On February 6th we celebrated #Vote100, to commemorate 100 years since women first won the right to vote in UK Parliamentary elections. We spoke of the courageous women who fought and campaigned for many years to achieve this right to vote and paved the way for universal women’s suffrage. The media was filled with countless stories of famous ordinary women who sacrificed their freedoms, sometimes even their lives, for women’s equality.
As the images of suffragette parades and protests were shared widely throughout the day, I looked at them with both pride and sadness. On the one hand, I am honoured, as an activist, to follow in the footsteps of these women. Their movement was a watershed moment for the fight for justice and equality across all areas of our lives, an idea that is at the heart of the Trailblazers’ ethos.
However, I have always felt a sense of alienation when we talk about mainstream movements and protests. After all, the ability to attend a protest, banners and placards and megaphones in hand, is often seen as a rite of passage for many people who choose to dedicate themselves to fighting for their beliefs through activism. But there are those of us who, like me, are often excluded from discussions of equality or face physical barriers to our inclusion in these movements. While we watch our sisters march for their rights, we often fight sitting on the sidelines.
But something changed this year. Amongst the coverage of women suffragettes in the media, I came across the story of Rosa May Billinghurst.
Now, Rosa was a suffragette like many others. But she didn’t walk in the suffragette parades – she wheeled. The first image I saw of her was her using an adapted tricycle to march alongside other women. She was labelled the “cripple suffragette”, and her presence on wheels attracted attention to the protests that she attended.
Not only did Rosa May Billinghurst take an active part in the demonstrations, but her actions were often violent and attention-grabbing. She chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace, and she was arrested for obstructing police at a demonstration, damaging letterboxes, and taking part in the window smashing campaign of 1912. She even used her tricycle to drive into policemen, an action that the police later used as justification for her rough arrest and treatment.
Seeing an image of a woman with a physical disability becoming a suffragette and taking such an active part in one of the biggest movements for women’s rights in modern times was hugely important to me. By including and celebrating the voice of someone that I can identify with, it was an acknowledgement that my story exists and is equally as important within the movement.
Social change requires diversity. It means intentionally including people who are different from the mainstream, dominant perspective. In the case of women’s rights, it means including women from every background, orientation, race, culture, class and ability. I have spoken recently about my disappointment in the often unconscious exclusion of women with disabilities from many movements and discussions surrounding sexual assault, harassment and violence. Making a conscious effort to include those who tend to be left out of the conversation ensures that our efforts have the most meaningful impact.
Now, in the 21st century, women are unfortunately facing many of the same challenges that our ancestors faced. It’s disgraceful that in this day and age, there are people with disabilities, including women, that still face physical barriers to their right to vote. However, knowing that people like Rosa May Billinghurst had such an active part and platform within the movement gives me hope that women with disabilities can continue to stand, sit, walk and wheel alongside other women, supporting each other’s causes and working together in solidarity as an active, revolutionary part of political and social movements.