history

The Queer, Disabled, and Women of Color Suffragettes History Forgot

Campaigners from marginalized communities played a critical role in getting women in the UK the right to vote—but their contributions have been erased. We spoke to several historians trying to change that.

Ella Braidwood

Rosa May Billinghurst used her tricycle chair to ram police at protests. Photo courtesy of LSE via Flickr

This year, Britain celebrates the centenary of women’s suffrage, with events from London to Manchester and Belfast. But a quick glance through some of the plans for the landmark anniversary of the Representation of People Act 1918 shows that the archetypal suffragette has been burned into our collective memory as a certain type of woman, as exemplified by the 2015 film Suffragette: straight, white, and able-bodied.

What about the queer suffragettes? Were women of color involved? And how visible were disabled campaigners? The truth, as it turns out, is far more complex than originally thought.

As historian Diane Atkinson shows in her new book Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, queer women had a prominent place in the movement. Atkinson tells me about one “long and enduring romantic relationship” between suffragettes Evelina Haverfield and the Pankhursts’ chauffeur, Vera ‘Jack’ Holme. “These two were quite openly a couple and, in fact, they had each other’s initials carved on their bed,” she says.

Atkinson’s book describes the lives of several more queer women in the campaign, including the “very open couple” Lettice Floyd and Annie Williams. These women were generally accepted within the movement, largely because the campaign had a common goal. ”They were all in same-sex relationships; they were all very actively involved; they were quite prominent; they weren’t hiding in any closet; they were out in doing it,” Atkinson explains. “It was a single-issue campaign, which made it a very diverse, broad church.”


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Why, then, has it taken so long for historians to document these relationships? Hilary McCollum, who gave a talk at London School of Economics earlier this month called Sapphic Suffragettes: the key role of lesbians in the fight for votes for women, blames some male historians.

“There has been very great erasure,” she says. “The history of the women’s movement has been largely recorded by male historians. And there are some very prurient attitudes… Lesbian and bisexual relationships have either largely been made invisible or, when they’re discussed, it is quite often in sensationalist terms.” McCollum says these women played an “absolutely critical” role within the movement, believing some of the “most prominent leadership figures” were queer, like Ethel Smyth, the composer of suffragette anthem The March of the Women.

Vera "Jack" Holme (left). Photo courtesy of LSE via Flickr

Like queer women, history is just beginning to recognize the role that women of color played in the suffrage movement. In 2010, BBC journalist Anita Anand discovered an image of Sophia Duleep Singh—whose father was the last Maharaja (great ruler) of the Sikh Empire—selling copies of The Suffragette. “I just knew, even though it was sepia, that she was brown like me,” says Anand. “When I came across her name, I did what anyone would do, which is to look for a book about her…[but] there was absolutely nothing, which horrified me.”

She spent the next five years “uncovering one of the most extraordinary women I’ve ever come across”, publishing her book Sophia, Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary in 2015. Anand explains that Singh—born in the UK and goddaughter to Queen Victoria, who let her stay rent-free in Hampton Court Palace—went from being the party-loving “Kardashian of her day” to a leading suffragette.

The turning point was a life-changing trip to India, during which Singh witnessed the racism and violence inflicted by the British Empire on its colonial subjects. She made huge donations to the campaign and played a big role in the Women's Tax Resistance League, once appearing in court over her refusal to pay taxes (she refused to pay the fines for her unpaid taxes, too).

“By 1909,” Anand says, “she is front and center one of the most visible, prominent [and] pain-in-the-arse suffragettes to the British establishment.” Singh was arrested more than once, but was never thrown into prison, Anand says, because of the “embarrassment” this would cause to the British establishment.

Singh’s sister, Catherine Duleep Singh, was also involved in the suffrage movement as a non-violent protester, and had a lesbian relationship with her German governess Lina Schäfer. Some Indian women were also invited to take part in marches like the Women’s Coronation Procession; Sumita Mukherjee, a historian from Bristol University, has identified three Indian women on the 1911 march.

Mukherjee, whose book Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks is out this year, also tells me about a more troubling side to the campaign’s white figureheads. “There was definitely this kind of sense of racial and imperialistic superiority, which comes through,” she says, singling out Christabel Pankhurst as one example. “It’s really hard to marry some of the issues that they definitely had [around imperialism and race], with some of the progressiveness that they also had.”

Sophia Duleep Singh. Image taken from The Suffragette, copyright held by the Women’s Political and Social Union, courtesy of The National Archives

According to Mukherjee, British suffragettes were known to argue that, if they had the vote, they could “basically ‘save’ colonial women—black and brown women—in the empire.” She disagrees that we should treat these imperialist attitudes sympathetically: “There’s a general argument of saying that they were the product of their time, and you can’t fault them because that’s how things were – but I don’t really like that argument because anyone can be liberal at any point.”

Rosa May Billinghurst. Photo courtesy of LSE via Flickr

As with women of colour, historians have so far found a couple of examples of prominent disabled suffragettes and suffragists. One of these is Rosa May Billinghurst, who used a hand-propelled tricycle to get around after being left unable to walk by a childhood case of polio. She founded the Greenwich WSPU branch, took part in protests like the window smashing campaign of 1912, and was thrown into Holloway Prison on multiple occasions.

“She did a lot for the movement and it’s regardless of her disability—she would have been doing things in the tricycle chair or not in the tricycle chair,” says Sheila Hanlon, an expert and historian at Cycling UK. Billinghurst reportedly used her tricycle to her advantage. “There’s loads of reports of her using her tricycle chair to basically ram the police at protests.”

Another disabled suffragette was Adelaide Knight, who walked using a stick. Knight became secretary of the WSPU’s Canning Town branch in 1906. “She had a minor disability, she was working class and she was part of a mixed race family, “ says Hanlon. (Knight married a Jamaican man in 1894.) “Among the working class women’s movement, she was hugely significant and she was one of the key organisers in her area.”

Women’s suffrage was far from a homogenous group of white women; it was a patchwork quilt made up of all kinds of activists, who campaigned side-by-side—sister-to-sister—to achieve a single aim. So how can history better incorporate the lives of these women? For Hanlon, historians must return to the primary sources.

We need to go back to the original records and re-write how we look at suffrage history,” she explains. “If you’re looking for working class or LGBT suffragettes, or suffragettes of colour or suffragettes with disabilities, then the place to find them is back in the archives.” Hanlon concludes: “All of these things—race, class, disability, sexuality, gender—they all worked together and are a really important part of the unwritten story of suffrage.“