Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

 

Rosa May Billinghurst


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“I remember hearing startling stories of her running battles with the police,” said a veteran suffragette of Rosa May Billinghurst. “Her crutches were lodged on each side of her self-propelling invalid chair, and when a meeting was broken up or an arrest being made, she would charge the aggressors at a rate of knots that carried all before her.”

Known as “the cripple suffragette,” Billinghurst was born in Lewisham, London in 1875. A childhood bout of polio left her paralyzed. Throughout her youth, she and her sister Alice worked with underprivileged children, inmates at workhouses, and local sex workers. These experiences, and the injustices Billinghurst witnessed, informed her interest in women’s suffrage and her decision to join the Women’s Liberal Association, and later the Lewisham branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Undeterred, she was back in the action again only days later, now prepared to use her tricycle as a battering ram.

Billinghurst, in her three-wheeled chair, was a frequent sight at peaceful protests organized by the WSPU. However, she was no stranger to the more militant protests—and the police. During a 1910 incident, the police temporarily subdued Billinghurst by throwing her out of her tricycle “in a very brutal manner,” as she recounted later, and forcing her arms behind her back. Police disabled her tricycle and left her “in the middle of a hooligan crowd,” she said. Undeterred, she was back in the action again only days later, now prepared to use her tricycle as a battering ram.

Billinghurst’s first arrest was in 1911, charged with obstructing police during a Parliament Square demonstration. She was also involved in the WSPU’s window-smashing campaign in 1912, a tactic meant to pressure members of parliament to give women the vote in an upcoming bill. She carried rocks on her lap, secreted away beneath the blanket over her legs. During a 1913 demonstration, Billinghurst chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace. She endured several prisons terms, some as long as one month of hard labor. Like Sylvia Pankhurst, Billinghurst suffered forced feedings while incarcerated that left her unwell and with broken teeth. 

Yet, Billinghurst’s dedication to the cause, and particularly the plight of the poor and working class, never wavered. She died in 1953 and left her body to science. In 2018, a statue of Millicent Fawcett, a suffragist leader, was unveiled in Parliament Square. A list of 59 individuals who fought for women’s suffrage appear on the plinth. Among them is Rosa May Billinghurst.