“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
When Susan B. Anthony made this statement, voting rights remained a distant promise for women both in her native US and here in the UK. However, it is no surprise to learn that the founders of our own Women’s Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU), the Pankhursts, were all keen cyclists themselves.
So finding a way to celebrate the role cycling played in forming our modern-day democratic rights was our aim for Croydon Bicycle Theatre in 2018. We wanted to celebrate the women’s suffrage centenary, but with so many amazing women involved in the suffrage movement, it wasn’t easy to work out whose story to tell.
Rosa May Billinghurst in her adapted wheelchair (credit: LSE Women's Library Collection)
That is, until a biography of an amazing woman called Rosa May Billinghurst popped up on my Facebook feed. Billinghurst was born in Lewisham and was paralysed from the waist down during her childhood. Historian Sheila Hanlon describes how incredible she was: “Billinghurst was a dedicated WSPU member. She organised events and meetings, took part in demonstrations, was a regular in processions, and served as secretary of the Greenwich branch. Without the use of her legs, she relied on an invalid tricycle for the mobility she needed to be a full participant in the suffrage action.”
This was all in spite of the fact that she was regularly tipped out of her chair and had its tyres deflated ..................