilgrims in London remained mostly descriptive or relied on suffragist explanations (‘Women Pilgrims’). The Norwood News reported the Pilgrimage was successful reaching ‘masses of people who possibly would never otherwise be got at on the Woman Suffrage question’ (Anti-Dote) but did not underline any religious symbolism. Still, when newspapers perceived religious symbolism, they mostly associated it with its internal purpose. The Cambridge Independent Press explained that ‘whatever might be people’s opinion of suffrage, to the suffragists it was something of an inspiration and something of a religion’ (‘Pilgrims’ Farewell’). The Cambridge Daily News reported an address of the theologist Bethune-Baker during a service at Guildhall following a pilgrimage procession in Cambridge. The speaker perceived the Pilgrims’ spirit—one that reminded Christian pilgrims’: ‘It is in this spirit, which really is at the back, the very heart of the woman’s movement all over the world to-day, it is in this spirit that we see the Gospel in your movement. We see, I dare to say, Christ Himself in it, and so it is that we can bring our cause before the God’ (‘Service at the Guildhall’). The Manchester Guardian determined the Pilgrimage ‘had been an effective preaching mission’ and ‘a march of this kind’ was ‘appropriate to a suffrage movement’ (‘Topics’). The hybridity of the movement was perceived and served its reception, but it still is difficult to perceive its effects on a greater scale. It was a successful piece of transmission for constitutional suffragists, not necessarily because it was deemed a Pilgrimage but because it took the form of a national march. Would the Pilgrimage have had the same impact had it been called a ‘National March’? For suffragists, the Pilgrimage added a spiritual dimension that would not have been as much emphasised otherwise. However, those outside the movement mostly praised its organisational aspect. Including religious symbolism could influence the resonance of the movement and transcend the ordinary means of transmission. However, the added value was internal comparing what the NUWSS advertised and what appeared in the non-suffragist press.

  • 6 It was later confirmed, Hewitt—though impressed by Davison’s funeral—was not a suffragist but had s (...)

16The WSPU funeral procession received far greater reactions because militancy was intense at that time: the press tackled militant actions such as arson campaigns, imprisonments, and forcible feeding. Reactions to Davison’s funeral procession mostly relied on the complex notion of suffragette-martyr and its transmission. It was expected of the WSPU to transform Davison into a martyr. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph wrote, ‘women will be able to bury a martyr with ceremony on the largest scale’ something ‘militants have been hoping for some time’ (‘London’) but, overall, anti-militants reacted against the funeral procession and the message conveyed. An anonymous author in the anti-suffrage Truth declared he could ‘not agree that Miss Davison [was] a martyr’ as the ‘Christian ideal of martyrdom was quite different from this unfortunate woman’s dervish-like performance’ (‘Entre Nous’, 1522). In the same Truth issue, another ‘Militant “Anti”’ attended the funeral and criticised ‘the theatrical hearse, with its theatrical bodyguard’ (1534), a ‘tout ensemble that would in idea have delighted the heart of P. T. Barnum’ (1535). While The Suffragette reported press accounts describing audiences as ‘awed by the tragedy awed by the tribute’ (‘Passing’, 595), the Truth anti-militant regretted the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the procession (1535). The author still acknowledged a woman had died ‘for a cause that she believed to be just’ but the procession had been turned into ‘an excellent opportunity for advertising’ the WSPU (1535). The Edinburgh Evening News also highlighted how ‘the suffragettes have done their best to get a great advertisement out of the funeral’. The religious symbolism was perceived and transmitted by the organisation, but the newspaper doubted ‘the effect will be what [was] hoped for’ as ‘it [was] too much to expect the general public to look on her as a martyr. The attempt to exploit the public sympathy on the side of religion [was] more likely to arouse disapproval’. In The Suffragette audiences were successfully ‘able to see for themselves anew that the Suffrage movement [was] an indestructible force’ (‘Passing’ 595). However, anti-militant newspapers saw the transmission of such values as encouragement for imitators. The Truth’s ‘Militant “Anti”’ ironically noted ‘there [were] more Miss Davisons’—suffragettes influenced by the WSPU propaganda—and ‘a circus funeral may draw them into the charmed circle’ (1535). When an action similar to Davison’s happened, The Mail, a newspaper following the anti-militant stance of The Times, held the funeral procession accountable. On 19th June 1913, Harold Hewitt decided to rush to the racecourse at Ascot. While the newspaper acknowledged the man’s stance on suffrage was unknown,6 it also wrote that suggesting Davison’s funeral ‘may have helped to determine his crazy action [was] not absurd. All exhibitions of the sort appeal[ed] powerfully to the passions and the weaknesses of the half-sane, and tend[ed] to work them up into the state of dangerous exaltation which [led] straight to crime’ (‘Ascot’). Once praised for being a ‘fine piece of organisation’ (Daily News quoted in ‘Passing’), and then criticised for the ‘state of diseased emotionalism’ it inspired in people (‘Death’), the funeral sparked reactions for its Christian imagery. However, these reactions were not necessarily about beliefs but mostly due to the militancy guiding her deed and the WSPU’s portrayal of her martyrdom.

