Theresa Billington-Greig 1877-1964
Born in Preston and raised in Blackburn, England, Billington-Greig came from a struggling working-class family. She schooled at the Convent of Notre Dame but rebelled against her mother’s strict Catholicism, running away from home at age 17 to live with relatives in Manchester. Billington-Greig studied at night-school to become a teacher; once she was able to support herself, she abandoned her relatives, declared herself an agnostic, and took up with the progressive Ancoats University Settlement, where she developed her great skill at debating and acquired her commitment to feminist activism. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst recruited Billington-Greig to be a speaker for her new suffrage organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU); with Pankhurst’s help, Billington-Greig was able to leave her teaching job in 1904 and work as a paid organizer for Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Northern England. In early 1906, Billington-Greig was sent by the WSPU to work as a demonstration organizer in London. She soon became known in the press as “the redoubtable Miss Billington”, “truculent Teresa,” and “Parnell in petticoats.” For one of her activities, she drummed up support for Dora Montefiore’s personal protest against paying taxes. In June 1906, when Billington-Greig struck back at a police officer and refused to testify in her own defense, she became one of the first women to be imprisoned (for a short term in Holloway Prison) for the suffragist cause.
Early in 1907 Billington-Greig married Fredrick Louis Greig; reflecting Billington-Greig’s views on sex-equality, the two agreed to a marriage statement that voided British property and marriage laws, and both husband and wife adopted as “Billington-Greig” their new surname. In 1907 Billington-Greig began to distance herself from the increasingly militant role that Pankhurst supported in the WSPU, and by October she and Charlotte Despard formed the break-away suffrage society, the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), which sought to promote feminist activism through non-violent means. In the next few years, Billington-Greig published her views in the WFL’s weekly paper, The Vote, as well as in her own paper, The Hour & the Woman. However, by 1910 Billington-Greig had also grown disillusioned with the WFL, which she left to write The Militant Suffrage Movement (1911), a critique of Pankhurst suffragism that advocated “constructive protest” — “reasoned revolt” and civil disobedience—in place of emotion and violence.
Billington-Greig contributed altogether nine articles to the New Age, six in volume 1 (1907)—the period of her greatest prominence and influence in the suffragist movement—and three in volume 8 (1910-1911), when she had distanced herself from the existing suffrage organizations and begun to write books about other means to realize feminist goals. Her earlier articles in the NA—such as “Married Women and the Vote,” and “Socialism and Sex-Equality,” and “The Liberals and Adult Suffrage” —engage various facets of female suffragism while critiquing female dependency in both the family and the workplace. Her later pieces—titled “Emancipation in a Hurry” in the NA—were republished in book form as her first book, The Militant Suffrage Movement. Billington-Greig would go on to write articles for The Freewoman and other journals, and she would also publish two other books, Consumers in Revolt (1912) and Woman and the Machine (1913). In these works, she partly blended the ideas of A. J. Penty and other guild socialists into her feminist ideals for broad-based social change. Billington-Greig would remain involved in feminist politics throughout the rest of her life, but she never regained the national recognition she won during the turbulent Edwardian years.
- Banks, Olive, ed. The Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists. Volume One: 1800-1930. 1985.
- Button, John. The Radicalism Handbook. 1995.
- McPhee, Carol and Ann Fitzgerald, eds. The Non-Violent Militant: Selected Writings of Teresa Billington-Greig. 1987.