Visible Women

The radical Indian suffragette princess honoured by Sadiq Khan

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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Princess Sophia Duleep Singh led suffragette protests – so where is she in the history books?

The centenary of women achieving partial suffrage has led to a great unearthing of individual stories. Alongside Stylist’s very own Visible Women campaign, various initiatives across the UK have been launched to shed further light on the lives of those who fought for equal rights 100 years ago. 

One such effort is the #BehindEveryGreatCity campaign, helmed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. As part of this initiative, the names of 54 women and five men who fought for women’s suffrage in the UK will be etched onto the base of the statue of suffragist Millicent Garrett-Fawcett, soon to be installed in Parliament Square.

On social media, the Mayor is also highlighting the lives of women who helped shape the face and fate of London using the hashtag #HiddenCredits. Previous #HiddenCredits have celebrated recognisable figures such as Garrett-Fawcett herself and Dame Ethel Smyth, but on 19 February, he honoured an activist whose work has been all but erased from the history books: Indian princess Sophia Duleep Singh.

Daughter of the last Sikh Maharajaha and goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Sophia was raised in England and remains one of the few prominent suffragettes of colour whose efforts to secure the vote for women were recorded.

Initially growing up “spoiled”, according to a 2015 biography by journalist Anita Anand, her father’s death in 1895 and a subsequent 1903 trip to India caused the young princess to join the burgeoning movements for both Indian independence and women’s suffrage back in Britain.

As a high-profile aristocrat, her public protests caused her to become a constant thorn in the side of both the authorities and the monarchy. “Have we no hold on her?” King George V was reported to have exclaimed in light of her exploits.

These included leaping in front of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s car, refusing to pay her taxes and bankrolling the activities of her fellow members of the Women’s Social and Political Union.

However, Singh’s bids to be arrested were consistently foiled, as her upper-class status meant that police investigations into her actions were often dropped. Until recently, her absence from prison records and other contemporary sources of suffragette action meant that her contributions to the movement had been all but erased. 

Anand’s biography helped raise her profile once more and the centenary of partial women’s suffrage has heightened awareness of the princess, who is also featured on a new stamp released by Royal Mail this February

In an Instagram post, Khan said he was “pleased to introduce” the general public to the “inspirational” Singh’s activities, which earned her the title of ‘The Hampton Court Harridan’ – a nod to the name of the palace given personally to the princess by Queen Victoria herself. Iconic.

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of important women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Main image: Rex Features