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Last updated:13 May 2016

Teresa Billington-Greig

Teresa Billington was born in Preston in 1877 and raised in Blackburn where she attended a convent school. Escaping from the strict Catholicism of her mother, Teresa ran away from home at the age of 17. In Manchester, Teresa began studying and qualified as an assistant teacher, working in Crumpsall. In addition she was working for an external B.Sc. from the University of London and becoming involved in the Ancoats University Settlement. In the Settlement she took up administrative and social duties and learned how to prepare for and address meetings. After having been exposed to many causes, Teresa became a committed feminist. Having abandoned her religious beliefs she rejected the fact that the school curriculum required her to teach religious studies. She had to appear before the Manchester Education Committee where her case was considered by Emmeline Pankhurst. With the help of Emmeline she was re-employed briefly in a Jewish school in Manchester but was soon a member of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) and spent much of her time addressing meetings. In 1904 she also established the Manchester branch of the Equal Pay League, particularly pressing for equal pay for teachers.

Title page of Suffragist TacticsIn 1905 she was asked by Keir Hardie to become an organiser in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and she gave up all her educational and career opportunities in Manchester to take up this full-time post. Teresa worked for the ILP whilst maintaining her involvement with the WSPU and becoming a part of the militant suffrage movement. In 1906 she became an organiser with the WSPU, working alongside Annie Kenney and Sylvia Pankhurst. In June of that year she was imprisoned after a march to the house of the Prime Minister ended in violence. Teresa had written many letters explaining both the tactics and the aims of militant activity and in 1906 she wrote the work The militant policy of women suffragists in which she outlined that for a number of rational reasons women had the right to rebel.

In a period of two years Teresa wrote a number of important essays in which she outlined both the principles which underpinned the movement and how draining the work had become. In The woman and the whip she spoke of leaving meetings ‘in a state of nervous humiliation, shocked, weeping, and shuddering’. In Woman’s liberty and man’s fear she wrote that ‘because man has oppressed woman, he is afraid of her; because he has denied her liberty and bought and sold her, he is afraid to face her free’ in response to the increasingly violent reaction from men during demonstrations.

The WSPU organising team in London was deliberately broken up in 1906 with Sylvia Pankhurst being pushed away from the movement and Teresa sent to organise in Scotland. Whilst in Scotland she met Frederick Greig, the manager of a billiard supplies company and was married in February 1907, holding the reception in WSPU premises. Later that year she stopped being the organiser in Scotland and became increasingly irritated at the high-handed behaviour of Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst. When the Pankhursts assumed full and undemocratic control of the WSPU, Teresa along with a number of other women formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL).

Teresa worked hard for the WFL but her poor health, journalism duties and the need for a home life resulted in her detachment from the organisation by 1910, although she continued to support the movement. She was also increasingly alienated because the WFL and the WSPU were working together on more militant activity and Teresa continued to believe in the tactics of civil disobedience and moral force. She maintained her income from journalism, writing in The New Age, The Contemporary Review and working as a freelance speaker.

She started to work for Frederick Greig’s billiard company during World War One and in 1931 she helped establish the Women’s Billiards Association which had the aims of ‘encouraging, promoting and controlling women’s billiards’. She was also active in the Sports Fellowship, an organisation which promoted ‘sports and games amongst the poorer classes’ which was supported by leading sportswomen and male cricketers and footballers.

In 1937 she re-joined the WFL and in later life joined Women for Westminster, the Married Women’s Association and the Six Point Group, the ‘points’ being political, occupational, moral, social, economic and legal equality. After the Second World War, Teresa started writing again and began, but never finished, an autobiography and a biography of Charlotte Despard. She died in 1964.

The Working Class Movement Library has material on the life and work of Teresa Billington-Greig. The principal work is The non violent militant: writings of Teresa Billington-Greig by Teresa, Carol McPhee & Ann Fitzgerald [Shelfmark H35] which contains a biography, essays and fragments of autobiography. Works by Teresa include The militant suffrage movement [A12], Consumers in revolt [A59], Towards women’s liberty [M04] and Suffragist Tactics [Suffragette Movement – Box 1]. The Library has a copy of a debate between Teresa, when in the ILP, and the Liberal Josiah Wedgwood [ILP – Box 5].

There is material on the Women’s Freedom League, for example Women’s Freedom League 1907-1957 by Stella Newsome [Suffragette Movement – Box 1] and a WFL pamphlet – What we are working for [Women – Box 8]. The women’s suffrage movement: new feminist perspectives by Joannou Maroula and June Purvis [E56] covers the WFL and other women’s organisations.