After attending Kensington High School (1885–91) she won a place at Royal Holloway College to study literature but two years later she was forced to leave after her recently widowed mother was unable to find the £20 a term fees. Davison now found work as a governess before spending a term (April–June 1895) at St Hugh's Hall, and in the summer of 1895 achieved first-class honours in English in the Oxford University examination for women, though, as Oxford degrees were closed to women, this did not enable her to graduate.
In 1895 she began teaching at the Church of England College for Girls at Edgbaston. The following year she found employment at Seabury School, Worthing (1896–8). Eventually she raised enough money to return to university education. After graduating from University of London she obtained a post teaching the children of a family in Berkshire.
Emily joined the Women's Social and Political Union in 1906. She gradually became more and more involved in WSPU activities and in June 1908, was one of the chief stewards at a WSPU demonstration in London. The following year Emily gave up full-time teaching so that she could devote more of her time to the WSPU. Emily also became involved with the Workers' Educational Association.
Emmeline Pankhurst met Davison during this period: "Emily Wilding Davison was a character almost inevitably developed by a struggle such as ours. She was a B.A. of London University, and had taken first-class honours at Oxford in English Language and Literature. Yet the women's cause made such an appeal to her reason and her sympathies that she put every intellectual and social appeal aside and devoted herself untiringly and fearlessly to the work of the Union."
In March 1909, Emily Davison was arrested while attempting to hand a petition to the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. Emily was found guilty of causing a disturbance and sentenced to one-month imprisonment. Four months later she was in prison again for trying to get into a hall in London where David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was making a speech. Emily went on hunger strike and after five days she was released. In September 1909 she received a sentence of two months for stone throwing. Once again, she was released after going on hunger strike.
A few days after leaving prison, Emily Davison, Mary Leigh and Constance Lytton were caught throwing stones at a car taking David Lloyd George to a meeting in Newcastle. The stones were wrapped in Emily's favourite words: "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God." The women were found guilty and sentenced to one month's hard labour at Strangeways Prison. The women went on hunger strike but this time the prison authorities decided to force-feed the women. In an attempt to avoid force-feeding, Emily used prison furniture to barricade the door of her prison cell. A prison officer climbed a ladder and after forcing the nozzle of a hosepipe through a window, filled up the cell with water. Emily was willing to die, but before the cell had been completely filled with water the door was broken down.
In a letter to a friend Davison explained what it was like to be force-fed: "In the evening the matron, two doctors, and five or six wardresses entered the cell. The doctor said 'I am going to feed you by force.' The scene, which followed, will haunt me with its horror all my life, and is almost indescribable. While they held me flat, the elder doctor tried all round my mouth with a steel gag to find an opening. On the right side of my mouth two teeth are missing; this gap he found, pushed in the horrid instrument, and prised open my mouth to its widest extent. Then a wardress poured liquid down my throat out of a tin enamelled cup. What it was I cannot say, but there was some medicament, which was foul to the last degree. As I would not swallow the stuff and jerked it out with my tongue, the doctor pinched my nose and somehow gripped my tongue with the gag. The torture was barbaric."
Davison also tried to commit suicide. She later recalled: "In my mind was the thought that some desperate protest must be made to put a stop to the hideous torture, which was now our lot. Therefore, as soon as I got out I climbed on to the railing and threw myself out to the wire-netting, a distance of between 20 and 30 feet. The idea in my mind was one big tragedy may save many others. I realised that my best means of carrying out my purpose was the iron staircase. When a good moment came, quite deliberately I walked upstairs and threw myself from the top, as I meant, on to the iron staircase. If I had been successful I should undoubtedly have been killed, as it was a clear drop of 30 to 40 feet. But I caught on the edge of the netting. I then threw myself forward on my head with all my might. I know nothing more except a fearful thud on my head. When I recovered consciousness, it was to a sense of acute agony."
James Keir Hardie, the leader of the Labour Party, complained about the treatment of Emily Davison in the House of Commons. The general public appeared to agree that Davison had been badly treated. Emily decided took legal action against the men at Strangeways who had been responsible for the hosepipe incident. On 19th January 1910, Judge Parry pronounced in Emily's favour, awarding damages of forty shillings.
On Emily Davison's release she began working full-time for the Women's Social and Political Union and contributed articles and reviews to their newspaper, Votes for Women. In April 1911 when she spent the night in a cupboard near the crypt chapel in order that the census recorded it as her home.
Sylvia Pankhurst later described Davison as "tall and slender, with unusually long arms, a small narrow head and red hair. Her illusive, whimsical green eyes and thin, half-smiling mouth, bore often the mocking expression of the Mona Lisa". According to the authors of The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison (1988) she was a socialist and was an active member of the Workers' Educational Association and the Central Labour College.
