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The example of Edith Cavell proves a woman can sacrifice herself and be proud of it

Despite what Germaine Greer says, true liberation comes from self-sacrifice

By on Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Emily Davison throwing herself under the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913

Emily Davison throwing herself under the King's horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913

Yesterday was the centenary of the day in June 1913 that the suffragette Emily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse at Epsom during the Derby. She died of her injuries four days later. Germaine Greer, well-known for her feminist views, famously articulated in The Female Eunuch (1970), wrote an interesting article about Davison for the Telegraph on June 1.

She starts out by writing that “[Davison] is generally believed to have given her life for the cause of women’s suffrage.” Greer then queries this, suggesting that Davison might not have meant to die (she had bought a ticket for a dance the same evening), but simply acted impulsively to draw attention to her cause, but without thinking of the likely consequences.

The article draws the sensible conclusion that, given earlier self-destructive acts in Davison’s life, she is a somewhat ambivalent “martyr.” But Greer’s last sentence rather pulled me up short: “A woman’s urge to self-sacrifice should not be celebrated, but resisted as destructive and irrational.”

This is not only a large generalisation but it makes no distinction between acts of folly (such as Davison’s) and acts of love. I think Greer’s powerful feminist instincts have got the better of her considerable intelligence here: does she really believe that woman’s “urge to self-sacrifice” is of itself a bad thing, or is she mixing up one of the noblest instincts of mankind with her perception of a “doormat role”, where women are regarded as simply down-trodden, passive victims of men?

Greer has no children of her own; but as nearly all mothers know, raising children patiently and lovingly for many years, which is a fundamental part of motherhood, is almost all about self-sacrifice. (I don’t exclude the sacrifices made by men, obviously; I simply focus on women because Greer does so in her article.)

When I read her account of poor, deluded Emily Davison’s life and death, I immediately thought of another woman of that same era, also single, also dedicated to a cause, who was also to die violently for what she believed in: I am referring to Edith Cavell, the English matron of a hospital in Brussels who was shot for treason by a German firing squad in October 1915.

Cavell sacrificed the possibility of marriage and family to pursue a nursing vocation; she also sacrificed the chance of retiring back to England on a matron’s pension at the outbreak of war in 1914 in order to stay and nurse the war wounded – of both sides. Finally, this decision to remain in the war zone was to mean the sacrifice of her life.

A devout Christian, the night before her death she told the Anglican chaplain in Brussels that “patriotism is not enough” – a very Christian idea but almost unheard of during WW1 when patriotic sentiments naturally dominated.

There was nothing irrational or suicidal in Cavell’s self-sacrifice; she is a splendid example of Christian love, reflecting centuries of countless other lives of like generosity, in imitation of Christ’s own sacrifice on Calvary.

I wish Greer would bring her intellectual energy to bear on the lives of women who have risen above the narrow politicisation of their sex (which is what feminism is about) to show that true liberation comes, paradoxically, with self-sacrifice. Perhaps she could start with the Queen, another dedicated woman, who has been quietly steadfast to her oath of service to her people, made 60 years ago this week.

  • Lazarus

    One of my treasured possessions is the ‘Edith Cavell’ edition of the Imitation of Christ, a facsimile of the copy she had with her during her last hours, published in 1920, reproducing her marginal notes.

    As the foreword (by the Anglican Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle) says: ‘Reader, let us once more turn the pages of the Imitation, and once more ponder over the sweet secret of a holy humble life, spent in the Saviour’s service.’

  • Benedict Carter

    One of the boarding houses of my school was named after Edith Cavell. A very English and very brave lady.

    I cannot admire in the same way Lilian Lenton, my mother’s aunt, who as one of the radical suffragettes burned down Kew Gardens in 1913. A happy and committed arsonist, she was in prison more often than not and it’s a great pity she didn’t stay there. Unfortunately she had a knack of escaping at regular intervals.

    People laud the suffragettes today, but I don’t know why. They were actually a radical middle class movement most of whose members were against the vote being given to working class women.

    The BBC, Guardian and the luvvies think they’re great. Which tells you all you need to know.

  • Caroline Farrow

    Excellent, well put Francis. You speak for so many women readers.

    Of course the other sacrifice is one of physical surrender in the act of pregnancy and childbirth. This is why it is so important that pro-lifers recognise and support women in pregnancy instead of falling into the trap of treating pregnancy like it is a condition that prevents women from functioning like men.

  • Guest

    This is a good article. I can’t agree with the last line, though.

    Whereas some European monarchs have at least temporarily abdicated rather than give their assent to immoral laws, I can’t think of a single thing the Queen has done in opposition to the liberal onslaught in Great Britain.

  • Benedict Carter

    Exactly. She didn’t oppose the abortion laws at all. She takes her service very seriously, but for a Catholic her record is horribly blemished; and I don’t think saying “It’s the Constitution, she has to agree” cuts it.