The true pioneering heroes of the Edwardian Era were not The Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. This supposedly tranquil time was in truth the most turbulent age of social activism between the Civil War and the 1960s, and naturally the real drivers of this new “Progressive” age were less likely to be old, white or male than the usual famous names of the age.
Sophia Duleep Singh was born a princess, the daughter of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Indian prince in the Sikh Empire. Goddaughter to Queen Victoria, she was raised in luxury in England, but as an adult grew to realise that her sheltered upbringing had hidden from her a world of opression, and on a visit back to India she realised what had been done to her homeland. Returning to live in her own house in England in 1909, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) demonstration alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, where more than 150 women were assaulted. In 1911, on the day of the King’s Speech to Parliament, she launched herself in front of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s car and pulled out a ‘Give Votes to Women’ banner from her fur muff. In the 1910s she refused to pay her taxes, saying “If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?” – but with her royal connections, the police were too scared to arrest her. Here she is pictured selling a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace.
Ida B. Wells was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, born into slavery during the Civil War, then orphaned by a yellow fever outbreak at the age of 16, forcing her to become a teacher to support her siblings. In 1884, she filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis after having been thrown off a first-class train, despite having a ticket. After the lynching of one of her friends, she started publishing anti-lynching pamphlets and writing for newspapers, until one exposé led to her office being burned down. Driven out of Memphis, Wells began traveling internationally to tell the world about lynching, and confronting women’s suffrage organisations who refused to take the issue seriously. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, and was there at the founding of the NAACP in 1909.
Here is a history podcast about Ida B Wells, and here is another about Sophia Duleep Singh.