Diversity and the British female Suffrage movement


‘At this time the Women’s Suffragette movement who were fighting for their votes, was at its height. In those days there were few Indian women in London. Hearing of me they sent me an invitation to join their demonstration at Piccadilly Circus, and to march with them led by Mrs Pankhurst to the Parliament House … It was a great experience for me, at the same time it was a novel sight for a single Indian woman amidst the procession, and I was the subject of public gaze.’

Sushama Sen, Memoirs of an Octogenarian (1971)

British society, particularly London, has been ethnically diverse for centuries. In the 1910s, when the British suffrage movement was at its height, there were men and women from all around the world, and particularly from other parts of the British Empire, living in the UK. These included ayahs (nannies), students, lascars (seamen), peddlers and merchants from India, China, the Caribbean and Africa, not to mention familiar migrants from Europe.

Although the female suffragettes were almost exclusively all ‘white’ in Britain, they were not campaigning along racial lines to only enfranchise white women, as had been the case in places such as Australia or the United States. When British women (over 30) were given the vote in the 1918 Representation of the People Act, ‘British subjects’ were enfranchised, which technically meant any subjects of the British Empire living in Britain, who met the required residency qualifications and was registered, could vote. There was no discrimination based on race. Even today, Commonwealth citizens resident in the UK can vote in elections even if they are not British nationals.

However, attitudes towards the emancipation of different races were complex. Some Indian women resident in London were invited to attend suffrage demonstrations, as indicated above by Sushama Sen. Notably on 17 June 1911, suffrage societies put together a procession marking the coronation of King George V to demand votes, which included an empire pageant with women representing India, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies. The India section included three women who were living in London at the time: Mrs P. L. Roy, Mrs Bhagwati Bhola Nauth and Mrs Mukerjea.

This empire pageant is symptomatic of one of the arguments that British suffragettes put forward for the female vote. The British Empire was at its height at this time and the parliament governed the colonies as well as Britain. Some suffragettes argued that it was crucial that British women should have a vote in order to influence policies that had an impact on other women across the empire. It should be noted that these so-called ‘Indian suffragettes’ in the empire pageant were holding an ‘India’ flag aloft. The issue of Indian women who might vote in Britain was not being raised. They were not there to represent the campaign for votes in India though either; that issue was not raised until after 1917 when democratic assemblies were slowly introduced by the imperial parliament. They were used then to show support for the British, largely ‘white’ campaign, and to represent the size of the empire, rather than to reflect on any way on the diversity of the British population at the time.

There was one person of Indian and German-Ethiopian ethnicity who was a prominent British suffragette in her own right. Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of the Maharaja Duleep Singh, was born in Norfolk, was god-daughter of Queen Victoria and given a grace and favour home in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace. Sophia was involved in the first suffragette deputation to House of Commons on 18 November 1910 known as ‘Black Friday’. She was also a well-known member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, refusing to pay her taxes (or sign the census) in protest until women were awarded the vote.

The fight for the female vote was not solely a British, or a ‘white’ concern though. It was a global issue and women of colour were active campaigners for suffrage in other countries. Even within Britain it was a movement that included men and women from diverse social, political and religious backgrounds. The film Suffragette was just based on one aspect of the British example. There are many more stories to tell about feminist campaigns for the vote among other communities. Hopefully the ensuing discussions about race and diversity in the movement will bring even more attention to the feminist struggles that have and continue to take place around the world.

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Post Author

Sumita Mukherjee
Dr Sumita Mukherjee is Research Fellow in the Department of History at King's College London. Her current research project on 'Indian Suffragettes' is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.