In a photo of a British suffrage procession in London in June 1911, a number of Indian women are holding a flag with ‘India’ emblazoned on it. It is available for view in the Museum of London collections. In the caption on the Museum of London’s website they are described as ‘Indian Suffragettes’.
This photo is often tweeted and retweeted, and shared on other forms of social media. It was particularly popular to tweet this photo at the time the film Suffragette came out in 2015, but people continue to use and discuss this photo as evidence of the large contribution that Indian women made to the British suffrage movement.
In July 2016, I gave a paper at the Radical History/Histories of Radicalism conference in London, organised by the Raphael Samuel Centre, about the use of this photo and my concerns about its unmediated use on social media. The conference was organised to celebrate Raphael Samuel, who was one of the founders of the History Workshop Journal. A recent virtual issue of HWJ on South Asia uses this photo.
Below I summarise some of the key points I tried to make then:
Who were these women and what do users mean by the term ‘Indian suffragettes’? I have been slightly troubled by the uncritical use of the term ‘Indian suffragettes’ to describe these women. And the ways in which the individuals in this photo are not discussed. Little is said about their backgrounds (I write more about their activities in my forthcoming book!). One photo is taken as ‘proof’ that many Indian women were involved in the British suffrage movement. Few attribute the photo to where it was published – in Votes for Women on 30 June 1911 (p.640).
I would like to raise some concerns about the way in which the term ‘Indian suffragettes’ is used uncritically to describe these women as they were not fighting for Indian suffrage but were invited to attend a demonstration to support white British women’s rights. These are women who are part of a procession that celebrates the imperial reach of Britain and were used by imperial feminists; they were elite, well-connected middle-class Indian women who were co-opted for involvement in one procession on one day.
This image of Indian women is symptomatic of one of the arguments that British suffragists and 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. The issue of Indian women (or other racialised women) who might vote in Britain was not being raised. They were not there to represent the campaign for votes in India either. They were being used 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. British women had asked for them to be there to support the argument that white British women should be granted the vote so they could have a say over imperial matters in parliament.
Focus on this image perpetuates British centrism of the suffrage movement when it was a global fight fought by women around the world. In her book Race, Gender and Educational Desire: Why Black Women Succeed and Fail (Routledge, 2009), feminist sociologist Heidi Mirza talks about how she stumbled across this image in the corner of a display cabinet at the Museum of London. She recalls: ‘I never knew Indian suffragettes existed. Indian women remain largely outside the historiography of British Suffragettes’ (apart from the work by Rozina Visram, who has written about Sophia Duleep Singh, her sister, and many other Indian campaigners in Britain. Visram also wrote a school book for Cambridge University Press in 1992 about the women’s movement in India and Pakistan, which discusses such women). Mirza describes how ‘excavating such an erasure of black women’s genealogy in British academia exposes a ‘counter-memory’ which tells a different ‘truth’. But I am concerned that discussions of ways to celebrate diversity or find ‘diverse’ role models have been too Anglo-centric.
Social media users have celebrated these ‘Indian’ suffragettes in 1911 but their focus and sense of praise has been for Indians in Britain. What about the actual Indian suffragettes in India? Why must focus on the suffrage movement be on western examples? Why can’t role models be taken from fierce radical campaigners outside the Anglophone world?
Britain has been racially diverse for centuries and it is important to keep on emphasising this and to ensure that histories of minorities are not separated from ‘mainstream’ British social or political histories as they are taught – and so actually a story like suffrage is a great example of the ways in which a large-scale politically radical movement had the potential to celebrate ‘diversity’. The photo is evidence that Indian women were present in Britain and interacted with British suffrage campaigners.
Of course, their very presence is important, but we must be careful about terminology and overstating their role. By asking questions about their role and background, grounded in evidence (beyond one photo), we can become engaged in important, inspiring, radical suffrage history.