Isabel Jess is a new contributor to Breaking the Glass Ceiling. She is a current History student with a passion for (arguing about) international politics and migration issues.
“For most of history, anonymous was a woman” – Virginia Woolf
Recognising Overlooked or Forgotten Voices in History
As the 100th anniversary of British women’s suffrage passes, we are reminded of the female figures before us who acted as pioneers in the movement for gender equality. Yet, just as this marks a point in time to celebrate the accomplishments of a remarkable political movement and its figureheads, it is also essential to reflect upon the voices of the suffragette movement that may have been lost to time, such as the voice of Sophia Duleep Singh.
Sophia Duleep Singh was a woman of two worlds. The daughter of an exiled Indian royal, Singh was born and raised in England and supported by the favours of her Godmother, Queen Victoria. She lived as a socialite n London high society, developing a reputation for her scandalous antics and fashion in the high court. As the “Indian Princess” and later “the Queen of the Punjab”, she embraced her place in the high society of the Empire and the luxuries that accompanied her lifestyle. Yet, these attitudes began to change when Singh visited India in 1907. In fact, the trip marked a transformation in Singh’s mindset towards activism and the Empire.
It was during this trip that Singh encountered the harsh realities of Imperialism, and consequently, the violent effects of poverty. She became exposed to the repercussions of her father’s surrender to the British government preceding his exile, and eventually met with Indian Freedom Fighters such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai, expressing sympathy for their cause. It was these experiences that drove Singh into the heat of the suffragette movement once she returned to England in 1909.
Transforming the behaviours which had once placed her at the centre of high society’s attention, into a spirit of active resistance, Singh worked alongside prominent suffragette leaders such as Emmeline Pankhurst to pioneer the movement for women’s voting rights. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, lead the publication of a newspaper The Suffragette, and later became the president of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship following the passing of Emmeline Pankhurst. Her boundless attitudes of rebellion even drew the exasperation of King George V leading him to ask, “Have we no hold on her?”.
Yet, what is especially significant about Singh’s activism is that she did not view herself as bound to a single nation. While she still valued her Indian heritage, her family’s exile from India in combination with her disillusionment of the British Empire left Singh as a woman between two worlds. Instead of an allegiance to a single nation, she viewed her life’s purpose as “the advancement of women” worldwide.
Sophia Duleep Singh’s story allows for several points of reflection. First of all, her dedication to women’s suffrage on a global scale distinguishes her from her ethnically British peers. While the British Suffragette movement did provide for the progression of women’s activism on a political scale, it is important to note that suffrage for women was often argued for on the basis of oppression and Imperialism. The influential messages of freedom we recognize today often expressed racial and Imperial overtones. While Singh worked tirelessly in both Britain and India for women’s suffrage, British suffragettes often emphasized that their rights came first, and that Indian women’s suffrage would become an issue of importance once British women had gained the political power to help them. It was the continuance of an oppressive pattern that placed the voices of white women over those of women of colour, and consequently contributed to the erasure of diverse voices in the history of women’s rights. Yet, it is also important to recognize that this is not just an issue of the past.
Intersectionality within the Feminist community continues to be a topic of discourse today. While the conversation has moderately progressed from whether or not Feminism should embrace an intersectional approach, to how to best achieve adequate intersectionality and representation, the 100th anniversary of British women’s suffrage opens up several additional paths of discourse. For example, the rise of protest culture since 2016 provides an opportunity for a platform upon which Feminism can embrace an intersectional approach. Yet, we must also discuss how this can work in conjunction with social media, as the two are closely intertwined. Furthermore, we must also discuss the idea of legacy. How can we best appreciate the women’s movements that have come before us while still acknowledging their prejudiced pasts? I believe the answer lies in embracing the nuances that come with any socially conscious debate, and most importantly, making deliberate efforts to uncover forgotten, yet influential figures of history. After all, history has never been as whitewashed or heteronormative as it seems.
“Suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh.” The British Library , The British Library, www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item124196.html.