When we think of the suffragettes, we think of Emmeline Pankhurst and her acerbic demand that “deeds not words” would be what brought the vote to women. Perhaps we consider Emily Davison, who dedicated her life to the cause of suffrage, and martyred herself for the cause by walking without fear or concern into the path of King George V’s horse, which resulted in her death. Of course, there were thousands of suffragettes, the women who demanded to be heard in streets, churches and government buildings. Hundreds were arrested, force fed, demeaned and abused on both the streets and in prisons for their cause, and we have forgotten them. We have not forgotten what they have done, but their faces merge into one homogenous mass; they are simply the suffragettes. We forget the women who made them.
Rosa May Billinghurst stands out from her fellow suffragettes in photographs. Born on 31 May 1875 in Lewisham, London, she was the second of nine children born to Henry Francombe Billinghurst and Rosa Ann Billinghurst, nee Brimsmead. May, as she was known, became paralysed after a bout of illness. She would regain the use of her upper body, but for the rest of her life, May’s legs would be strapped in irons to stabilise them, and she would rely on the use of a primitive wheelchair, then known as an invalid tricycle, to move around.
May Billinghurst was the disabled suffragette. Likely there were many more like her, but she stood out from the crowd around her in her long white coats, large hats and massive tricycle covered in ribbons in the purples and greens of the suffrage movement. She, like the many around her, helped bring women’s suffrage to the political stage, and she suffered for it just as much as any of her sisters.
In a contemporary setting, May was one of the most well-known militants of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), where she was known as “the Cripple Suffragette.” She made the decision to join the WSPU in her early twenties, after she became involved with a charity called the Greenwich and Deptford Union Work House. May was disgusted when she discovered the conditions that young women who had been abused by their husbands, raped, and left ill were forced to work in within factories. She wrote:
“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. I found that the man-made laws of marriage, parentage and divorce placed women in every way in a condition of slavery – and were as harmful to men by giving them power to be tyrants.”
May began her political career by joining the Women’s Liberal Association, where she heard noted suffragettes Millicent Fawcett, Charlotte Despard and Emmeline Pankhurst speak on women’s liberation, but left in 1907 when a branch of the WSPU opened in her local Lewisham. She drew great inspiration from Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter and a firebrand within the movement. She wrote of her:
“I wondered how the public could ever be made to think about it. In the midst of the hopelessness of it all Christabel Pankhurst sounded the war note of militancy and was imprisoned for her boldness, and the subject of votes for women was on every tongue.”
Throwing herself into the organisation, she helped to open their Greenwich branch, and was elected its honourary secretary. In the midst of this, she left the Liberal Party over their divided stance on the issue of women’s suffrage: while some of the party supported the movement, others believed that politics was the sphere of men, and the WSPU’s lawbreaking tactics diluted their cause and proved them to be “untrustworthy” when it came to matters of such importance.
May became a familiar face at WSPU rallies, and on 18 November 1910, she participated in a protest against Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who had quashed the Conciliation Bill that would have extended the right to vote to 1 million wealthy, property owning women in Britain and Ireland. The WSPU sent 300 women to protest Asquith’s decision, and in an act of hideous brutality, the police assaulted around 200 of these women, leading to the day becoming known as Black Friday.
May was one of the women assaulted by the police, who repeatedly knocked her from her wheelchair. She summarised the event in her own words in the Manchester Guardian:
“At first the police threw me out of the machine [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.”
Another suffragette said of the same incident:
“Her crutches were lodged on each side of her self-propelling invalid chair and when a meeting was being broken up or an arrest being made she would charge the aggressors at a rate of knots that carried all before her. When the police retaliated and tried to control this she ran the risk of being ejected on to the ground, where she was quite helpless. Of course she took the risk with her eyes open and when this happened, as it did on occasion, made full and unscrupulous use of her infirmities so as to obtain the maximum publicity for the cause.”
Her assault at the hands of the police only made her more determined to combat the injustice, and four days later, May was arrested for attempting to use her wheelchair as a battering ram to break up a group of police officers, but Holloway Prison has no evidence of her term on their records, meaning someone must have paid her fine to prevent her going to prison.
