Rosa May Billinghurst (1875-1953)
Due to an illness, Rosa “May” Billinghurst became completely paralyzed at 5 months old. Fortunately she was born into an extremely wealthy family. Her mother, whose wealth came from Brinsmead Pianos, married a banker. When someone becomes disabled, especially in the past, wealth has a significant impact on one’s chances of living within society or even surviving at all.
Bililinghurst’s family made sure she got the care that she needed and she was able to regain the use of her upper body. However, she would never walk on her own. She had a custom made tricycle wheel-chair for most of her ambulatory needs. Of course, this is decades before anything in society was handicap accessible. Even with the tricycle and family resources, it took a lot to navigate the world so she was taught at home. She was not able to go to university because of her disability.
Her younger sister, Alice, encouraged May to join her in doing social work down at the Greenwich and Deptford Union Workhouse which was a traditional poor house for the sick and indigent. The trauma of seeing abject poverty and the 1907 arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst helped stir her drive to join the British suffrage movement.
Billinghurst is quoted as saying, “My heart ached [for the people she had met] 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.”
She was first arrested in 1910 during the “Black Friday” demonstration. This was a violent event when 153 women were arrested and 3 women actually died. Police threw Billinghurst out of her chair and onto the ground. The next time she was arrested she actually used her wheelchair to defiantly charge at the police. On March 1, 1912, she took part in the window smashing campaign during which 150 women smashed shop and office windows in London’s west end. She was sentenced to one month of hard labor but the guards didn’t know what to do with her so they didn’t give her any work. In December of 1912, she and several others vandalized mailboxes by pouring a “sticky brown fluid” into them thus damaging the mail inside. She was sentenced to 8 months. She immediately went on a hunger strike. Authorities attempted to force feed her but after hours of failed attempts, they stopped for fear of accidentally killing her. They released her after two weeks. She continued to demonstrate publicly, even chaining herself to a rail at Buckingham Palace, but she was never arrested again.