Suffragette Spotlight: Rosa May Billinghurst

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Photo courtesy of LSE Library

As we look forward to our upcoming Suffrage Centenary Celebration at Glasgow’s People’s Palace Museum (26th and 27th May 1-4pm), we’ve decided to blog about some of the inspiring women who fought for women’s suffrage. Today, we’d like to tell you about suffragette Rosa May Billinghurst.

Rosa May Billinghurst was born in London in 1875, contracted polio as a child, and was consequently a wheelchair user, dubbed by the press as ‘The Cripple Suffragette’. She worked with her sister to rehabilitate prostitutes and was inspired to become more involved in women’s rights. She said:

‘My heart ached and I thought surely if women were consulted in the management of the state happier and better conditions must exist for hard-working sweated lives such as these. It was gradually unfolded to me that the unequal laws which made women appear inferior to men were the main cause of these evils.’

She attended talks by Millicent Fawcett (whose statue was recently unveiled in London) and the Pankhursts, and became an active member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), organising campaigns and meetings. Billinghurst was at the November 1910 demonstration known as Black Friday, where she says:

‘At first the police threw me out of the machine [her wheelchair] on to the ground in a very brutal manner. Secondly when on the machine again they tried to push me along with my arms twisted behind me in a very painful position. Thirdly they took me down a side road and left me in the middle of a hooligan crowd, first taking all the valves out of the wheels and pocketing them so that I could not move the machine.’

At a demonstration shortly afterwards she turned the tables on her aggressors, using her wheelchair as a ram to push through a police cordon, and was arrested. She became increasingly militant, and in 1912 she was arrested for window–smashing, and sentenced to a month in Holloway prison. In 1913 she destroyed the contents of a letterbox and was sentenced to eight month’s imprisonment, and immediately went on hunger strike. The authorities, against the advice of her doctor, attempted to force-feed her, damaging her teeth in the process. The Home Secretary ordered her release after ten days, fearing that she might die in custody otherwise. Billinghurst, undeterred, began campaigning against force-feeding, continued fighting for votes for women, and was involved in the 1914 battle outside Buckingham Palace, between suffragettes and 1,500 policemen.

With the onset of the war, and after negotiations with the WSPU, the government released all suffragettes from prison, and in 1918 women of property over the age of thirty were granted the vote. Ten years later, this vote was extended to all British women over twenty-one years old, regardless of property. As far as Billinghurst was concerned, the campaign was not over. She continued to work with women’s societies, such as the Suffrage Fellowship and the Women’s Freedom League throughout her life, and when she died in 1953 of heart failure, she donated her body to the London school of Medicine for Women.

Keep an eye on our website for more blogs like this one, or follow us on Twitter @transatlanticladies using the hashtag #TLWsuffrage. And if you want to learn more about ground-breaking suffragettes, make your own rosettes, and learn about women and the vote, join us at the People’s Palace for an afternoon of crafts, talks, and a look at Glasgow’s suffrage collections!

Saskia

For more on Billinghurst see:

http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-63834?rskey=nofOpm&result=1

http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/rosa-may-billinghurst-suffragette-campaigner-cripple/

https://www.catfordcentral.com/rosa-may-billinghurst-suffragette-and-womens-rights-activist/

https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/rosa-may-billinghurst-disabled-suffragette-abused-police-force-fed-prison/

 

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