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Suffragettes in Saris

How Indian Women Won the Vote

Samita Sen ( is Vere Harmsworth Professor in Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge.

Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks by Sumita Mukherjee, Oxford University Press India, 2018; pp 312, ₹ 699 (hardcover).


Sarojini Naidu famously disavowed feminism: “I do not like what you call feminism.” In February 1929, addressing a meeting of the National Women’s Party at Washington, she said that Indian women had too much to do fighting for both freedom and political equality to have time for feminism. To her, feminism smacked of an inferiority complex. Why should women want to be like men? (p 147) She was not alone in this. In the first half of the 20th century, as Indian women struggled to balance nationalist politics with their social and political demands, lines of alliances became crossed and complex. Mithan Tata reported that Madame Cama, an Indian nationalist, who had unfolded the Indian tricolour at the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart (1907) and published the journal, Bande Mataram, from 1909 in Paris, shook her head at them for meeting the Southborough Committee demanding votes for Indian women. The best way to achieve votes for women was to fight for freedom, she said. Indeed, for many women leaders in this period, the balance between the fight for freedom and the struggle for political rights, including that of the vote, was a delicate one, rendered enormously complex by the context of imperialism.

Sumita Mukherjee’s new book on Indian suffragettes delves into these complexities, expanding the canvas to explore national, regional and international dimensions of the movement. The book is a pioneering effort, since there has been no major study of the suffragette movement in colonial India. It is one of the peculiarities of the historical scholarship on gender in South Asia that subjects and themes that have attracted a great deal of attention elsewhere in the world have had relatively little attraction for researchers here. There was, as elsewhere, a women’s suffrage movement in India; many historians of the period have noted its existence in passing. There have been only a few attempts, however, to focus research on this aspect of women’s political engagement. This is perhaps in part because of the positional complexity of the struggle for the vote within a context of imperial subjection, as Mrinalini Sinha (1999) pointed out. The only discussion of the subject at some length has been by Barbara Southard (1995), but she told us the story of women’s suffrage only in Bengal. These movements have been dismissed as elite, restricted, and not serious political mobilisation; it is quite common for even scholars to argue that Indian women got the vote by the generosity of nationalist male leadership. Moreover, since women did not have to fight for it, they did not value it. In recent years, feminist historians have suggested that franchise was included in the fight for freedom. The adoption of universal adult suffrage was not in the gift of the male leadership, it was the term on which all sections of the population rallied to the Congress. Even such arguments preclude consideration of the long struggle for the vote waged by a section of women leaders.

Neglect of Political Women

Why has a mainstream political issue of such great significance for Indian democracy been of so little interest? More than 30 years ago, Tanika Sarkar (1984) lamented the neglect of “political women” in the literature on nationalism in India, suggesting that in the case of women, politicisation and general emancipation were treated as synonymous. Indeed, the tag “the personal is political” appears to have had a paradoxical consequence; it has marginalised the question of women’s participation in mainstream politics. The complex relationship between the “social” and the “political” in constructions of gender may have resulted in little attention being given to the central political issue of early feminism—the struggle for the vote.

Mukherjee points out that writing suffragette history is not only about women and the vote but also about the fundamentals of political processes. Indeed, in colonial India, the suffrage question arose not only in the context of difference by sex, but also divisions of caste and community. It was at the centre of political negotiations between M K Gandhi and B R Ambedkar and between the Congress and the Muslim League. The question of women’s vote was closely tied to the devolving notion of political rights along multiple axes of identity. Yet, somehow these issues have fallen through the cracks of social reform and nationalist ideology.

