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Women in Modern India 

In a compelling study of Indian women, Geraldine Forbes considers their 
recent history from the nineteenth century under colonial rule to the twentieth 
century after Independence. She begins with the reform movement, estab- 
lished by men to educate women, and demonstrates how education changed 
women’s lives enabling them to take part in public life. Through their own 
accounts of their lives and activities, she documents the formation of their 
organizations, their participation in the struggle for freedom, their role in the 
colonial economy and the development of the women’s movement in India 
since 1947. 

“[The author’s] clear, vivid narrative is infused with deep sympathy for her 
subject and prolific scholarship.” The Times Higher Education Supplement 

“This book is essential reading for everyone interested in Indian women.” 
Journal of Asian Studies 

GERALDINE ForseEs is Distinguished Teaching Professor of History and 
Director of Women’s Studies at the State University of New York Oswego. 
Her publications include An Historian’s Perspective: Indian Women and the 
Freedom Movement (1997) and Positivism in Bengal (1975) for which she was 
awarded the Rabindranath Tagore Prize in 1979 for the best book on Bengali 
culture. She has also edited and introduced An Indian Freedom Fighter Recalls 
her Life by Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal (1994) and Memoirs of an Indian Woman 
by Shudha Mazumdar (1989). 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


Women in modern India 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


General editor GORDON JOHNSON 

President of Wolfson College, and Director, Centre of South Asian Studies, 
University of Cambridge 

Associate editors C. A. BAYLy 

Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History, University of Cambridge, 
and Fellow of St Catharine’s College 

Professor of History, Duke University 

Although the original Cambridge History of India, published between 1922 and 
1937, did much to formulate a chronology for Indian history and describe the 
administrative structures of government in India, it has inevitably been overtaken 
by the mass of new research published over the last fifty years. 

Designed to take full account of recent scholarship and changing conceptions of 
South Asia’s historical development, The New Cambridge History of India will 
be published as a series of short, self-contained volumes, each dealing with a sepa- 
rate theme and written by one or two authors. Within an overall four-part struc- 
ture, thirty-one complementary volumes in uniform format will be published. As 
before, each will conclude with a substantial bibliographical essay designed to lead 
non-specialists further into the literature. 

The four parts planned are as follow: 

1 The Mughals and Their Contemporaries 
II Indian States and the Transition to Colonialism 
II The Indian Empire and the Beginnings of Modern Society 
IV The Evolution of Contemporary South Asia 

A list of individual titles in preparation will be found at the end of the volume. 

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Women in Modern India 




Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sdo Paulo 

Cambridge University Press 
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK 

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York 
Information on this title: 1268127 

© Cambridge University Press 1996 

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception 
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, 
no reproduction of any part may take place without 
the written permission of Cambridge University Press. 

First published 1996 
First paperback edition 1999 
Reprinted 2004 

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library 

Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication data 
Forbes, Geraldine Hancock, 1943-— 
Women in modern India / Geraldine Forbes. 
p. cm.—(The New Cambridge History of India; IV. 2) 
Includes bibliographical references and index. 
ISBN 0 521 26812 5 (he) 
1. Women — India — History — 19th century. 2. Women — India — 
History — 20th century. I. Title. II. Series. 
DS436.N47 1987 pt.4, vol. 2 

954 S — dce20 
305.4°0954'09034 9541202 CIP 

ISBN-13 978-0-521-65377-0 paperback 
ISBN-10 0-521-65377-0 paperback 

Transferred to digital printing 2006 

Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 

I dedicate this book to those Indian women who have enriched 
my life by making my research in India an experience with history 

lived and living history: 



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List of illustrations page x 
General editor’s preface Xill 
Acknowledgments xv 
List of abbreviations XVil 
A note on spelling xix 
Introduction I 

1 Reform in the nineteenth century: 
efforts to modernize women’s roles 10 
2 Education for women 32 

3 The emergence of women’s 

organizations 64 
4 The movement for women’s rights 92 
5 Women inthe nationalist movement 121 
6 Women’s work in colonial India 157 
7 A time of transition 189 
8 Women in independent India 223 
Bibliographic essay 255 
Index 283 


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Satire on women’s changing roles: “Wife assaulting 

her husband” by Nibaran Chandra Ghosh, Kaligat, 

c. 1900 (courtesy of the India Office and Oriental 
Library Collections, the British Library) 

Entrance to Forman Girls’ School, Lahore, 1936 by 

H. R. Ferger (courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, 
Smith College) 

Girls from the Brahmo Samaj by N. B. Pujary, c. 1904 
(courtesy of Sevati Mitra) 

