Women’s Suffrage: Women of Colour
When you think of the suffragettes there are a few images that may spring to mind. Maybe Emily Davison and her dramatic death under the hoofs of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Perhaps you think of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters.
Photographs from the time depict the faces of white, usually middle class, well dressed women protesting on the streets of London.
What your imagination probably doesn’t conjure up are the faces of women of other racial backgrounds who stood alongside these well-known women and fought for our right to vote. Women who were not middle class or white have received far less attention over the past hundred years and therefore do not feature heavily in the popular imagination.
We will probably never know exactly how many women of colour took part in the suffrage or suffragette movement. While Britain was nowhere near as multi-cultural as it is today there has been migration for centuries, particularly to large cities such as London or Manchester. But we do know they were there.
One prominent but largely forgotten suffragette was Sophia Duleep Singh. Sophia had a remarkable life. She was the daughter of the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire in Punjab, the God-daughter of Queen Victoria and close friend of Emmeline Pankhurst. She was a prominent member of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) and in 1910 led from the front alongside Emmeline Pankhurst when the suffragettes marched on parliament, a protest that later became known as Black Friday. Sophia also refused to pay her taxes in protest and was often seen standing on the street outside Hampton Court Palace (her home at the time) selling copies of the newspaper “The Suffragette”.
However many women of colour at that time were not in such a privileged position as Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. Most were likely to have been paid low, insecure work and housing, and faced widespread discrimination. This made it difficult for them to take part and makes it difficult for historians to trace now.
We do know that at least one black woman signed the first suffrage petition in 1866 – Sarah Remond, an Afro-American lecturer and anti-slavery campaigner who spent some time in Britain.
We also know that there were other Indian women involved in the movement alongside Sophia. For example there are records of a Mrs Ramdulari Dube who spoke on Indian women’s suffrage at an event in Chelsea in 1911.
To their credit the suffrage movement in Britain fought for the vote for all women and did not discriminate on grounds of race unlike in America or Australia. But the politics of the era was complex. The British Empire was at its height and Britain had colonies all around the world.
These complexities are demonstrated by the image below showing a group of Indian women taking part in a suffragette procession in 1911. At first glance this looks to be evidence of many women of colour fully engaged in the suffragette movement, however the full story behind this image is more complicated. These women were in fact there alongside women from Australia and New Zealand representing various British colonies and the reach of the British Empire.
When success came in 1918 with the Representation of the People Act, property owning women over 30 finally won the right to a say in who governed them. This was a victory for some women, however for the majority of women of colour living in Britain at the time it was no such thing. While there was no direct, obvious discrimination based on race written into the legislation, implicit structural discrimination was still writ large, as so often happens race and class intersected. How many women of colour would have been property owners considering their precarious position at the time? Young women, working class women, which very likely included a majority of women of colour, had to wait another ten years for the Representation of the People Act (1928) in order to win their right to vote.