This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 23/02/2018.
Event review: Up The Women! by the Croydon Bicycle Theatre
Charging at police with her crutches attached as battering rams on her wheelchair, Rosie May Billinghurst, the so-called Crippled Suffragette, didn’t just attend suffrage rallies. She made an impact that inspires women’s rights campaigners to this day. However, would she be able to do the same today? The answer is ‘probably not’ according to Croydon BicycleTheatre, host of Up the Women!, an evening celebrating female achievement on the 100th anniversary of the first votes for some women in the UK.
The event was full of illuminating content and opened with a film by The Lost Valley, which told the story of Rosie May Billinghurst. The film was followed by a presentation by Wheels for Wellbeing, stand up comedy from Rosie Jones, and a discussion featuring Ash Magazine editor Charlotte Dunckley, the makers of the Suffragette City podcast, and writer Miranda Roszkowski, creator of the 100 Voices for 100 Years project.
Cycles. whether bicycle, tricycle, or handcycle, have always played a role in the women’s movement, explained Vanessa Hammick, one of Croydon Bicycle Theatre’s founders. Quoting Susan B. Anthony, she told the audience that the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women than anything else”.
Cycles opened up new worlds for those women who embraced the technology, and they allowed independent travel, free from male stewardship
However, on the busy urban streets of the UK, lack of protected space for cycles stifles such independent travel. The idea was echoed by Isabelle Clement, director of local charity Wheels for Wellbeing. “To boldly go where everyone else has gone before”, a slogan she learned from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network, neatly summed up what the attendees in the room were striving for.
Clement was the first guest of the evening to share her story. Growing up with a disability, she was encouraged by people she described as ‘well meaning’ to do without a wheelchair. However, once she decided to embrace the wheelchair, and eventually also a handcycle, she discovered a freedom that she is passionate about helping others to find in their lives.
Many more illuminating stories were shared at the David Lean Cinema that evening. Within the sphere of politics, we heard how Toni Letts overcame almost two decades of domestic violence to become an elected official and eventually mayor of Croydon, a title which she holds now for the second time.
A common thread that ran through each story was the presence of both courage and encouragement in female achievement
We also heard from Sarah Jones, who became Croydon’s first ever female MP. She told a bemusing anecdote of a time she attended a meeting within the construction industry and was never offered a handshake, even while male attendees shook hands around her. After quizzing them about it, they said, “We didn’t know if we were supposed to kiss you or not”. Suffice it to say, there was universal handshaking at the conclusion of Up the Women!.
A common thread that ran through each story was the presence of both courage and encouragement in female achievement. Isabelle Clement had the courage to ride a handcycle through the manic streets of London while encouraging disabled people to participate in cycling. Toni Letts had the courage to leave an abusive marriage to achieve political success, subsequently encouraging Sarah Jones in her own ambitions, who in turn encouraged everyone at the Up the Women! event to engage in democracy.
Croydon Bicycle Theatre’s next event, Pedal for Progress, run in collaboration with local business Cycling Made Easy, will be held on International Women’s Day, 8th March. The event will be an inclusive, marshalled, group cycle ride which include bicycles, e-bikes, trikes, and adapted cycles. It will go from Croydon to Coulsdon and back with entertainment at each stop. Feminists of any gender are encouraged to join the ride. More details can be found on Eventbrite.