Indian girls at school in Madras, by R. Venkiah Bros, 

c. 1930 (courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith 

The companionate wife, Shudha Mazumdar in riding 
breeches, Darjeeling, c. 1933 (courtesy of Shudha 

Raja Indra Chandra Singh Ladies’ Group, n.d. (courtesy 
of Dr. Pradap Chandra Mahtab) 

Renuka Ray as president of the All-India Women’s 
Conference with two of her officers, 1952 (courtesy of 
Renuka Ray) 

Wedding portrait, Sahayram Basu (age twenty) and his 
bride Ranu (age eight), 1907 (courtesy of Sevati Mitra) 
Wedding portrait, Ronen and Padmini Sen Gupta, 1938 
(courtesy of Padmini Sen Gupta) 

Herabai and Mithan Tata in London, 1919 (courtesy of 
Mithan Tata Lam) 

In training to join Gandhi: Bharat scouts, Allahabad, 1929 
(courtesy of Krishnabai Nimbkar) 

Portrait of Sarojini Naidu, c. 1930 (photographer 

Women brining brine to salt pans in Vile Parle Camp, 
Bombay during civil disobedience movement, 1930 
(photographer unknown) 

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page 34 













14 Women weavers in Assam, c. 1900 (courtesy of Bourne 
and Shepherd) 
15 Washermen and washerwomen, c. 1900 (courtesy of 
Bourne and Shepherd) 
16 Entertainer, Rajasthan (photograph by Pablo Bartholomew) 
17 Indian women police, n.d. (courtesy of the Sophia 
Smith Collection, Smith College) 


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Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


The New Cambridge History of India covers the period from the 
beginning of the sixteenth century. In some respects it marks a radical 
change in the style of Cambridge Histories, but in others the editors 
feel that they are working firmly within an established academic tradi- 

During the summer of 1896, F. W. Maitland and Lord Acton between 
them evolved the idea for a comprehensive modern history. By the end 
of the year the Syndics of the University Press had committed them- 
selves to the Cambridge Modern History, and Lord Acton had been put 
in charge of it. It was hoped that publication would begin in 1899 and be 
completed by 1904, but the first volume in fact came out in 1902 and the 
lastin 1910, with additional volumes of tables and mapsin 1911 and 1912. 

The History was a great success, and it was followed by a whole series 
of distinctive Cambridge Histories covering English Literature, the 
Ancient World, India, British Foreign Policy, Economic History, 
Medieval History, the British Empire, Africa, China and Latin 
America, and even now other new series are being prepared. Indeed, 
the various Histories have given the Press notable strength in the pub- 
lication of general reference books in the arts and social sciences. 

What has made the Cambridge Histories so distinctive is that they 
have never been simply dictionaries or encyclopedias. The Histories 
have, in H. A. L. Fisher’s words, always been “written by an army of 
specialists concentrating the latest results of special study”. Yet as 
Acton agreed with the Syndics in 1896, they have not been mere com- 
pilations of existing material but original works. Undoubtedly many of 
the Histories are uneven in quality, some have become out of date very 
rapidly, but their virtue has been that they have consistently done more 
than simply record an existing state of knowledge: they have tended to 
focus interest on research and they have provided a massive stimulus to 
further work. This has made their publication doubly worthwhile and 
has distinguished them intellectually from other sorts of reference 
book. The editors of The New Cambridge History of India have 
acknowledged this in their work. 


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The original Cambridge History of India was published between 
1922 and 1937. It was planned in six volumes, but of these, volume 2 
dealing with the period between the first century a.D. and the Muslim 
invasion of India never appeared. Some of the material is still of value, 
but in many respects it is now out of date. The last fifty years have seen 
a great deal of new research on India, and a striking feature of recent 
work has been to cast doubt on the validity of the quite arbitrary 
chronological and categorical way in which Indian history has been 
conventionally divided. 

The editors decided that it would not be academically desirable to 
prepare a new History of India using the traditional format. The selec- 
tive nature of research on Indian history over the past half-century 
would doom such a project from the start and the whole of Indian 
history could not be covered in an even or comprehensive manner. 
They concluded that the best scheme would be to have a History 
divided into four overlapping chronological volumes, each containing 
about eight short books on individual themes or subjects. Although in 
extent the work will therefore be equivalent to a dozen massive tomes 
of the traditional sort, in form The New Cambridge History of India 
will appear as a shelf full of separate but complementary parts. 
Accordingly, the main divisions are between I. The Mughals and their 
contemporaries, II. Indian states and the transition to colonialism, Ul. 
The Indian Empire and the beginnings of modern society, and IV. The 
evolution of contemporary South Asia. 

