Instead of relaxing in indolent luxury, Sophia Duleep Singh fought inequality and bias
Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh was a pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain, and one of the most important figures in the struggle for gender equality. She was one of many Indian women who fought for the rights of women in Britain in the early 20th century.
She is one of the women of Indian origin that SEEMA is honoring this March, which is Women’s History Month.
Opportunities and Challenges
Born in 1876, Singh was the daughter of the exiled Maharaja Sir Duleep Singh, the last prince of Punjab. As a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, she lived in Hampton Court Palace. According to the British Library, her father had been close to Queen Victoria, and the family was given the use of the palace’s apartment rooms. After her father died in 1895, Singh studied medicine at the North Eastern Medical College, Chicago. However when U.S. law changed, she was unable to become a doctor, due to her gender.
In 1909, Singh visited India, where she witnessed extreme poverty and inequality for the first time. These experiences may have sparked off the prolific social work that marked the rest of her life.
She supported the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), becoming a prominent figure in the fight for votes for women. She sold suffragette newspapers, took the lead in protest marches, and campaigned heavily for the No Vote, No Tax movement. She is quoted saying “When the women of England are enfranchised I shall pay my taxes willingly. If I am not a person for the purpose of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?”
A Bigger Worldview
As well as being involved with personally important causes, Singh also showed an understanding of issues that vulnerable people faced. She showed her compassion when volunteering with refugees impacted by WWI. Or further supporting those suffering poverty within society or facing injustice due to racial prejudice in Britain at that time.
Singh also helped draw attention to the contribution of Indian soldiers in the First World War, visiting wounded Indian soldiers in Brighton. She organized Flag Days to raise money for wounded soldiers – the most notable of which was in 1918.
Sophia Duleep Singh’s legacy lives on. Books, documentaries and exhibitions across the country have wonderfully told her story. They bear testimony to her courage and dedication to making Britain fairer for all women.
Brickbats and Bouquets
The princess’ journey wasn’t easy. There were times when she faced criticism or negative press coverage due to her aristocratic background or even on account of her race and made enemies with some of the most powerful people, including King George.
This never deterred her from speaking out against oppression or attempting to advance social equality wherever possible. She stood up against inequality anytime it presented itself.
This year, English Heritage announced that it would put up a blue plaque outside Singh’s erstwhile residence at Hampton House to commemorate her contribution to history.
We would not be where we are today if not for the women that came before us. This article is part of a series where we remember pioneering women from South Asian history and their contributions to the world.