The scale of her militant acts increased and in December 1911 she was arrested for setting fire to pillar-boxes. According to Sylvia Pankhurst this action was not approved by the WSPU. Vera Di Campli claims that "in keeping with her consistent rejection of authority, she now fell out of favour with the WSPU leadership over her independent and unauthorized programme of militant actions." Davison was sentenced to six months and during her spell in prison she went on two hunger strikes.
Emily Davison was now convinced that women would not win the vote until the suffragette movement had a martyr. Emily took the decision to draw attention to the suffragette campaign by jumping down an iron staircase. Emily landed on wire-netting, 30 feet below. This prevented her death but she suffered severe spinal injuries.
Once she had recovered her health, Emily Davison began making plans to commit an act that would give the movement maximum publicity. In June, 1913, she attended the most important race of the year, the Derby, with Mary Richardson: "A minute before the race started she raised a paper on her own or some kind of card before her eyes. I was watching her hand. It did not shake. Even when I heard the pounding of the horses' hoofs moving closer I saw she was still smiling. And suddenly she slipped under the rail and ran out into the middle of the racecourse. It was all over so quickly." Davison ran out on the course and attempted to grab the bridle of Anmer, a horse owned by King George V. The horse hit Emily and the impact fractured her skull and she died on 8th June without regaining consciousness.
Among the articles found in her possession were two WSPU flags, a racecard, and a return train ticket to Victoria Station. This has resulted in some historians arguing that she did not intend to kill herself. Sylvia Pankhurst has argued: "Emily Davison and a fellow-militant in whose flat she lived, she had concerted a Derby protest without tragedy - a mere waving of the purple-white-and-green at Tattenham Corner, which, by its suddenness, it was hoped would stop the race. Whether from the first her purpose was more serious, or whether a final impulse altered her resolve, I know not. Her friend declares she would not thus have died without writing a farewell message to her mother." Other research has indicated that Davidson intended to attach a WSPU scarf to the king's horse.
However, Emmeline Pankhurst believed that Davidson wanted to become a martyr. She wrote in her biography, My Own Story (1914): "Emily Davison clung to her conviction that one great tragedy, the deliberate throwing into the breach of a human life, would put an end to the intolerable torture of women. And so she threw herself at the King's horse, in full view of the King and Queen and a great multitude of their Majesties' subjects."
The historian, Martin Pugh, believes it is impossible to know if she intended to commit suicide: "Davison's detachment from the formal organisation complicates the task of explaining her motives... As a result no contemporary really knew whether Davison intended suicide. The evidence is inconclusive... Admittedly on two occasions she had thrown herself over the railings in Holloway prison (which were designed to prevent suicides) and she is on record as telling the prison doctor in June 1912 that 'a tragedy is wanted'. But what did that mean? Contemporary medical evidence commonly regarded women, and suffragettes in particular, as prone to hysteria and thus as suicidal."
Sylvia Pankhurst described the funeral in her book, The Suffrage Movement (1931): "A solemn funeral procession was organised to do her honour. To the militants who had prepared so many processions, this was the natural manifestation The call to women to come garbed in black carrying purple irises, in purple with crimson peonies, in white bearing laurel wreaths, received a response from thousands who gathered from all parts of the country. Graduates and clergy marched in their robes, suffrage societies, trade unionists from the East End, unattached people. The streets were densely lined by silent, respectful crowds. The great public responded to the appeal of a life deliberately given for an impersonal end. The police had issued a notice which was virtually a prohibition of the procession, but at the same time constables were enjoined to reverent conduct."
Although many suffragettes endangered their lives by hunger strikes, Emily Wilding Davison was the only one who deliberately risked death. However, her actions did not have the desired impact on the general public. They appeared to be more concerned with the health of the horse and jockey and Davison was condemned as a mentally ill fanatic. Non-militant women leaders such as Helena Swanwick denounced suffragette martyrdom as a "contrived and dishonest policy by women who, they felt, should be prepared to accept their punishment for acts of violence".
Martin Pugh has argued that the campaign for the vote was hurt by Davison's action: "The unfortunate Anmer had to be put down as a result of his injuries and, although one should not exaggerate the English sentimentally towards animals, it cannot be ignored. Moreover, although Davison had not targeted Anmer, some people took her intervention as an insult to the king. Finally, though Anmer was not likely to have won the race, those who had placed bets on the royal runner found it tempting to blame their disappointment on this suffragette outrage."