Rosa May Billinghurst was born in 1875 in Lewisham, England into a middle-class family. When she was 5 months old she survived polio, which left her unable to walk. She wore leg-irons and used modified hand-tricycle. Her family paid for her basic education, however, her disability made it impossible for her to attend the university. Despite the difficulties, she was a very active political campaigner for women’s rights.
Billinghurst and her sister Alice worked on the streets with prostitutes and quickly after that she became politically active. She joined the Women’s Liberal Association and later in 1907, she became a member of the militant suffragette Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The same year, she founded the Greenwich WSPU and took part in the “Black Friday” infamous demonstration, where she was thrown from her tricycle and arrested.
During the campaigning, she was arrested several times. In 1911, she was arrested in Parliament Square and sentenced to five days in prison for obstructing the police. Moreover, in 1912 she was sentenced to eight months after being found guilty of firebombing Deptford pillar boxes. On this occasion, she went on a hunger strike and was forced to fed. After her health worsens, she was released.
In 1913, during another protest, she chained herself and her chair to Buckingham Palace. After the First World War and following the Representation of People Act in 1918 which gave some women the right to vote, she assisted with Christabel Pankhurst’s election campaign.
After women’s suffrage had been achieved, Billinghurst stopped being politically active and there is not a lot of information about her further life.
Although Rosa May Billinghurst, was one of the most known disabled suffragettes, she was not the only one. In a lot of cases, disabled women are often erased from history and also the present. Therefore, it is important to also celebrate lesser-known figures and their benefits to society.
Written by WAVE Intern Mária Trubanová