The Cripple Suffragette: Rosa May Billinghurst
Updated: Oct 11, 2021
In the last few years, it has been brilliant to read more and learn more about Rosa May Billinghurst, also known as The Cripple Suffragette. Thanks to a renewed interest in the Suffragettes (what with the 100 year anniversary of some women being given the right to vote in 2018) and in remarkable women in history, there have been a number of articles and even a play called May (which I frustratingly didn't get to see when it was here in Bristol).
She was, and I can't state this enough, incredibly cool.
Not just because she was a Suffragette, since I believe the notion of Suffragettes = good, Suffragists = wimpy and the rest of the country = bad is a bit simplistic BUT THAT'S BESIDES THE POINT.
Because she was a badass disabled woman who used her mobility aids and disability to her advantage when it was necessary.
The theory goes that at the start of the First World War, the suffragette movement pressed pause on setting fire to letterboxes, to support the much more wholesome activity of setting fire to Germany. Putting down their banners and chains for the sake of the war that they couldn't vote for cemented their usefulness and was the catalyst needed to prove to the public that (some) women deserved the vote. May Billinghurst was no exception.
Polio in childhood caused her ongoing weakness in her legs, and she used a mixture of crutches and a tricycle throughout her life. Joining the WSPU (Women's Social and Political Union, the one that became known as the Suffragettes) in 1907, she soon became a well known face and frequently participated in even their most violent protests. The WSPU were well known for their fearless use of violence when they thought it was necessary, but also more atypical methods. At one protest in 1909, a woman in a wheelchair (thought to be Billinghurst, as a well known "cripple protester") distracted police horses by stroking them and was bundled into a van. Unfortunately, either she wasn't arrested at that point or it wasn't written down, as the first evidence we have of an arrest was in 1911, after she set up the Greenwich branch of the WSPU in 1910.
She was arrested for obstructing police officers in her wheelchair and they had tried all sorts of tricks to make her shut up before arresting her, which they employed on Black Friday (not a pre-Christmas sale). She detailed the actions extensively such as leaving her in side alleys with the air of her tires let out and on one occasion at least, throwing her out of her wheelchair "in a very brutal manner". Black Friday was named so due to the sheer amount of violence towards the protesters, much of it sexual in nature and plenty of it done by the police.
She soon wised up to these tactics and decided to use part of her mobility aid collection (we all have one) to her advantage. With a pair of crutches and her hand powered tricycle, she fashioned a pointed battering ram to repeatedly charge at the rows of police officers like an aggressive game of 10 pin bowling: civil disobedience edition.
(May the Cripple 1-0 The Ableds)
Unfortunately, or as anticipated, this ended her "not being arrested" streak.
Oddly, even though she was arrested in 1911 her name wasn't added to a government list of all the suffragettes who had been arrested. Maybe for the same reason that a newspaper, after her first well documented arrest in 1912, referred to her only as "a cripple".
That arrest was for the WSPU's well prepared window smashing campaign. They had been trained on the best way to smash windows, given hammers and told to get on with it. Although the documentation says that 150 women were given hammers and 220 were arrested so I can only assume that 70 women brought their own hammers from home.
This led to her first of a few stints in prison, with a bunch of guards who had no idea what to do with a disabled woman who had just been sentenced to a month of hard labour. So they left her alone.
(May the Cripple 2-0 The Ableds)
She was force fed a number of times, but became friendly with a lot of the other prisoners, taking letters out for them to the outside world when she was released. After the Parliament Act in 1918 gave some women the vote, she retired from activism but was still a recognisable member of the Greenwich community.
But she was never more recognisable than when she was either chained to something shouting or being awkwardly avoided by the police who didn't know what to do about this disabled woman.
An example we can all aspire to.