8 Inspiring Disabled Women From History

It’s Women’s History Month, and many of us are celebrating notable women in history, as well as contemporaries working hard for equality and inclusion. Disabled women, however, are often left out of the conversation about women in history — despite the fact that women are actually more likely to be disabled than men.

I rounded up some notable disabled women you should get to know — and a few of the entries on this list may make you rethink what you thought you knew about famous women in history.

1. Harriet Tubman

You may know Harriet Tubman as a noted abolitionist, spy and military leader, but when she was just a girl, Tubman refused to collaborate with an overseer seeking an escaped enslaved person. Enraged, he threw a heavy object, striking Tubman in the head.

The head injury nearly killed Tubman and left her with a legacy of epilepsy that lasted the rest of her life. Because she lived in an era when understanding and treatment of neurological disorders was limited, it’s difficult to determine the specifics of Tubman’s condition. Some speculate that it was temporal lobe epilepsy, based on the circumstances of her injury and her symptoms.

2. Rosa May Billinghurst

They called her “the cripple suffragette.” Billinghurst campaigned for women’s rights from the seat of her wheelchair after surviving polio in childhood. Alongside her fellow campaigners, Billinghurst took to the streets, went on hunger strike and was even force-fed. One aspect of her struggle will feel acutely familiar to contemporary disability rights campaigners: Law enforcement tipped her from her chair during a particularly rowdy demonstration.

3. Fannie Lou Hamer

This black civil rights activist walked with a limp after a childhood polio infection — and, like many women of color, low-income women and disabled people in the first half of the 20th century, she was also subjected to involuntary sterilization. Hamer spent her entire life fighting for voting rights, human rights and equal rights, enduring beatings and harassment. She was an organizer during Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and played a role on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Hamer died of breast cancer when she was only 59, a reminder of the breast care disparities for black women in the United States.

4. Frida Kahlo

Kahlo, a vibrant Mexican artist famous for her self-portraits, had polio as a child and sustained serious injuries in a bus accident. She spent much of her life dealing with chronic pain, a theme she explored frequently in her artwork. Kahlo’s meditations on disability identity and body image also dealt with gender, colonialism and indigenous tradition — and she was an active Communist, too. During her lifetime, Kahlo was respected as a noted artist — though after her death, the legacy of her husband Diego Rivera started to eclipse hers, until art historians reexamined her work in the 1970s.

5. Laura Hershey

A spirited poet, feminist and activist, Laura Hershey was just as likely to park herself in front of buses to fight for accessibility as she was to deliver sharp commentary on paternalistic attitudes about the disability community. While she pushed tirelessly for accessibility and the right to independent living, Hershey was also active defending the rights of home health workers, protesting for LGBQT rights and collaborating with disability rights organizations like Not Dead Yet and ADAPT.

6. Cheryl Marie Wade

Wade was known as ”the queen mother of gnarly,” and this rambunctious disabled performer and activist definitely lived up to the name. Her work celebrated disability art and culture and played a formative role in the development of the modern disability culture movement. Her work was often confrontational and deeply sarcastic — her theater group was called Wry Crips — but it included considerable heart. In addition to being an accomplished performer, Wade also served as a mentor, supporting young disabled women as they pursued their own interests and dreams.

7. Eliza Suggs

Even today, being born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a congenital disability known for causing very frail bones, is a challenge. In 1876, when Eliza was born to parents who had previously been enslaved, it could have been a death sentence. Instead, she lived into her early 30s, and fought for the right to access an education at a time when few black women had access to schooling. Suggs was also a temperance activist and devout Christian who traveled to speak at a variety of gatherings.

8. Judi Chamberlin

Judi Chamberlin was another outspoken voice in the independent living movement. She advocated specifically for psychiatric survivors after an involuntary term at a mental health facility in the 1960s. Her work as part of the Mad Pride movement pushed for fair treatment for people in need of psychiatric care, and called for the provision of basic rights to all people leaving in institutional settings. While her initial focus was on mental health, later in life, Chamberlin also collaborated with activists across the disability community on initiatives like the Americans with Disabilities Act, finding solidarity in work with people who had similar experiences.

Photo credit: LSE Library

107 comments

Anna R
Anna R23 days ago

thank you for sharing

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Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you

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hELEN h
hELEN h4 months ago

Y

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill6 months ago

Where is Helen Keller?

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Chad A
Chad A7 months ago

Thank you!

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Past Member
Past Member 7 months ago

nice

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill8 months ago

Where is Helen Keller?

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Elizabeth M
Past Member 8 months ago

Noted.

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Elizabeth M
Past Member 8 months ago

Thanks.

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Paulo R
Paulo R8 months ago

ty

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