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Vote100: Representation in the fight for Suffrage

Opening of the International Alliance of Women congress in Berlin
Opening of the International Alliance of Women congress in Berlin

To mark the centenary of the Representation of the people act that gave some women in the UK the vote for the first time, we’ve interviewed three suffrage scholars on why February 6th 1918 is a date none of us should forget.

It can be easy to look back at the Representation of the People Act, brought into power 100 years ago today, as the final victory in a 60 year battle for women’s suffrage. For Dr Sumita Mukherjee, a historian of Indian suffrage campaigners both in the UK and India, the centenary should also be about looking at how battles from a century ago relate to today.

“I think it’s an important anniversary because there are still issues and questions that it raises,” she says.  “As important as it is that some women get the vote in 1918, – and of course not all women got the vote in 1918 – it’s really part of a bigger conversation about women’s rights more broadly.”

“There’s lots of contemporary relevance to thinking about what happened in 1918 and that partial victory but also how there are still battles being fought today. For me, it’s not just about commemorating it because it was a historical event – there are lots of historical events – but because there are ongoing struggles, questions and issues around women’s participation and representation.”

Dr Mukherjee also looks at how the Indian women who took part in campaigns for suffrage were represented: “In 1910 when the British suffrage movement was perhaps at its height in the public consciousness, there were many Indian women living in Britain, especially in and around London and in a few instances Indian women were involved in suffrage processions, including Sushama Sen, Lolita Roy and others.

“Sushama Sen in her biography talks about how she was aware that her presence was remarked upon and seen as quite novel. My research has raised questions around the objectification of some Indian women in some of these processions and the ways in which they were exoticised and felt to be recipients of this public gaze.”

Sophia Duleep Singh's sale of goods in lieu of tax
Sophia Duleep Singh's sale of goods in lieu of tax

Dr Mukherjee’s research doesn’t just focus on Indian women supporting campaigns for suffrage in the UK however. It also looks at how Indian women traveled around the world to gain support for suffrage campaigns in India as well.

“The first women in India were enfranchised in 1921, three years after the UK and that was in Bombay and Madras. The other provinces slowly gave women the vote –it was the provinces giving them suffrage, but this also gave them a national vote – and by 1935 the right to vote was extended to all women in British India.”

Although, women gaining suffrage in India was a more gradual process than in the UK, there were plenty of other similarities: “In 1918 there were property restrictions for women in Britain and there were property restrictions in India as well,” says Dr Mukherjee. “The equivalent amount of property you had to own was very high and so very few people were able to meet them.”

It’s not hard to see the legacy of Indian suffrage campaigners today, as Dr Mukherjee points out: The women’s movement is vibrant in India as it is through the world. In my project I looked at the international links of Indian women and how Indian suffrage campaigns were linking with suffragettes in Britain and other parts of the world. Those international links are still strong today.”

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