The issue of women’s franchise in India raised its head during the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919. Despite some preliminary lobbying, the Southborough Report (April 1919) rejected any possibility of women’s enfranchisement. Rather, “cultural” explanations, such as purdah, segregation and (lack of) education, were offered as reasons for not allowing women to vote and became a standard trope in discussions about suffrage for years to come. Thus, gendering of suffrage came early in the history of India’s democracy. The first women’s organisation, the Women’s Indian Association (WIA, 1917), had been established only a bare two years earlier. In the initial years, WIA and some of its leading members played a crucial role in lobbying for female franchise. In January 1927, the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) was established and it dropped the word “education” from its title the next year. The AIWC was to become the second-largest mass organisation in colonial India, closely allied to the Indian National Congress, and including most major women leaders of the period as members. Some of these, such as Sarojini Naidu, Muthulakshmi Reddi, Avabai Mehta, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, became closely involved with the suffragette movement. Naidu gave leadership during the second Round Table Conference (RTC). It is not generally known, however, that many other women had longer association with the movement. Herabai Tata and her daughter, Meethibai (also Mithan) Tata, were perhaps the two earliest campaigners. At the first RTC (1930), British government invited two women, Radhabai Subbarayan and Begum Shahnawaz, who made quite an impact in London. The AIWC journal, Roshni, complained that the choice had been made with an eye to conformity. Shahnawaz was a member of AIWC, but neither of the two women were associated with nationalist politics.

At the first RTC all Indian delegates were divided by interest groups, and the representative character of women’s leadership was not resolved. It was perhaps not surprising, given her connections and experience, that Subbarayan was included in the Indian Franchise Committee (IFC). When Rustomji Faridoonji, vice president of AIWC, met the IFC on 23 March 1932, Ambedkar asked her how progressive she thought the majority of Indian women to be. She answered in the affirmative but the question of representation was a knotty one and to readers today the early challenge of intersectionality will not be lost (pp 218–19). The fifth chapter of the book discusses these issues in great detail, with new nuggets of information that are bound to fascinate practitioners of women’s history.

Connections and Networks

The focus of the book, however, is “network” as signalled in the very naming of the chapters. Mukherjee places Indian suffragists at the confluence of many networks in which they actively participated. She argues that the suffragette movement had a critical international dimension and charge, not only in the obvious context of imperialism but also in the way the movement imagined the women’s constituency. One perhaps now well-known aspect of this is a few Indian women’s association with the British suffragette movement. Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh, the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh in exile in Britain, became an active suffragette and her story has been told in a wonderful book by Anita Anand (2015). Sushama Sen took part in a Women’s Social and Political Union demonstration in 1910. The novelty of a woman in a sari in a suffragette procession attracted great attention. In 1911, in the coronation suffrage procession in London there were three Indian women, Lolita Roy, Leilavati Mukherjea (daughter) and Bhagwati Bola Nauth. According to Crawford (2018), Bhagwati was 29 years old at that time and married for 14 years.

Apart from these early, little-known suffragette connections, there was a sustained effort at international networking by women activists. Curiously, even though the fight for the vote is typically a national one, addressed at a particular government, the movement has always had international ramifications. In that early period, women came together, each to wage their own tough battle. In Mukherjee’s analyses, three issues about the internationalism of Indian suffragettes are particularly striking. First, there was a long and somewhat unequal relationship between Indian and British suffragettes. The white man’s burden was extended to the white woman and British feminists saw women’s franchise in India as part of an imperial responsibility. Even in 1934, Eleanor Rathbone continued to lobby British government on behalf of Indian women. However, by the 1930s, most Indian women leaders were disillusioned with British authorities. They veered to the view that political emancipation could be achieved only with national independence and decided to place their trust in the male leadership of the Congress. There was a resolution in favour of adult franchise in the Karachi Congress (1931) and Gandhi made a promise to Indian women that they would get the vote upon independence. Roughly 5 million women voted in that first election (1936–37), overwhelmingly for the Congress.

