Faith and feminism: Channel 4 accused of blind spot

by - 6th June 2013

Presenter Clare Balding: Promised to ‘digging deep’. Photo: Phill Fisk, Channel 4

Media producers are operating a ‘religion blind spot’ in current commemorative programmes about the suffragette movement, it's claimed.

TV and radio programmes such as Clare Balding's Secrets of a Suffragette on Channel 4 marking the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison's death are failing to note the place of faith in these campaigners' lives, say historians and feminists.

Suffragette Emily Davison. Photo: WikimediaThis week marks 100 years since Davison – one of the most famous members of the suffragette movement – stepped in front of the king's horse at the Epsom Derby in a high-risk publicity stunt that ended by making her the movement’s first martyr.

The programme, which featured on Sunday, 26 May, and promised to ‘dig deep into Emily’s life story’ is one of several shows and articles on the suffragettes’ centenary that did not dig deep enough, says Dr Lisa Nolland who studied the religious roots of the movement.

The Bristol-based author told Lapido that the connection between faith and feminism had been lost in the media portrayals.

‘Women would never have got the vote without the determination of Christian advocates in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century,’ she said.

‘I have no idea why we never talk about this in the media and the church. The ducking denial and seeming ignorance are hard to understand.’


The road to Davison's tragic end at Epsom was marked by several controversies. Her prison record included months inside for obstruction, throwing stones, breaking windows at the House of Commons, setting fire to post boxes in London and assaulting a vicar whom she mistakenly thought was David Lloyd George.

Her dedication to the fight for women's suffrage came from a deeply-held fury at the repression of women in a world of callous disregard by men.

She was one of the rare women to have graduated with a BA at London University and later a first-class degree from Oxford – not recognized at the time by the university.

But little is remembered about her Christian faith, or the Christian roots and history of the suffrage movement as a whole, beginning in Britain with the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s which denied women protection of their bodies from state interference.

The laws rendered single women suspect, assumed to be prostitutes and liable to forced vaginal examination.

If suspected of disease, they could be thrown into ‘lock hospitals’ until cured.  Many died there having been forced into prostitution often through spousal abandonment and a bar on women working.

The horror of these acts galvanised the evangelical movement – the most organized body of women in the country - to fight for the ability to legislate for their own lives.


Caught on film: the moment the King's horse ran Emily Davison down at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Photo: Getty Images

Davison’s experiences of barbaric treatment during nine stints in prison – including being force-fed – only served as fuel for the fire and spurred her on to make the ultimate sacrifice.

A collection of her correspondences currently held at The Women's Library in Aldgate, London give some insight into the moral and intellectual basis of her commitment to the campaign.

In her paper The Price of Liberty, which was published posthumously in 1914, and read on the film by suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford, she wrote: 'To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last and consummate sacrifice of the militant! She will not hesitate even unto this last.'

Nick Catliff, executive producer at Lion TV which created the Secrets of a Suffragette programme, played down Davison’s motivation.  He told Lapido: 'In a film of 47 minutes duration that focused on a forensic investigation, Emily's education and radicalisation and the broader political issues that confronted the Suffragette movement, it was difficult to include every aspect of Emily's life.

'Whilst not focusing on Emily's undoubted Christian convictions, the quote from Emily from 1912 delivered by historian Elizabeth Crawford in the film should leave few people in any doubt of Emily's moral compass.'

A brief concluding shot of her gravestone shows the startling inscription: ‘Valiant in Courage and Faith’ – but the implications of this are not discussed by the presenter.


Dr Jenny Daggers, associate professor in theology at Liverpool Hope University, said: 'Suffragists invested the vote with “sacramental” significance, and saw themselves as being in a salvific role, bringing justice through women's contribution to public life.

‘The suffragettes' choice of Joan of Arc as their emblem added a religious resonance. This symbolism was continued in the formation of the St Joan's International Alliance from the previous Catholic Women's Suffrage Society.’

Author and academic Lisa Nolland, whose doctoral research on the life of Victorian feminist Josephine Butler was published in 2000, said it was Christian faith that spurred the early suffragettes, and film-makers and the church should be asked why they obscured the story.

‘The Christian ideal of human equality, justice and dignity was crucial as a basis for at least some Victorian suffragettes, certainly for [Josephine] Butler, who invested in this first wave feminism cause as she did in so many others.

‘I think women would have gotten the vote without the church, but I do not think they would have gotten the vote without (for some of their leaders) Christianity.’

Feminist Natalie Collins, who works to prevent domestic violence against women, told Lapido: 'It is really sad so little is known about the faith of individual suffragettes and of the Christian roots of the suffragette movement.  I believe this is, in part, due to facets within the church continuing to reject equality and perpetuate patriarchy and, in part, due to the secularisation of feminism.’

Dr Rachel Jordan national adviser for mission and evangelism at the Church of England studied the impact of culture on society and women's ministry in the first half of the twentieth century for her doctorate.

She said that not only was the church an influence on the suffragettes, but the movement had a big impact on the church. 'The influence of feminism on the church should not be underestimated,’ she added.

‘The nineteenth century view was that women were actually less intelligent, and were sick because they had big hearts while men had big brains.'