Where Are The Women of Colour in Our History of Suffrage?

Where Are The Women of Colour in Our History of Suffrage?

When I first started writing this I had intended to do some form of profile on the forgotten female suffragists of colour, as part of a celebration of the centenary since somewomen got the vote, and 90 years since the rest of the female adult population was included. I did some research and realised that information on these trailblazers exists if you want to find it. Authors such as Sumita Mukherjee and Anita Anand have written wonderfully detailed works describing the role of Asian and Black women in the female suffrage movement in Britain. So rather than doing a substandard version of what the experts have already executed, I took the approach of exploring how the lack of historical platform for women of colour who contributed decisively to securing the vote impacted British citizens who could not see themselves written in history. 

“Everything at school was about white people and their experiences and their impact on the past and how it affects their and our present.”

Accounts of women of colour exist but these aren’t part of the narrative we consume year in and out; the popular history that makes a catchy tune on Horrible Histories, or that which dominates the headlines as the subject of a greater appreciation of true British history. Instead, we are all much more familiar with the Pankhursts of the world - women who, yes did arguably have a pivotal role in securing the vote but, were fundamentally self-serving, had no interest in true democracy and actively excluded working-class women from their aims while passively dismissing the efforts of women of colour.  

I spoke to Sana Yusuf, a recent graduate who read History at King’s College London, and who is of Indian heritage, who told me that before she enrolled in her course at university, she had only ever learnt about ‘white’ history. 

‘Everything at school was about white people and their experiences and their impact on the past and how it affects their and our present.  I just didn’t feel like History was me. When you’re younger and you only learn about the suffragettes or the Great Fire of London with all the white characters and you’re expected to relate to it, so as you get older you always seem to need to prioritise white peoples experience.’ 

‘So when I did find out about this Indian suffragette [Princess Sophia Duleep Singh], through a podcast, - who was by no means perfect - it opened up this new door. Suddenly someone who looked like me was involved in what I had always deemed an incredibly white experience. At university, there was more of an international outlook on history for example how the Empire affected India but even then we didn’t really hear the voices of colour. I think curriculums at every level need to be more inclusive, especially within History. If you pick and choose a national curriculum so that it's incredibly white and incredibly upper class it has an impact on the voices and experiences that are prioritized in the present day.’

When I asked Sana how she felt about the main ‘suffragettes’ who take the stage, the likes of Emily Davison and Millicent Fawcett she was in two minds. On one hand, she argued, they galvanised the general consensus in favour of women’s suffrage by being radicals and taking a militant approach - something she does not support personally as a subscriber to the pacifist school of thought. On the other hand, they were ‘incredibly rich, incredibly privilege’. But something, she said, she could not despise them for since had they not been, they would not have had the opportunity to be as informed of their rights and position in society, nor would they have been able to inform and empower others, as they were working within the confines of a society in which the distribution of wealth and power were greatly disproportionate.

 In an interview with Refinery29, Katherine Connolly, historian and socialist author, argued that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst worked to cement the inequalities of Edwardian society.  ‘They dismissed working-class women as the weakest in society and the least educated while realising that enlisting middle-class women [to perform militant acts] got them more press coverage, made a bigger splash’.

When discussing the subject with another friend, a Maths student at Queen Mary of mixed Asian and African heritage, who said he had never heard of suffragists being anything other than white, he made the comment that perhaps the reason that activists of ethnic backgrounds are not widely recognised is because the women who were deemed relevant were at ‘the top end of society [which] was all white people anyway’. Even if this were true - in actual fact the efforts of working women in the north of England have received much recognition in recent years- then why does Princess Sophia, Queen Elizabeth’s goddaughter,receive near to no acknowledgement.

 Thus, the rich and white contribution to the cause by way of their status, by no means clear the women, including the Pankhursts, of the fact that they actively silenced working class women and did nothing to platform women of colour such as Ramdulari Dube and Sarah Parker Remond - who, although they are (obscurely) known to us, are far from becoming household names-  apart from when it benefited them to have tokenistic representation, as explained by Sumita Mukherjee on her blog.

The parallels between the behaviour of some key figures within the suffragette movement and the actions of white feminists in the present day are hardly veiled. Parading as the forefront of a sort of women’s liberation movement and only focusing on their, relatively speaking, trivial plights (take the contrast between growing armpit hair and having access to women’s sanitary products), as they challenge or shun any experience that does not match their own, shows just how little they are able to value intersectionality and proves how little progress has been made.

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