Why is the contribution of Black and Asian, UK suffragettes left out of the suffragettes’ story?

Credit: Dez Grant

Dawn-Maria France is an award-winning and accomplished journalist. She is a travel writer, children’s author and broadcaster, who is passionate about women’s rights, equality and diversity.

She has sat on news panels discussing ‘women in the news’, ‘global news stories’ and is a broadcasting veteran with experience on BBC TV, Sky and radio. In her feature article for SHARP Dawn-Maria discusses the contribution of Black and Asian UK suffragettes and why they are left out of the story.

This year marks 100 years since some women got the vote, although it wasn’t until 1928 that all women benefited from universal suffrage. And I am proud of the women in the UK Suffrage movement who made a stand for change, despite fierce opposition.

Everyone has heard of the Pankhursts and Emily Davidson, the suffragette martyr who threw herself in front of the king’s horse. White middle-class ladies. It’s because of their fight and their struggle that I can vote, have a career, and be the type of woman I want to be. But they weren’t the only ones. If we are telling the story of the women who fought the establishment to gain the right to vote and have their voices heard in the political narrative, where are the stories of the Black and Asian UK suffragettes?

Even growing up, as a young woman of colour, I questioned the absence of non-white women in this important period of our history. Surely, they must have had a role in this great movement for change? Yet it was always depicted as a sea of white women.

It turns out that women of colour were very much a part of the women’s suffrage movement and it’s vital we acknowledge and celebrate that fact. Sarah Parker Remond was a free-born black woman from America who campaigned internationally against slavery. When she lived in London, she is believed to be the only black woman to have signed the first women’s suffrage petition, in 1866.

Far from hoping for a political vote, women of colour across the British Empire had few rights and no rights to their own bodies. Despite the fact that rape numbers were high in the colonies, and Indian and Caribbean women were frequently abused there, Emmeline Pankhurst was passionate about the British Empire. However, some suffragists recognised their plight, and the famous Millicent Fawcett was vociferous in campaigning against the dreadful abuse of Indian women sex workers by soldiers from British military camps and garrisons.

A god-daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, a maharaja’s daughter, was active in Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), by 1910. She was a regular speaker at Richmond branch meetings and a member of the Tax Resistance League, campaigning against women being expected to pay rates and taxes, although having no vote. Through Princess Sophia, other Indian women – notably, Herabai Tata and her daughter, Mithan Lam – became familiar with the suffragette movement and brought the movement to India, putting similar political pressure on the government.

Sushama Sen was another Indian suffragette who joined in the Pankhurst-led WSPU protest march on the Houses of Parliament in 1910. In her autobiography, she says, “It was a novel sight for a single Indian woman amidst the procession, and I was the subject of public gaze.” Rare as they might have been, other Indian women featured in suffragette newspapers. Hackney’s branch of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) had Miss Sorabji active in it.

In 1912, a member of the league, Ramdulari Dube, amongst others, opened the WFL’s International Fair. She was still apparently seen as a novelty: “showing the ability and charm of an Indian woman – and the picturesqueness of her dress”.

The suffragists themselves were not all liberal-minded. As in many large organisations, some members were racists, and others were actual fascists. Norah Elamhad had worked with Sophia Duleep Singh, but became a Blackshirt later, and women’s suffragist, Mary Richardson, also turned to fascism.

It is important to promote the untold stories of Black and Asian suffragettes, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their white sisters, calling for all women to be treated fairly in society. We need to know the names of these women of colour, hear their stories, value their contributions and celebrate the work they did to empower all women.

Their presence in the suffrage movement is almost never mentioned – which is shocking! Surely the movement stood for equality and should include their stories, instead of whitewashing them from general history as though they didn’t matter? It’s vital to inspire and inform future generations of the contribution Black and Asian women made to the UK suffrage movement that benefited all women, regardless of race and class. And to offer representative role models to young women of colour.

Although we have made progress, we still have some way to go to gain true equality.

SharpLifeWhy is the contribution of Black and Asian, UK suffragettes left out of the suffragettes’ story?

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