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Category: History Notes

WW: Princess Sophia the Suffragette

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I don’t know how many of you have seen the film Suffragette staring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, and various other very famous very white actresses, but there’s no doubt many people worldwide have done. Before I go into this I want to say that I definitely enjoyed the film, it was visually great, script was quite good, acting excellent, and it focused upon the working class suffragettes. But they were all white. Now, it is most likely that white British women were the majority, yet there seems to be an abyss where all suffragettes of colour disappear into. I don’t want to go into a fully blown debate on whether or not Suffragette was a product of ‘Hollywood’ white-washing, but I do want to tell you about Princess Sophia.

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Sophia Duleep Singh campaigning

Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last king of the Sikh Empire, Maharaja Duleep Singh. Her father was close to Queen Victoria, she had introduced the princess as a débutante, and the family had a respected standing within the British royalty. We know that there were plenty of well off and middle class white suffragettes within the movement, but less is discussed about the participation of Indian women from the Empire. Seeing as the British Empire grew to a ridiculous scale, I almost feel a duty to these ‘other’ suffragettes to follow up their stories and contributions.

Sophia was not the only Indian suffragette. An Indian women’s group took part in the 1911 coronation procession of 60,000 suffragettes.¹

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Ada Wright with Police on Black Friday.

Princess Sophia was not cautious of the effect of her suffragette status upon her royal status, and vice versa. Quite the opposite in fact. In 1910 she led a demonstration alongside the very Mrs Pankhurst as a reaction to the rejection of the Conciliation Bills, which would have given the right to vote to over 1,000,500 wealthier women. It would have been a parliamentary start to female equality. To those unfamiliar with this event, it was dubbed ‘Black Friday’ after it was made clear that 150-200 women were injured after riots broke out between suffragettes and police. Alongside her diplomatic immunity, Sophia also had contacts within the Indian Nationalist Movement, securing herself as an outright rebel, and used her wealth to help fund the Suffragettes. So much so that she was eventually disowned by her father after an arrest warrant stopped her from travelling to India. Fortunately for Sophia, this wasn’t as disastrously problematic as it would have been for the working class suffragettes. Sophia would carry on participating and vocalising injustices such as battling gender inequality in the British army, and her very presence in India in 1924 helped booster the Indian Suffrage movement.

A few other quick facts:

  • Princess Sophia would mostly dress in Edwardian styles, and rarely in traditional Indian dress.
  • Her mother sadly died of typhoid when Sophia was just 10 years old.
  • In 1909 she joined the WSPU, a controversial Suffragette movement that used militant tactics such as violence and hunger strikes.
  • Her hobby of cycling brought her to become the poster girl for the activity, encouraging women to embrace it when it was still considered vulgar and dangerous for women.

 

¹ British Library intro to Sophia Duleep Singh, http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item124196.html

WW – Mary “Perdita” Robinson

‘Women Wednesday’ will hereby be a pit-stop, quick-fire, on-the-go history of numerous historical women. Historical men are great, too, but who doesn’t love an underdog? I plan to take a sneaky peak at those women who got lost in translation.

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Quick note – ignore that this was posted on a Thursday. It won’t happen again. Maybe.

Anyway, I want to introduce you to the badass Mary Robinson (née Darby) 1757 – 1800.

Mary was, in essence, a kind of human embodiment of the 18th century fascination with both morality and debauchery. Her careers included actress, author, and mistress, all of which caused a cocktail of fame and ridicule in the public eye.

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Caricature of Mary & Prince of Wales. Much satire would be produced about them.

Now, Mary didn’t lead a ‘bad’ life, but it wasn’t easy being a woman in the 1700s, let alone a woman with several lovers and some naughty literature under your skirts. Her father, having galloped off with another woman when Mary was young, was the beginning of her bad luck. Following this, and a brief interlude of acting, her mother married her off to a money-squandering scoundrel who ended up in debtor’s jail (they eventually separated, but this was the least of her troubles). Mary then went back to acting as a way of financial support. This, pretty much, is where she gets shoved into the sour limelight.

It was her performance as “Perdita” in Florizel and Perdita  that caught the regal eye of George IV, Prince of Wales (who, may I add, was a few years her junior) and consequently bribed into becoming his mistress. Mixed feelings on her part, euphoric on his. Unsurprisingly, the boy Prince of Wales then got bored, and poor Mary was kicked out without a redundancy package, with just her damaged reputation in tow.

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Excellent biography and worth reading for more on her life.

It was now that Mary started to swing between more high-profile lovers, and write seriously, contributing some amazing works to 18th Century literature. I will highlight two of her writings, Sappho and Phaon: A Series of Legitimate Sonnets, and A Letter to the Women of England

– Mary also contributed much to the emergence of Romanticism, but that’s a whole other story.

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Title page of ‘Sappho and Phaon’. Copyright (c) 2000, University of California

In short, Sappho and Phaon is a ~naughty~ poem. But a naughty poem that was way ahead of it’s time, and one that is arguably proto-feminist. It concerns Sappho, an ancient authoress, and Phaon her lover. Now, Mary deliberately uses Sappho as a character to convey her own romantic and sexual experiences. Themes of sex in 18th century literature were usually rare, covert, and almost always masculine. So not only does Mary dare to write about this, she also writes about this from her perspective. Bad. Ass.

Three years after this, and a year before her death, Mary would pen a letter to the women of England. In this letter, she draws attention to the issues and injustices against English women. Most interestingly is that Mary writes this after the death of the famous proto-feminist Mary Wallstonecraft,

I will not expatiate largely on the doctrines of certain philosophical sensualists, who have aided in this destructive oppression, because an illustrious British female, (whose death has not been sufficiently lamented, but to whose genius posterity will render justice) has already written volumes in vindication of The Rights of Woman.

Mary clearly saw her strength of character and intelligence in Mary Wollstonecraft, and this letter in her memory thus serves as a kind of reiteration of her progressive beliefs. Mary was ruthless, even to the end.

She died in 1800 at the age of 43, partially paralysed, very ill, and unfortunately in poverty.

 

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