Nearly a century ago, one Emily Wilding Davison unfurled the purple, white and green colours of the Suffragette flag and then threw herself under the galloping hooves of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. She died of her injuries four days later without recovering consciousness. The jockey, Herbert Jones, who suffered concussion and shoulder injuries in the collision, saw his career go downhill from there on. He committed suicide in 1951, having said several times that he had always been haunted by Davison’s face.
One notable point about that famous 1913 Epsom Derby was the reaction of the (then male-dominated) media. Most newspapers gushed over the “most wonderful derby” because it was won by a 100 to 1 runner. Davison’s act appears as an afterthought — “King’s horse injured” merits higher placement as a strap-line under the headline.
Davison was one of the more unruly elements of a somewhat radical movement lobbying for women’s right to vote and, ironically, the Epsom incident was one in a string of dramatic gestures to get the cause noticed (throwing metal bombs, chaining herself to railings in public places were among the others). Tragically, the general reaction to her suicidal protest ultimately did the cause more harm than good.
The overall feeling you get reading the archives of those times is that the often lawless method of protest by this women’s franchise lobby weakened a perfectly-legitimate agenda and strengthened the prevailing male prejudice that women were a damn nuisance, incapable of responsible behaviour. King George V’s diary entry for the day grumbles about his ill-luck at the races and doesn’t even mention her. Queen Mary’s letter of condolence to their jockey was to describe Davison as a “brutal lunatic woman”. Even Davison’s mother scolded her daughter for this “dreadful act” in a letter she never got to read. Indeed, at the time, the term Suffragettes had a slightly negative connotation on a par with “nigger” or “homo”.
No one will deny that the Suffragette movement kept alive the issue of women’s franchise in the public discourse. But it is worth remembering that the path to universal franchise in Britain was paved as much by the sterling role women played during World War I when their men were dying in the trenches (proving that, far from being troublesome, women were capable of useful contributions to the economy). Then too, the initial recognition in 1918 was grudging, allowing only women over 30 the right to vote in Parliamentary elections. Britain introduced universal franchise in 1928, fully 15 years after Davison’s death.
In some ways, Davison’s Epsom adventure has a — fortunately less fatal — parallel in last week’s drama over the Women’s Reservation Bill. The disruptions in Parliament and the multi-partisan quid pro quo that the UPA’s floor managers forged to get it passed in the Rajya Sabha and tabled in the Lok Sabha have evoked almost similar reactions of all-round exasperation that is likely to detract from the intent of the Bill.
Given the huge administrative complications that the legislation is bound to cause once it is finally notified — reserving 30 per cent of the seats by rotation alone will be a subject of fierce controversy — it would be all too easy for men to resent this quite unnecessary privilege for women.
More to the point, the Bill runs the danger of weakening the more serious cause of gender equality that it seeks to achieve. This is the biggest danger if the Bill is passed. Several prominent women in corporate India qualified their approval of the Bill by saying it makes sense only if it forces through legislation that strengthens women’s rights. But as this newspaper has argued, reserving seats in Parliament is no guarantor of gender equality. The danger, instead, is that it could eventually create a wrongful sense of entitlement where it is least needed.
In societies like India’s, there is certainly a case for affirmative action to rebalance social prejudices. The question is how it is applied. Reserving seats in primary and secondary schools for poor girl children or subsidising their education and health care through direct cash transfers would be a far more enlightened way of balancing the gender bias than reserving seats in Parliament or jobs in corporations. Armed with education and access to reasonable health care, women would be in a far stronger position to play a meaningful role in society — and, indeed, to protect their rights.
Instead, we are already hearing more voices demanding reservations for women in corporate boards. A more ill-thought suggestion is hard to find. Corporate boards determine a company’s success, so it needs to be staffed by people who are able, irrespective of their gender. The same logic applies to Parliament, a law-making body in which the premium should be — theoretically at least — on ability rather than gender. But the stubborn-ness of the Congress party high command in forcing the Bill to be tabled in Parliament is likely to end up reinforcing male chauvinism.