The suffrage network, however, extended much beyond Britain. The United States suffragettes also played a crucial role. As a non-imperial white collaboration, the involvement of Carrie Chapman Catt and Jane Addams was particularly valued. In 1925, the National Council of Women in India (NCWI) was founded, affiliated to the International Council of Women. As part of an international network of women’s organisations, NCIW and some of its members became part of perennial webs of feminist solidarities. In the interwar period, the League of Nations also offered opportunities of networking. Above all, the commonwealth offered scope for colonial conversations. Scholars have used the term colonial feminism in different ways, Mukherjee is able to give the term a very specific definition (pp 78–79). Women in different colonies of Britain, such as Australia, South Africa, Kenya, and the Caribbean, were able to discuss common issues and share concerns in the imperial metropolis as well as in the peripheries. Even though, in many of these locations, Indian women dealt with white women, they were able to make a distinction between feminists from the commonwealth and those from Britain. However, these interactions also highlighted some differences in contexts, such as the very different place of race, since the Indian population was perceived to be racially homogeneous. There was, however, mobilisation on the issue of indentured emigration. Thus, the suffragette story unfolded along intersections of race, gender and class.

Race in Feminism

The issue of race was a complicated one. There have been two views on the significance of race in international feminism. Some scholars, such as Fiona Paisley (2009), have shown how non-Western women achieved significant presence in international bodies. Equally, however, despite enormous help and support from Western feminists and the active participation of Indian women in international networks, there were underlying assumptions of superiority. Even within the movement, there were orientalist stereotypes, which Indian feminists found demeaning. The controversy over Katherine Mayo’s Mother India brought some of these tensions to the fore. Elisabeth Armstrong (2016) has argued that a gradual awareness of racial power dynamics led non-Western feminists to cultivate South–South linkages in the decolonising era. Mukherjee shows that this tendency began much earlier. Indian feminists, in particular, attempted other than networks in the commonwealth, to cultivate Asian links. In Chapter 4, there is a detailed account of such efforts. Unfortunately, an Asian platform did not emerge. Mukherjee argues that the imperial framework enabled deeper networks, which mere geographical proximity could not replicate or substitute.

The issue of race is at present at the forefront of feminism today. Whether as transnational feminism or postcolonial feminism, theory and activism is grappling with the double of dilemma of accelerated globalisation and deepening significance of global inequalities. It is a very good time to ponder the history of Indian feminism’s international connections. Have we moved out of the long shadow of the history of intersections of race, class and gender, or of the ebbs and flows of nation, region and world communities? What can we learn from feminist solidarities and schisms of times past? This book by Mukherjee helps us understand both the value and the limitations of connections and networks in feminist politics. It is a must-read for historians and social scientists.


Anand, Anita (2015): Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary, London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Armstrong, Elisabeth (2016): “Before Bandung: The Anti-imperialist Women’s Movement in Asia and the Women’s International Democratic Federation,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol 41, No 2.

Crawford, Elizabeth (2018): “The Black and Asian Women Who Fought for a Vote,” viewed on 26 July 2019,

Forbes, Geraldine (2002): “Women of Character, Grit and Courage: The Reservation Debate in Historical Perspective,” Between Tradition, Counter Tradition and Heresy, Contributions in Honour of Vina Mazumdar, Lotika Sarkar, Kumud Sharma and Leela Kasturi (eds), Delhi: Rainbow Publishers.

Paisley, Fiona (2009): Glamour in the Pacific: Cultural Internationalism and Race Politics in the Women’s Pan-Pacific, Honolulu: University of Hawai Press.

Sarkar, Tanika (1984): “Politics and Women in Bengal: The Conditions and Meaning of Participation,” Indian Economic & Social History Review, Vol 21, No 1, pp 91–101.

Sen, Sushama (1971): Memoirs of an Octogenarian, Simla: Hilly Chatterjee and Jai Pradeep Sen.

Sinha, Mrinalini (1999): “Suffragism and Internationalism: The Enfranchisement of British and Indian Women under an Imperial State,”  Indian Economic & Social History Review,  Vol 36, No 4, pp 461–84.

Southard, Barbara (1995): Women’s Movement and Colonial Politics in Bengal: The Quest for Political Rights, Education and Social Reform Legislation, 1921–1936, New Delhi: Manohar.

Updated On : 28th Aug, 2019


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