Feminists in Focus: Princess Sophia Duleep Singh

Attending the Women of the World Festival this year gave me the opportunity to not only interact with some of the biggest forces in the UK’s gender equality movement, but it paid homage to some of the feminists whose memory has been wiped from history.

One of the talks I attended was called ‘Badass Feminists from History’ which had a panel of 3 women speaking about forgotten feminists from years gone by. This was hands down the best panel I saw during the WoW weekend, and each woman discussed will be getting her own FiF article (fear not!).

In this blog post however, I will be telling you the story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. The member of the panel discussing Sophia was Anita Anand, a journalist and author. She started off by telling us what had triggered her initial fascination with Sophia. It was this photograph:

1910-Sophia-Suffragette-Duleep-Singh-fixed.jpg

Anita had seen this image and instantly recognised the woman as being Indian. However, this image was the extent of the information on Princess Sophia and as a result, Anita began a long journey to uncover Sophia’s history and write a book on the findings.

It is not possible to tell Sophia’s story without delving a little into her family history. Sophia’s grandfather was Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), the greatest warrior and the founding king of the Sikh Empire. He was ferocious in battle and travelled across the land conquering more and more territory. Ranjit Singh was one of the wealthiest men of his time and reportedly wore the famous Kohinoor diamond on a band around his bicep (it was three times the size of the diamond now found in the Tower of London).

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

One by one his sons killed each other or died, leaving 5 year old Duleep Singh as the ruler of the Sikh Empire. His mother ruled as Regent for a while, but eventually with the invasion of the British, at the age of 8 he was given a choice to either give up the throne or be killed.

He was taken into the care of a British family and after being converted to Christianity, at the age of 15 he was exiled to England. When he arrived in England, he became an instant hit with Queen Victoria who said, “Those eyes and those teeth are too beautiful…He is extremely handsome and speaks English perfectly, and has a pretty, graceful and dignified manner”. Steady on Vic.

He was invited to visit the Queen frequently and she was said to have enjoyed sketching him playing with her children. The novelty of a turbaned Christian Maharaja made Duleep Singh a real favourite in the Royal household.

Duleep went on to marry twice, firstly to Bamba Muller and then to Ada Douglas Wetherill, and had a total of 8 children. He set up residence in a stately home in Elveden, which he decorated to look like an Indian palace. He was only allowed to return to India twice before his death, once to collect his mother and once to scatter his mother’s ashes. This was due to the fact that Duleep was officially the last king of the Sikh Empire and they feared the uprising he might cause with his return.

Sophia Duleep Singh was born to Bamba Muller in 1876 and became the god-daughter of Queen Victoria herself. She grew up in a life of complete privilege, with very little understanding of the struggle that had come before her. If you like, she was the Kylie Jenner of her time, a socialite and celebrity who was in the newspapers every week for her fashion choices. For a long time, Sophia did not achieve very much – “She would strike absurd poses for newspaper photographers, marrying her two greatest loves: high fashion and dog-breeding.”

Sophia and her sisters, Catherine and Bamba

“She … becomes this Victorian ‘IT’ girl, she’s at every party that matters, she’s at every season, in all society columns, she becomes the one to follow for her fashion sense and she loves it. She’s also given a grace and favour home at Hampton Court. That’s her transition and that’s where most people would have lived happily ever after.”

So how did this pointless socialite become one of the most underrated feminists in British history?

As the family were still banned from visiting India, Sophia made the decision to smuggle herself in with her sister Bamba. When she arrived, she was treated very badly by the British and she realised that while she may be hot shit in London, back in India she was seen as worthless as any other Indian.

Her sister Bamba had dreams of becoming a doctor. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had made history by becoming the first woman to train in medicine, but this was not to become the norm for the time being. Catherine was forced to move to Chicago to study, but after a year or two, her course was banned for women. “Although several universities were admitting women medical students, many Americans found the practice distasteful, believing like their British counterparts that women doctors were an affront to the natural order”.

Sophia felt this injustice very deeply. On her other side, she saw that her sister Catherine (who was a lesbian) was not being allowed to live life as her true self.

While in India, she had heard someone speaking about women’s equality. These values were being echoed in the speeches of Emmeline Pankhurst back in London, and suddenly, Sophia found herself as a part of the Suffrage movement. She attended many meetings and demonstrations, most notably the Black Friday march in 1910, where many Suffragettes were brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by the police and others. She also went on to join the Women’s Tax Resistance League and the Suffragette Fellowship.

Sophia was a very active campaigner, a woman who was incredibly vocal in her quest for gender equality and votes for women. After Emmeline Pankhurst’s death, Sophia was made President of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death in 1948.

Sophia has been largely wiped from the history books because she made herself so unpopular with the men in power at the time. Most notably of all, she was despised by Winston Churchill after writing a series of letters to him to complain about the brutality of a certain police officer towards her sister Suffragettes. There is so much more to say about this exotic and inspiring character, but if you would like find out more about her unique life, you can buy a copy of Anita Anand’s book here.

Thanks for reading,

~ Sanya

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