Rosa May Billinghurst: The Disabled Suffragette
As we celebrate the centenary of some women winning the right to vote in Britain in 1918, it’s an opportunity to highlight some of the lesser known figures of the Suffragette movement. Rosa May Billinghurst is one of these lesser known, but no less important, figures who campaigned under the ‘votes for women’ slogan.
Commonly referred to as the “cripple Suffragette” by both the press and her peers, Billinghurst was born on the 31st May 1875 in Lewisham. Having survived polio as a child and left being unable to walk, she used a modified tricycle to get around. As a young woman, she participated in social work in a Greenwich workhouse, as well as teaching in a Sunday School and joining the Band of Hope.
Billinghurst became interested in politics and the women’s suffrage movement, joining the Women’s Liberal Association prior to becoming a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907. She even founded the Greenwich branch of the WSPU in 1910 where she was their first secretary.
The same year as she founded the Greenwich WPSU, Billinghurst took part in the infamous Black Friday demonstrations. Many of the women protesting were assaulted, and Billinghurst was no exception as she was thrown from her adapted tricycle and arrested. In the evidence collected by the WSPU to be presented to the Parliamentary Conciliation Committee for Women’s Suffrage, Billinghurst recalled that she was thrown out of her tricycle “in a very brutal manner” by the police and left amongst the crowd.
During the campaign for women’s right to vote she would be arrested several more times, including for her involvement in the window smashing campaign in 1912. Charged with damaging letter boxes in Deptford in December 1912, Billinghurst was sentenced to eight months in prison. In a defiant response to this, she went on hunger strike and was force fed, which led to her becoming so ill she was released two weeks after her imprisonment.
Again, Billinghurst did not allow this to deter her campaigning efforts, and she continued to support the WSPU’s campaign. In May 1913 she chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace, and in June of the same year she took part in Emily Davidson’s funeral procession with her tricycle dressed in white.
Her campaigning efforts paused as she supported the Pankhurst’s in prioritising the war effort over the campaign for women’s suffrage. Following the Representation of the People Act (1918), Billinghurst assisted with Christabel Pankhurst’s election campaign in Smethwick the same year.
Although Billinghurst often caused a stir when campaigning for women’s suffrage whilst using her mobility aid, she is not the only known disabled Suffragette. Adelaide Knight, who became leader of the first East London Suffragettes, was also a disabled activist. Knight used crutches and a walking stick after a childhood injury, and is also another example of a working-class Suffragette.
Disabled women have often been erased from the history of women’s suffrage, in a similar way to women of colour and working-class women. The Representation of the People Act (1918) only gave some women the right to vote, and many more women had to wait until the Representation of the People Act (1928) until they were enfranchised. However, many disabled people, particularly those with learning disabilities, still struggle with trying to exercise their right to vote today.
This centenary, it’s important that we remember the histories of the lesser known figures of the suffrage movement, and that we continue to engage with ensuring people who are able to vote can do so.