Part One: Badass Disabled Women from History You Should Know About
International Women’s Month is the perfect time to draw attention to the many women who have been overlooked throughout history in favour of their more privileged male counterparts. But one demographic who are frequently missing from these round-ups are disabled women.
Earlier this month, I was wondering where all of them were. As a disabled woman, should I believe there was no-one like me who managed to succeed in the past? Did we all simply not exist? Did we all spend our lives hidden away? Or were we just not being talked about?
It’s true, that to be a disabled woman in the distant and not-too distant past was even more of a struggle than it is today, with the double disenfranchisements of patriarchy and ableism in full-swing to contend with, which held women as being worth less than men, and disabled people as being less than human. And that’s even before we begin to consider the archaic medical systems, or the even greater struggles disabled Women of Colour faced in simply surviving in such a world, let alone thriving.
Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when my research revealed not just one or two, but hundreds of stories of disabled women from around the world, who not only led fulfilling lives, but were instrumental in shaping the times they lived in.
In Part One of this series, I’ve brought together six incredible disabled women who helped shape the 19th and 20th centuries.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923)
Sarah Bernhardt was one of France’s most celebrated stage actresses, eventually becoming one of the first major actresses to make sound recordings and act in motion pictures, and starring in some of the most popular plays of the 19th and 20th centuries — including productions by Alexandra Dumas and Victor Hugo. Uncommonly for the time, she played male roles as well as female, even reprising Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and saying of her habit of picking up these parts:
“The roles of men are in general more intellectual than the roles of women… Only the role of Phédre gives me the charm of digging into a heart that is truly anguished… Always, in the theatre, the parts played by the men are the best parts.”
Later in her life, after an injury developed into gangrene, a surgeon was forced to amputate her leg just below the hip. Despite advice to the contrary, she adamantly refused the idea of an artificial leg, and instead designed for herself a palanquin supported by two long shafts, and carried by two men. She decorated the chair in the Louis XV style with white sides and gilded trim.
During WW1, she travelled to the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of Argonne, where she performed for soldiers who were just returned from or about to go into battle, using her disability as part of the performance, and delivering a rousing patriotic speech which prompted a fellow actress to declare:
“[Bernhardt] could, through the magic of the spoken word, re-instil heroism in those soldiers weary from battle… A miracle took place.”
Adelaide Knight (1871–1950)
Adelaide Knight was a prominent disabled suffragette and equal rights campaigner in the UK. A childhood injury meant she used crutches to walk for most of her life, and suffered from repeated bouts of ill health. She married a sailor from Guyana, Donald Adolphus Brown, in 1894, and unusually for the time, he took her last name.
They both joined the Independent Labour Party and supported each other’s campaigns for equality. Adelaide became the secretary of the Canning Town branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906, and was known there as the “leader of working women”.
In the same year, she was arrested alongside two other women for trying to gain an audience with Herbert Asquith, and for chaining herself to the railings at Buckingham Palace. They were given a choice between going to prison for six weeks, or giving up their campaigning for a year. Adelaide refused to give up her work, choosing to spend the six weeks in prison even though her health deteriorated there quickly.
Even so, in 1920, alongside her long-time friend and fellow campaigner Dora Montefiore, she became a co-founder of the new Communist Party of Great Britain.
Ragnhild Kåta (1873–1947)
Ragnhild, although little known outside of Norway, was the first deaf-blind person in the country to receive proper schooling, and the woman who inspired Hellen Keller to learn how to speak. When she was three, Ragnhild lost her sight, hearing, sense of smell and taste, supposedly due to a bad case of scarlet fever.
The extent of her isolation was written about by a teacher and author in 1887, and she was subsequently accepted into a newly-established school for the deaf, by a teacher called Elias Hofgaard. Already fourteen-years-old when she arrived at the school, at first, she wouldn’t tolerate being touched by strangers, and bit, scratched, and clawed at early attempts to reach out to her.
