My great-great-aunt was a terrorist. I’m not talking about the sense in which the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi was branded a terrorist by the British parliament in 1932: Pritilata Waddedar was an active participant in armed struggle against the British state. She supplied explosives. She fired a gun. And I’m proud of it.
As Tuesday marks 100 years since some British women were given the right to vote, now is the time to consider the impact of imperialism on women’s suffrage, and the crucial role played by women in anticolonial movements. The fight for equal participation was bigger than expansion of the franchise.
The Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted voting rights to property-owning women over 30, is more often than not depicted as a “reward” for women’s contributions during the first world war. In the words of suffragist Millicent Fawcett: “The war revolutionised the industrial position of women.” Just 2,000 women worked in government dockyards, factories and arsenals in 1914; by the time of the armistice, this number had grown to almost a quarter of a million.
The Pankhursts, sensing an opportunity, rejected the conscientious objectors movement, and transformed the public image of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the main organisation campaigning for women’s suffrage in Britain, by embracing nationalistic imagery. The once divergent political interests of suffragettes and the British state were able to find common cause in imperialist warfare.
While there were certainly anti-imperialist suffragettes – most notably Annie Besant, Catherine Impey and Emmeline Pankhurst’s own daughter Sylvia – feminism’s first wave was as concerned with British women’s equal participation in colonialism as they were the expansion of the franchise. Emmeline Pankhurst lionised Britain’s “great in territory, great in potential wealth” empire; Norah Dacre Fox’s belief in British racial superiority would drive her to join the British Union of Fascists later in the century.
For figures such as Flora Annie Steel (sometimes known as the “female Rudyard Kipling”), the ability of white women to wield power over natives in the colonies justified their demand for greater political participation on the British mainland. Steel wrote in her 1888 work The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook that the memsahib’s (woman’s) authority over colonised domestic servants was a microcosm of empire: the “first duty” of the English mistress of the house was “to give intelligible orders”, the second “to insist on her orders being carried out”. The white man’s burden, it turns out, was gender-inclusive.
This imperialist hierarchy played out in the 1918 expansion of the franchise. Despite the crucial contributions of colonised subjects to the British war effort and the presence of Indians and Africans in international conferences on women’s suffrage, women’s right to vote was limited to the British mainland and whites in settler colonies. While European women could vote in Kenya as early as 1919, African men and women would have to wait until 1956 for this same right (and even then, were constrained by property restrictions). Women across India gained limited voting rights in provincial legislatures throughout the mid to late-1920s; it was not until after independence that they could vote at the national level.
As such, for Asian, African and Indigenous Australian women, anticolonial movements were the primary arena of political participation. The demand was not for inclusion in the institutions of representative democracy, but to overthrow the imperialist state entirely. Repressive measures taken by the British government to quell Indian nationalist agitation meant that expansions of the franchise regarding legislative councils were met by mistrust: Indian politicians in Bengal refused to participate in the 1920 elections, and formally adopted a policy of boycott and non-cooperation.
Female students were at the forefront of the Non-Cooperation Movement, and in 1925, Sarojini Naidu was elected president of the Indian National Congress – the first woman ever to hold that role. However, Gandhian mass mobilisation was not the only means by which Indian women expressed political agency. While we might think of satyagraha as the defining strategy of the Quit India Movement, armed struggle played a vital role in defeating the British Raj.
Which is where my great-great-aunt comes in. Bengal in the early 1930s was a hotbed of anti-British revolutionary activity – and women were at the heart of this insurrectionist moment. Charles Stevens, a district magistrate in the region, was assassinated by two women, Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Chaudhuri. Kamala Das Gupta helped the Jugantar party carry out a string of bombings against the occupying British. And my great-great-aunt Pritilata Waddedar packed in her job as a schoolteacher and took up the gun.
On 18 April 1930, Surya Sen, Waddedar and more than 60 others set out to capture the two main armouries in Chittagong, take hostages from the European Club, and cut off rail and communications contact with Calcutta. Despite failing to locate the British stockpile of ammunition, the revolutionaries managed to cut telephone and telegraph wires and disrupt the rail network – and my great-great-aunt participated in the successful capture of the reserve police line.
Over the next two years, Waddedar supplied explosives, wrote nationalist pamphlets and facilitated illicit correspondence between Sen and his jailed comrade Ramkrishna Biswas, who awaited a death sentence. At the age of 21, she had earned a spot on Bengal’s most wanted list.
In September 1932, Waddedar participated in what would be her final raid. Disguised as a Punjabi man, she led a team of fighters in an attack on the Pahartali European Club in Chittagong, which was frequented by British officers and proudly displayed a sign reading “Dogs and Indians Not Allowed”. Waddedar and her compatriots torched the club, killing one British woman and injuring 11 other people.
However, during the assault Waddedar sustained a single bullet wound. Trapped by police, she committed suicide by consuming potassium cyanide rather than face imprisonment, torture and execution at the hands of the British – a fate that would befall Sen two years later.
For Pritilata Waddedar and other female participants in the freedom struggle, armed anticolonial insurrection was the only means by which women could achieve their liberation. In what transpired to be her final documented words, Waddedar wrote: “I earnestly hope that my sisters will no more think themselves weaker and will get themselves ready to face all dangers and difficulties and join the revolutionary movement in their thousands.”
Suffragettes in Britain argued for their political selfhood by supporting their menfolk in warfare; in the colonies, women joined them on the frontlines.
I learned the family story from my mum, who was an anti-racist and trade union activist. She heard it from her mother, who herself had been a fierce advocate of Bangladeshi independence. Across two continents and four generations, a tradition of sedition, agitation and absolute sheer bloody-mindedness ties the women of my family together.
British women’s history was never confined to the British mainland; and contesting the narrative around enfranchisement shows us that rights were not bestowed by the state, but extracted from it by force. And from Ahed Tamimi to Erica Garner, women to this very day remind us that political struggle extends far beyond access to the ballot box – our fight is not for mere representation, but nothing less than full emancipation.
• Ash Sarkar is a senior editor at Novara Media
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