Croydon Bicycle Theatre celebrates women’s suffrage centenary

By - Thursday 1st February, 2018

Telling the story of the battle for women’s right to vote

Rosa May Billinghurst.
Photo from the Women’s Library Collection, used with permission.

“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 was an amazing woman, paralysed from the waist down

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 by the police during these peaceful protests.

Hearing Rosa May’s story made us wonder: if she had lived today, would she have been able to achieve all she did? Would she have been able to become a ‘full participant’? We couldn’t help but think that the answer would be no. There is no network of protected cycle tracks in London – and without such tracks, it seems highly doubtful that she would today be able to cycle to demonstrations, in the way she was able to 100 years ago.

Rosie Jones. Photo author’s own.

This suspicion was confirmed by our friend, comedian Rosie Jones. A complication during Rosie’s birth meant she spent fifteen minutes without oxygen – which resulted in her developing cerebral palsy. Rosie told us that when she was a child, she learned to ride a trike before she learned to walk. Riding it gave her freedom, as it was the easiest way for her to get around, easier than walking. “I haven’t ever ridden my trike in London, where I now live. Instead it sits at my parents’ getting dusty. I would bring it down in a second if there were proper cycle lanes. Riding’s still the fastest and easiest way for me to get around, but it’s just not safe enough.”

As Laura Laker highlights in her recent Guardian article on disabled cyclists, ‘reduced transport options are also a common barrier to accessing work, healthcare and a social life’. Or indeed, a barrier to political engagement and exercising one’s democratic rights.

The Women’s Vote Centenary Grant Scheme was set up last year to enable community groups and charities to put on events that would both celebrate the legacy of the suffrage movement, but also encourage Britain’s women to connect with one another: ‘a chance for us to think about our own role in civic life and encourage others to do the same’.

We have chosen to look back at Rosa May’s legacy by putting on a special event

And so we have chosen to celebrate the centenary with an event both looking back to Rosa May Billinghurst’s legacy, and forward to a future in which we hope we will all live within safe, connected communities.

Rosie Jones will be joining us, performing some of her newest material, and leading a Q&A with Isabelle Clement, director of Wheels for Wellbeing, an inclusive cycling charity running sessions out of Croydon Sports Arena. Our evening will end with a special showing of BBC2′s suffragette-themed comedy Up The Women! in Croydon’s very own David Lean Cinema.

We very much hope to see Croydonians uniting at this special gala evening, as we look back to the achievements of our campaigning fore-sisters – and look forward to the battles still left to fight.

Up The Women! at the David Lean Cinema is on Wednesday 7th February 2018 at 7pm and is free to attend. 

Amy Foster

Amy Foster

Amy Foster is a trustee of the London Cycling Campaign and works with Croydon Cyclists to improve cycling for all across the borough. She's a primary school teacher and is based in South Norwood. Find her on twitter @amyecoates.

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