She would serve multiple prison terms for the cause, doing a month-long stint in Holloway for smashing a window in which she was sentenced to do hard labour in her wheelchair. Her final prison term began on 9 January 1913 after she destroyed the contents of a post box.
During her trial, she told the Old Bailey:
“The government authorities may further maim my body by the torture of forcible feeding as they are torturing weak women in prison at the present time. They may even kill me in the process for I am not strong, but they cannot take away my freedom of spirit or my determination to fight this good fight to the end.”
Beginning her eight months in prison, again in Holloway, May immediately went on hunger strike. The prison attempted to force feed her multiple times, sometimes so violently that it resulted in damage to her teeth and her cheek being cut open. She wrote:
“I just laid on my back and endured it all – on Sunday I was very weak and on Sunday night I tried to get out to the bell because my head was swimming round so I fell on the floor and fainted. My head was forced back and a tube jammed down my nose. It was the most awful torture. I groaned with pain and I coughed and gulped the tube up and would not let it pass down my throat. Then they tried the other nostril and they found that was smaller still and slightly deformed, l suppose from constant hay-fever. The new doctor said it was impossible to get the tube down that one so they jammed it down again through the other and I wondered if the pain was as bad as childbirth. I just had strength and will enough to vomit it up again and I could see tears in the wardresses’ eyes.”
MPs George Lansbury and Keir Hardie protested her treatment in the House of Commons, voicing the opinion of the prison doctor that continuing to force feed May would likely result in her having a heart attack. This lead to May being released from Holloway after ten days on the order of the Home Secretary. She would then begin campaigning to stop the force feeding of prisoners while continuing to fight for women’s suffrage.
Leaving Holloway, May returned to her mother’s house to recuperate. Her mother received an anonymous threat, which read:
“Do not allow your daughter to go out in the neighbourhood of Blackheath alone or she will be a worse cripple than she now is – as she will be treated as a coward (which she is considered to be) for not taking her punishment. If you can leave the neighbourhood do so as sooner or later she will be attacked (and possibly yourself as you are much disliked for being the mother of a coward).”
This did nothing to May’s sense of determination, and on 21 May 1914, she took part in a demonstration outside of Buckingham Palace. The protest became unruly, with the suffragettes facing off against 1500 policemen, and saw May again using her wheelchair as a weapon to drive through police lines and into officers. Once again, the police assaulted her. Suffragette Charlotte Drake, who stood with May in the protest, said:
“I was beside her. They threw us back, but we returned. Two policemen picked up the tricycle with Miss Billinghurst in it, turned it over and dropped her to the ground. The excitement gave me strength – I picked her up bodily and lifted her back. We straightened the machine as best we could, rested a little to rake breath and struggled on again.”
The War Effort
When the First World War began on 4 August 1914, the WSPU entered talks with the government, where the decision was made that the WSPU would end all militant activities and join the war effort, and the government would release all suffragettes from prison.
May moved from her beloved Lewisham at this time to live with her brother in Regent’s Park village but continued to contribute to women’s causes throughout her life. She donated to the Women’s Freedom League and Suffrage Fellowship. She took part in several other demonstrations throughout the war, and supported Emmeline Pankhurst in her call to allow women to work in industries dominated by men. She also assisted Christabel Pankhurst in her attempt to represent the Women’s Party in parliament.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally, after years of tireless protesting, gave women the right to vote. It did not give all women the right to vote – only those over 30 who held £5 of property, while also extending the rights of all men over 21 to vote. It would not be until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928’s passing that women would be on equal footing to men in terms of suffrage.
May died on 29 July 1953 of heart failure after pneumonia. She believed wholeheartedly in reincarnation and left her body to the London School of Medicine for Women. Her obituary in the Women’s Freedom League Bulletin said that she had “a strong sense of humour, even perhaps, a mischievous one … full of life and courage and not to mention jollity … [thinking] of this life as but one of many.”
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