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.
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
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