Nevertheless, after many years of work, not only did she learn to understand people by touching their lips as they spoke, but she was also able to speak back to them, had learned to write, and could read Braille. In her later life, she became accomplished in embroidery, knitting, and weaving, receiving honourable mention from an exhibition she sent her pieces to, and earning enough money from her crafts to support herself financially into old age.
At the age of ten, Helen Keller was told about Ragnhild’s story, and it was this knowledge that encouraged her to learn to speak as well.
Rosa May Billinghurst (1875–1953)
Rosa was another prominent disabled UK suffragette and women’s rights activist. A bout of polio in childhood meant she was unable to walk, but she was a regular face at suffrage demonstrations, using an adapted hand-tricycle to manoeuvre herself, and earning her the nickname “the cripple suffragette”.
Her visibility attracted a lot of attention to the movement, and unlike many of her middle-class peers, she was particularly concerned with gaining voting rights for poor women. She founded the Greenwich branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1910, and her first arrest was in 1911, when she was accused of obstructing the police at Parliament Square.
Between 1910 and 1912 the WSPU embarked on a window smashing campaign in response to a number of women’s suffrage bills failing to be passed by Parliament. During this campaign, Rosa was arrested for smashing a window and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.
But her disability didn’t protect her from police brutality. In testimony to a Parliamentary Committee, Rosa describes how she was thrown out of her tricycle by police, had her arms held forcibly behind her back, and that on a number of occasions, the police would twist the wheels of her mobility device so she was unable to move.
Witnesses said they weren’t surprised the police assaulted her, because Rosa “again and again drove her hand-tricycle at their ranks”.
Annette Kellermann (1886–1975)
Annette Kellermann was a professional swimmer, vaudeville star, film actress, writer, and business owner from Australia. She wore corrective leg braces, and began swimming initially to build muscle. In 1902, however, she won and broke the existing records for the ladies’ 100 yards and mile swimming championships, and in 1907 popularised the art of synchronised swimming, with her performance of the first water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome.
Aside from being an accomplished athlete, Annette was also the author of numerous books on health and fitness, and in 1916 became the first major actress to appear on film completely nude. The film, A Daughter of the Gods, was the first ever million-dollar production, but is now considered to be lost, as no copies are known to still exist.
Most of the films Annette starred in had aquatic themes, and she was known for doing her own stunts, including diving from ninety-two feet into the sea, and sixty feet into a pool of crocodiles. She was also famous for campaigning for a woman’s right to wear a one-piece bathing suit. She was arrested on Revere Beach in Massachusetts on a charge of indecency for doing just that, and as a result launched her own swimwear range, which was the precursor to modern swimwear for women.
Dorothea Lange (1895–1975)
Dorothea was a photographer and traveller who contracted polio as a child and walked with a limp for the rest of her life. She was best known for her work during the Depression-era with the Farm Security Administration, during which she humanised the consequences of the Great Depression, and influenced the development of documentary photography.
Her pictures of numerous unemployed and homeless people, particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers, brought their plight into the public consciousness. They were distributed free to newspapers across the country, and her images became icons of the era.
One of her most recognisable pieces, entitled Migrant Mother, captured Florence Owens Thompson, a woman sitting in a tent with her children huddled around her, in the midst of the economic crash.
Speaking of the photo in 1960, Dorothea said:
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.
“She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”
After Dorothea returned home, she told the editor of a San Francisco newspaper about the conditions at the camp and provided him with two of her photos. The editor informed the federal authorities and published an article that included Dorothea’s photos. As a result, the government rushed aid to the camp to prevent starvation.
Of her disability, Dorothea is famous for having said:
“I think it was perhaps the most important thing that happened to me. It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, humiliated me, all those things at once. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and power of it.”
In Part Two: The forgotten stories of disabled Women of Colour who shaped history
If you enjoy my writing, you can read more and support my work on Patreon here.