Friends and fellow activists have paid tribute to the “mighty”, “formidable” and much-loved Ruth Bashall, who has died at the age of 71.
She leaves a commitment to the women’s movement stretching back half a century, and to fighting for the rights of lesbians, and later for disability rights, through years of “extensive, ground-breaking and dynamic” work.
Friends within the disabled people’s movement this week spoke of a “fierce activist and advocate” who “never stopped fighting to make a positive difference”, while also forming “enduring friendships and relationships” and inspiring huge affection among her friends.
She had spoken publicly of how her upbringing in France in the 1960s had a significant impact on her later life as a human rights activist.
Asked in 2014 by fellow activist Eleanor Lisney why she called herself an activist, and what had shaped that journey, Bashall spoke of the influence of her feminist, communist mother.
But she also spoke of growing up as a foreigner in xenophobic France in the 1960s – she was once tied to a tree as a punishment “for having burnt Joan of Arc” – when she learned through her family of the mass murder by French police of 200 Algerians who had been marching in Paris for independence in 1961.
The atrocity was “hushed up”, and she said that “for me as a child that was an impression that really… stayed in my memory, and it still does.
“The injustice of the silence around that. The mass murder of a group of people who were simply fighting for their right to self-determination.”
She also described another hugely influential experience, when she “dutifully went off and threw paving stones at police officers” during the student revolt in Paris in 1968, and how they “retaliated by raping a friend”.
She came to Britain in the early 1970s to study at university, at the beginning of the women’s movement, bringing her “internationalist experience”.
She had a daughter in 1972, before breaking up with her husband and coming out as lesbian.
She fought for the right of lesbians to keep their children, she said in 2014, just as today disabled women often have to fight to be allowed to keep their children, and she worked on anti-racism campaigns and in community politics.
She said: “I’ve always been a kind of grassroots activist in my own neighbourhood in east London, and when I became disabled I got kind of ‘dragooned’ into the disability movement by a couple of friends, who basically said, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it, there’s a demonstration to organise,’ and I was used to organising demonstrations, so I did, and I haven’t looked back.”
Among her jobs and roles, she spent time as a bus conductor; a worker for Centerprise, a community centre and bookshop in Hackney; a researcher at the Centre for Independent Transport Research in London, which included examining the barriers faced by disabled passengers; a London Lesbian Line volunteer; a founder member of the Lesbian Mothers’ Group; and a freelance disability equality trainer and consultant.
In 2014, she spoke about being one of the founder members of the Campaign for Accessible Transport (CAT) and how the campaign’s development of inclusive ways for disabled people to be involved in direct action “had an impact way beyond” the 100 or so people who were on CAT’s mailing list at the time.
Her friend Kirsten Hearn said this week that she had met Bashall in 1984 while working at Greater London Council, and got to know her better several years later “when she joined a rota of lesbians supporting me when I broke my leg falling off a tandem”.
She said that a “typical habit of Ruth’s was the commitment she gave to those who needed her. If there was an emergency, she’d be right there, supportive, kindly and generous.”
They later worked together at Waltham Forest council, where she was an access officer, and Hearn remembers her friend’s “cavalier attitude to deadlines”, while also being a “brilliant and tenacious worker”.
Hearn said Bashall was a “powerful mentor and encourager of others”, who “liked nothing more than to support and nurture disabled people, who she knew could be amazing advocates for other disabled people”.
As two of the “Oxford Street 16”, who were arrested after a CAT direct action in London, they spent several hours together in a police cell “while the police hunted out a means of getting 16 disabled people to an inaccessible court”.
Bashall would use her experience of direct action – dating back to her youth in Paris – as an active member of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN).
She and Hearn attended the second international disabled lesbian and gay conference, in the Netherlands, and from then she worked to challenge violence against disabled women across Europe.
Together with Anne Novis, Bashall formed the Metropolitan police’s Disability Independent Advisory Group (DIAG) in the early 2000s, working to make the force take disability hate crime seriously.
Katharine Quarmby, a disability rights activist and journalist, had known Bashall for more than 15 years, and first met her when she was news editor at Disability Now magazine and covered a transport meeting where she and Novis were advocating for disability rights.
She said: “Ruth was then and later quietly spoken and yet formidable and I warmed to her immediately.”
Bashall and Novis read drafts of Quarmby’s ground-breaking Getting Away with Murder report on disability hate crime “and were as always both generous and knowledgeable”.
She said: “I continued to meet Ruth at meetings – and for occasional convivial lunches afterwards. I learned so much from her and feel privileged to have known her.
“Her work on disability rights and the intersection with feminism was, and remains, groundbreaking.”
Bashall’s work on disability hate crime led to her helping to set up Stay Safe East, a disabled people’s organisation providing advocacy and support to Deaf and disabled victims or survivors of domestic and sexual violence, hate crime and harassment and other crime in London.
She only retired from her role as policy manager a few days before she died, having previously been its chief executive.
Outside her work and activism, Hearn said she also remembers her friend as a “lesbian mother and proud grandmother” who “formed enduring friendships and relationships” and for whom her “lesbian family, made up mainly of disabled lesbians, was hugely important to her.
“She was a big-hearted woman, who was always there in an emergency.
“Ruth was a mighty woman and leaves so many people who are thankful for having her in their lives.”
Novis, another close friend, said they had found “common ground, the same sense of humour, and a determination to make a difference and get justice for Deaf and disabled people” after meeting when setting up DIAG.
They supported each other through “the same barriers, the challenge of exhausting care reviews, benefit assessments, care charges assessments, access to equipment and the services we needed”.
She said: “I recall Ruth being called a ‘formidable woman’ by a government minister. It was so true.
“Yet mostly I think of Ruth as a dear friend who I miss so much.
“Always a phone call away, willing to travel long distances to get to my home, so we could have a natter and change the world with our words.
“A dynamic woman, and best of friends, whose presence empowered my life, and many others. Ruth made a huge difference, with her life and words, for us all.”
Another friend, Savi Hensman, who had known Bashall for more than 30 years, spoke of her “warmth, determination and humour”.
She said the eulogy at her funeral described how she “fought for spaces for people who were marginalised, in particular those at risk of deportation and other forms of state racism, women and children who were under threat of male violence and disabled people denied full access to society”.
Bashall’s daughter, Tamsin, said her “mother and proud grandmother of my two children” died on 11 November following a period of illness, and that “we remain proud of all she stood for and will miss her greatly”.
Angie Airlie, the new chief executive of Stay Safe East, said that she, like many others, was “completely inspired by Ruth”.
She said: “She was a fierce activist and advocate and never stopped fighting to make a positive difference.
“She will be missed by staff and clients alike and I know her death will resonate much more widely.”
*To add to the many tributes already paid to Ruth Bashall, visit the online condolence book set up by Stay Safe East
Picture: Ruth Bashall and Anne Novis (right)