Overlooked No More: Rosa May Billinghurst, Militant Suffragette

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. It is also part of The Times’s continuing coverage of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote.

The inside of a prison was certainly not an ideal place to campaign for a national cause, but in Rosa May Billinghurst’s case it would have to do. It was March 1912, and Billinghurst, a British suffragette, had been sentenced to one month of hard labor for her role in a window-smashing campaign in which demonstrators destroyed property in popular neighborhoods of London to make a statement: Let women vote!

Even as she toiled in the prison yard, Billinghurst worked her cause, enlarging the movement by recruiting inmates to join her in the fight for women’s suffrage.

This wasn’t Billinghurst’s first time in jail, and it wouldn’t be her last. For many years she clashed with the police, joining riots and using other militant protest tactics dressed in the colors of the movement: purple for royalty, white for purity and green for hope.

Billinghurst, who went by her middle name, May, was born on May 31, 1875, in Lewisham, in southeastern England, the second of nine children of Henry and Rosa Ann Billinghurst. She contracted polio as a child and used a tricycle wheelchair for most of her life. As a young woman she took up social work, assisting women at a workhouse, an institution for people who could not support themselves. She also taught Sunday school.

She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, a group that endorsed militant tactics to further the cause of women’s rights, in 1907. By then the suffrage movement was in full force in Britain.

It had started in 1792, with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s book “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” which argued for men and women to be treated equally, a revolutionary concept at the time. The movement took on steam in the 1840s, when Chartists, members of a working-class movement, called for the passage of voting rights legislation.

Committees began to form across the region, and petitions with millions of signatures were submitted to Parliament. It wasn’t until 1869 that taxpaying women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections, but not in parliamentary elections.

By the end of the century, the committees had merged into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903, calling on its members to eschew peaceful protests (which were more common in the United States, where the activists were more often called suffragists) in favor of hunger strikes and even violence. Billinghurst started the organization’s Greenwich chapter. At protests, she was known to ram into police officers with her tricycle.

ImageBillinghurst in 1913 leading a procession of suffragettes. For years she used militant tactics to push for women’s equality.
Credit…London School of Economics

The women’s union suspended militant campaigning, however, in 1910 in anticipation of a vote on legislation known as the Conciliation Bill, which, if passed, would have allowed about a million women, mostly wealthy property owners, to vote in parliamentary elections.

But for Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, giving women the vote was a low priority. He was focused on passing another bill, the People’s Budget, which would impose a higher tax on the wealthy.

On what became known as Black Friday, Billinghurst, along with about 300 other suffragettes, gathered outside government buildings and demanded to speak with Asquith. When he refused, they tried to storm the buildings but were driven back by the police. Billinghurst was forcibly removed from her tricycle.

“At first, the police threw me out of the machine onto the ground in a very brutal manner,” she said in a police statement on Nov. 18, 1910. “Secondly, when on the machine again, they tried to push me along with my arms twisted behind me in a very painful position, with one of my fingers bent right back, which caused me great agony. 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, and left me to the crowd of roughs, who, luckily, proved my friends.”

This was not the last time Billinghurst clashed with law enforcement. In November 1911, she was among 220 women arrested for smashing windows with hammers and stones in a protest in Parliament Square against a bill that would give all men, not just property owners, the right to vote but would continue to exclude women. She was arrested again in March 1912 during a coordinated protest in which 150 women smashed windows across London.

From jail, she continued to push for women’s suffrage.

“Miss Billinghurst is here with her tricycle,” wrote Alice Ker, another imprisoned suffragette, in a letter to her daughter. “She has irons on each leg, and can only walk with crutches, her tricycle works with handles. She drives it round the yard at exercise time. It is painted in the colors, with a placard, Votes for Women, on the back of it.”

Billinghurst was arrested again in December 1912, this time on charges of damaging mailboxes in the Blackheath neighborhood of London. Pankhurst encouraged Billinghurst to represent herself in court, an opportunity she used to plead the case for women’s suffrage once again.

Credit…LSE

In 1913, the newspaper The Suffragette published the entire defense that Billinghurst had delivered to an all-male jury, titling it, “The Guilt Lies on the Shoulders of the Government.”

“This is a women’s war,” she told the jurors, “in which we hold human life dear and property cheap, and if one has to be sacrificed for the other, then we say let property be destroyed and human life be preserved.”

“We are not hooligans seeking to destroy,” she added, “but we mean to wake the public mind from its apathy.”

She was convicted and sentenced to eight months in prison. She responded by going on a hunger strike, and in a letter to her mother wrote of being force fed. When her health declined, Pankhurst and others secured her release.

But Billinghurst immediately returned to the cause. In May 1914, The Suffragette reported that the police had again attacked her and destroyed her tricycle after she chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace.

While her bodily weaknesses had been exploited, Billinghurst said, her inner strength would never be shaken.

“The government may further maim my crippled body by the torture of forcible feeding, as they are torturing weak women in prison today,” she said in her trial statement. “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.”

She would go on to join the Women’s Freedom League, which encouraged resisting taxation and boycotting the national census, and the Suffragette Fellowship, which celebrated the accomplishments of suffragettes.

Victory for them came first in 1918, with the passage of the Representation of the People Act, which gave property-owning women age 30 and older the right to vote in England. Ten years later, women 21 and older were given the same voting rights as men.

Billinghurst died on July 29, 1953, at 78. She was survived by Beth Billinghurst, who said Billinghurst had adopted her in 1933. She is the author of a memoir, “Rosa May Billinghurst: Beth’s Untold Story,” which was published last year.

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