Women Wednesdays is our new weekly column for Gender Justice month here at Comic Relief, where we will be giving the spotlight to one inspirational female figure per week. We focus on women who have created change and spearheaded movements for other women, and stood up against discrimination against gender and sexuality.
Whenever you think of the ‘Votes for Women!’ movement, you imagine the brave, tireless campaigners and activists in straight-backed Edwardian dresses, who chained themselves to fences and went on hunger strikes in prisons, risking their lives for equality. We recall the admirable lengths and personal sacrifices that these women put themselves through to shift the status quo, and how it changed our political landscape forever.
A somewhat unknown suffragette we want to recognise and celebrate today is the ‘spoilt Indian princess turned militant revolutionary’ Sophia Duleep Singh.
Born in 1876, Sophia Duleep Singh attended Christ’s College, Cambridge University where she read chemistry. She had a complex relationship with her Indian ancestry, her father's exile meaning that she was never able to visit her ancestral land until after his death in 1895. Following his death and finally being able to visit India, she encountered Indian freedom fighters and found herself inspired by their cause and determined to be an activist fighting for equality.
After returning from India to England, Sophia joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU - better known as the ‘suffragettes’) where she met Emmeline Pankhurst, and became committed to direct action to bring about change. By 1909 she was a prominent member of the WSPU, and proudly made her mark on the movement by refusing to pay taxes.
The Women’s Tax Resistance League was founded on the grounds that whilst women had no vote, they would not pay taxes. Whilst Sophia was not the founder of this movement, she was a strong advocate for them, and was frequently in trouble with the law for not paying permits and licences. Bailiffs were frequenting her house and took a number of her aristocratic Indian jewelry. Sophia was also known for falling in front of the Prime Minister Henry Asquith’s car whilst holding a poster that read ‘Give women the vote!’ Despite many attempts to be taken to prison and join the mainly working class suffragettes who were disproportionately punished for their actions, Sophia was never sent to prison. But she remains an important part of our history as a prominent women of colour fighting for the rights of women.
After the breakout of WWI, Sophia joined the Red Cross and became a nurse, tending to Indian soldiers who had been evacuated from the Western Front at Brighton hospital. As the story goes, the Sikh soldiers could hardly believe that “the granddaughter of the Ranjit Singh sat by their bedsides in nurses uniform!”
Following the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act of 1918, which allowed women over the age of 30 to vote in the UK, Sophia joined the Suffragette Fellowship where she remained an active member until she died in 1948.