With 'Sophia,' A Forgotten Suffragette Is Back In The Headlines

Dec 31, 2015
Originally published on December 31, 2015 5:22 pm

We get so many books in the mail — hundreds every week — that we can't read them all, and sometimes all we can do with a book is say hey, that looks interesting, and file it away on the shelf.

That's what happened to Anita Anand's book Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, which was definitely the One That Got Away from me this year. I put it aside with vague good intentions, and then I forgot about it — until Princess Sophia ended up in the news.

When the movie Suffragette came out in October, critics noticed something off: The film's struggling women were all white. In fact, one of the most important women in the suffragette movement was an Indian princess, Sophia Duleep Singh. But she didn't make an appearance in the movie.

"Suddenly there was this sort of tidal wave of outrage from people who were saying, why wasn't she in the movie?" says Anand. "So my first response was, why are you so angry? You hadn't heard about her until fairly recently."

Anand herself knew nothing about Sophia until she saw an interesting face in an old magazine photo. "It was black and white, but something about it just told me that this woman was as brown as I was," she says. "She had the same sort of features as one of my aunties, and I just thought, you know, I've been a political journalist for 20 years; how is it that I don't know about an Indian suffragette?"

Here's how the suffragette princess disappeared from history.

Sophia Duleep Singh was named after her father, Duleep Singh, the last maharajah of the Sikh Empire. The British had forced him to give up his rich kingdom in Northern India — and his famous diamond, the Koh-i-Noor — when he was just a child. Sophia grew up in England with Queen Victoria as her godmother.

"And then something changed," Anand says. "Something changed, to turn her into this harridan witch-woman who was out on the streets, embarrassing the throne, embarrassing the government, throwing herself at the police, campaigning for women's rights. Her plummet from grace was just like a falling asteroid."

What changed? Sophia made a trip to India in 1903, to see the grand celebrations for the accession of King Edward VII as emperor of India. She was shocked by the deprivation and the brutality of life under British rule — and by the officials of the Raj, who treated her no better than any other brown face.

"So she returns from India suddenly with this sense of fire in her, that it is not right to have equals treated as underclasses, be they brown or be they female," Anand says. Sophia wanted a cause to fight for, and she found several: better treatment of Indian soldiers and her lifelong passion, women's rights. She threw herself into the struggle — grappling with police at protests, throwing herself at the prime minister's car and selling suffragette newspapers outside her apartment at Hampton Court Palace.

All of this enraged the British government. Sophia was constantly getting arrested. And while she was never behind bars for long — no one wanted to lock up or force-feed Queen Victoria's goddaughter — authorities found other ways to get to her. "She was really punished for standing up to the British establishment, and as a result, more or less deleted from history," Anand says.

The government worked to keep Sophia's name out of the headlines; its refusal to throw her in prison meant that she was never truly famous among the suffragettes — and Sophia herself hated the spotlight. She died in 1948, essentially invisible.

But now, almost 70 years later, this fascinating woman is finally getting her due.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The details of women in history are often lost, even when the subject is women's history itself - in this case, the suffrage movement. NPR's - NPR books editor Petra Mayer tells us about a little-known voice in that movement, the subject of the book "Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary."

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: When the movie "Suffragette" came out in October, critics noticed something off. The film's struggling women were all white.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUFFRAGETTE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Votes for women. Fight for women.

MAYER: One of the most important women in the suffragette movement was an Indian princess, Sophia Duleep Singh, but she didn't turn up in the move. And until recently, few people really remembered her. Biographer Anita Anand.

ANITA ANAND: Suddenly, there was this sort of tidal wave of outrage from people who were saying, why wasn't she in the movie? So my first response was, why are you so angry? You hadn't heard about her until fairly recently.

MAYER: Here's how the suffragette princess disappeared from history. Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last maharajah of the Sikh Empire. The British had forced him to give up his rich kingdom in northern India and his famous diamond, the Koh-i-Noor. Sophia grew up in England, with Queen Victoria herself as godmother.

ANAND: And then something changed. Something changed to turn her into this harridan witch-woman who was out of the streets, embarrassing the throne, embarrassing the government, throwing herself at the police, campaigning for women's rights. Her plummet from grace was just like a falling asteroid.

MAYER: So what changed? Sophia went to India in 1903, and she was shocked by the deprivation and the brutality of life under British rule and by the officials of the Raj, who treated her like just another brown face.

ANAND: So she returns from India suddenly with this sense of fire in her, that it is not right to have equals treated as underclasses, be they brown or be they female.

MAYER: Sophia wanted a cause to fight for, and she found one - women's rights. She threw herself into the struggle, grappling with police at protests, throwing herself at the prime minister's car and selling suffragette newspapers outside her apartment at Hampton Court Palace. All of this enraged the British governments. Sophia was constantly getting arrested. And while she was never behind bars for too long because no one wanted to lock up or force-feed a princess, the authorities found other ways to get to her.

ANAND: She was really punished for standing up to the British establishment and, as a result, more or less deleted from history.

MAYER: The government worked to keep Sophia's name out of the headlines. Oddly enough, their refusal to throw her in prison meant that she was never truly famous among the suffragettes. And Sophia herself hated the spotlight. She died in 1948, essentially invisible. But now, almost 70 years later, this fascinating woman is finally getting her due. Petra Mayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.