Rosa May Billinghurst was born in England in 1876. She was healthy at birth, but suffered from an illness at five months old that paralyzed her whole body. She eventually regained the use of her hands and arms, but never walked. She made her way around on crutches or a tricycle-style wheelchair.
Christabel Pankhurst inspired May to become a suffragette. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a militant suffragette movement, in 1907. Her family donated a significant amount of money to the organization as well.
In November of 1910 May was one of 159 women arrested at a demonstration outside the House of Commons. Other suffragettes had testified that May used her disability to her advantage, often charging the lines of police in her tricycle. It was a moving sight to see police officers arresting a disabled woman, and May used this fact to gain publicity for the cause.
In March 1912 the WSPU started a campaign that involved smashing shop windows. May would hid stones underneath the rug covering her knees. This campaign led to her first arrest. She was sentenced to one month’s hard labor, and spent the time in Holloway Prison, although she never had any labor assigned to her.
After her release, May took part in the WSPU campaign to destroy mail boxes. By December the government claimed that over 5,000 letters had been damaged. May would conceal packages full of tar in her tricycle, concealed under the rug, and went from box to box.
She was eventually arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to eight months in Holloway Prison.
She immediately went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. Over fears that she would die of a heart attack due to the treatment, she was released on January 18th, 1913 after only a few weeks.
When World War I began in August 1914 the WSPU agreed to suspend all campaigning in exchange for WSPU members being released from prison. May went along with this agreement.
After the passing of the Qualification of Women Act, May ceased to be politically active. She died on July 4, 1953.