17To conclude, religious symbolism in the British women’s suffrage movement often relied on well-known imagery. A spiritual atmosphere imbued the movement going beyond its political purpose to illustrate its arguments. These two processions took place in the same period and accounted for the movement’s progression and organisations’ propaganda. The funeral drew on years of suffragette martyrdom and the Pilgrimage relied on advancing constitutional methods for the movement’s sake. While they hoped to re-awaken the imagination of their participants and audiences to promote the righteousness of their ‘Cause’, their integration of the Christian martyr, and evangelical tropes, the success of their transmission depended on internal and external incentives. Archival sources of the time highlighted their understanding of the religious symbols they deployed. The Pilgrimage’s religious symbolism might have been less pronounced had it not been for members part of religious leagues or the leader’s interest in developing the organisation’s spirit. The integration of Christian imagery in Davison’s funeral provided the organisation with the opportunity to transform the procession into a political demonstration. Suffragette martyrdom appeared as secular according to its definition, but the notion soon became soaked in the Christian understanding of the suffrage militancy Davison and other members had promoted during their involvement. The evangelical convictions of the Votes for Women’s editor could partially explain the evolution of religious symbols and concepts in the newspaper, but once established as a trope of suffragette militancy, The Suffragette edited by Christabel Pankhurst, took over the Christian symbolism despite its editor being little influenced by religious convictions (yet).

18Public space became a political platform for women to promote the suffrage movement, but though internal transmission was deemed successful, external transmission was limited. The funeral’s religious symbolism was mostly criticised for its glorification of martyrdom and militant methods. The Pilgrimage’s religious dimension was less criticised because it was less visible. Davison’s funeral demonstrated how a suffragette’s death could be used as a tool to attract public support, and yet, suffragettes continued to be imprisoned under the Cat and Mouse Act and be force-fed in prison. The pilgrimage gathered petitions all over the country to show Parliament women’s suffrage had national support, and yet, despite recognising the Pilgrimage had ‘a special claim on [his] consideration and stands upon another footing from similar demands’, H. H. Asquith also stated he did ‘not see [his] way to add anything material to what [he had] lately said in the House of Commons as to the intentions and policy of the Government’ (Asquith). While there is no doubt these two events demonstrated how the intense devotion of women to the same sacred political and spiritual purpose could be manifested, the religious symbolism they often relied on was overall influenced, integrated, and perceived by members themselves.

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1 See Tickner, Lisa. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907–14. Chatto & Windus, 1987; De Vries, Jacqueline. ‘Sounds Taken for Wonders: Revivalism and Religious Hybridity in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement’. Material Religion in Modern Britain: The Spirit of Things. Ed. Lucinda Matthew-Jones, Timothy Willem Jones. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015: 101‒23; Nelson, Carolyn Christensen. ‘The Uses of Religion in the Women’s Militant Suffrage Campaign in England.’ The Midwest Quarterly 51.3 (2010): 227‒40; Saunders, Robert. ‘“A Great and Holy War”: Religious Routes to Women’s Suffrage, 1909–1914*.’ The English Historical Review CXXXIV.571 (2019): 1471‒502.

2 Davison was then brought to Newcastle by train and buried at Morpeth.

3 Her new organisation, Votes for Women Fellowship, sent two representatives and offered a floral wreath symbolising sacrifice, womanhood, purity and dignity (‘Votes’).

4 Imprisoned in January 1910, Lytton saw ‘the shape of the three familiar crosses at the scene of Calvary, one in the centre and one on either side’ (276).

5 The Central Somerset Gazette also described pilgrims ‘suffragettes, members of the [NUWSS]’. In the Common Cause, a correspondent criticised the Gazette of ‘encourag[ing] the confusion’ as the already confused ‘man in the streets [thought] that every woman asking for votes for her sex has in her pocket a hammer wherewith to break his windows’ (Thompson).

6 It was later confirmed, Hewitt—though impressed by Davison’s funeral—was not a suffragist but had strong religious convictions.

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Chloé Clément, « Public Transmission, and Religious Symbolism in the British Women’s Suffrage Movement: The Cases of Emily Wilding Davison’s Funeral and the Pilgrimage of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 99 Printemps | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 13 juin 2024. URL :

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Chloé Clément

Chloé Clément is a PhD student in British History in the research unit CIRPaLL (Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur les Patrimoines en Lettres et Langues) at the University of Angers. Her research focuses on religious symbolism in the British women’s suffrage movement from 1860 to 1918.
Chloé Clément est une doctorante en civilisation britannique rattachée au CIRPaLL (Centre Interdisciplinaire de Recherche sur les Patrimoines en Lettres et Langues) à l’Université d’Angers. Sa thèse porte sur le symbolisme religieux dans le mouvement pour le droit de vote des femmes en Grande-Bretagne de 1860 à 1918.

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