Just as the books within these volumes are complementary so too do 
they intersect with each other, both thematically and chronologically. 
As the books appear they are intended to give a view of the subject as 
it now stands and to act as a stimulus to further research. We do not 
expect The New Cambridge History of India to be the last word on the 
subject but an essential voice in the continuing discussion about it. 


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My research for this book was sponsored by grants from the American 
Institute of Indian Studies, the National Endowment for the 
Humanities, and the State University of New York. I have used 
libraries in the USA, England, and India. I am especially indebted to 
librarians at the India Office and the Fawcett Library in London; the 
National Library, the Nehru Memorial Library, the Asiatic Society, the 
All-India Women’s Conference Library, the Indian National Archives, 
and the State Archives in West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Tamilnadu, all 
in India; and Smith College Library, the Library of Congress, and the 
Regenstein Library in the USA. Over the years I have benefited from 
the dedicated service of librarians who have helped me search for books 
and documents. 

I am grateful to the editors of the Cambridge series: Gordon 
Johnson, Chris Bayly, and John Richards for having faith in my ability 
to write this volume and for their patience when I asked for extensions 
of my deadline. Marigold Akland has been a wonderful editor, encour- 
aging and helpful throughout the process, while I am very grateful to 
Frances Nugent for her diligent copyediting. Gail Minault and Barbara 
Ramusack both gave this manuscript a careful reading and their com- 
ments have been extremely helpful in my revisions. I have asked the 
advice of a number of colleagues while writing this book and have 
valued their opinions. I would especially like to thank C. S. Lakshmi, 
Neera Desai, Joya Chaliha, Sylvia Vatuk, Veena Talwar Oldenburg, 
Mrinalini Sinha, and Dagmar Engels. I have drawn extensively on their 
work and ideas as well as the writings of many other fine scholars and 
I have been helped immensely by colleagues who have read parts of this 
work and given me copies of their unpublished articles and manu- 

There are many other friends and colleagues who have helped me in 
my research. In India, I would like to mention Maitreyi Krishnaraj, 
Tota Mitra, Joey Chaliha, Pablo Bartholomew, Tarun Mitra, Aditi Sen, 
Bharati Ray, and Rana and Manisha Behal. In England Tapan 
Raychaudhuri, Richard Bingle, and Rosemary Seton have given advice 


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and suggestions. In the USA my friends at SUNY Oswego and 
Syracuse University have lent me books and articles, listened to my 
complaining, and told me to get on with it. 

The photographs used in this book have been collected from many 
sources, especially private collections. I have made a good faith effort 
to trace the photographers who took these pictures but often without 
success. I am grateful to Smith College and the British Library and to 
the many individuals who made their collections available to me: Dr. P. 
C. Mahtab, Shudha Mazumdar, Krishnabai Nimbkar, Mithan Lam, 
Sevati Mitra, and Renuka Ray. I have also been given permission to 
include a photo by Pablo Bartholomew. 

Throughout the writing of this book, my husband, Sidney (“Skip”) 
Greenblatt, has been by my side: encouraging me, listening to me read 
out drafts of chapters, making suggestions, and always urging me to get 
it finished! Perhaps we will now be able to take a vacation without car- 
rying a few chapters of the “Cambridge volume.” 

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CS Papers 





Amrita Bazar Patrika 

All-India Women’s Conference 

Bombay Chronicle 

Bombay Presidency Women’s Council 

Bombay Vigilance Association 

Communist Party of India 

Cornelia Sorabji Papers (IOOLC, London) 
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 

Dictionary of National Biography 

Dr. Reddy Papers (NMML, New Delhi) 

Desh Sevika Sangha (Women Serving the Country) 
Economic and Political Weekly 

Fawcett Collection (Fawcett Library, London) 
Government of India 

Indian Annual Register 

Indian Economic and Social History Review 

Indian Ladies’ Magazine 

Indian National Congress 

Indian Office and Oriental Library Collection (London) 
Indian Social Reformer 

Josephine Butler Collection (Fawcett Library, London) 
Jawaharlal Nehru Papers (NMML, New Delhi) 
Journal of Women’s History 

Modern Review 

Mahila Rashtriya Sangha (Women’s National 

National Council of Women in India 

National Federation of Indian Women 

New India 

Nehru Museum and Memorial Library (New Delhi) 
Nari Satyagraha Samiti (Women’s Satyagraha [truth- 
force] Organization) 

Rathbone Papers (Fawcett Library, London) 


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RSS Rashtriya Stree Sangha (National Women’s Organization) 

RWC Ruth Woodsmall Collection (Smith College, 
Northampton, Mass.) 

SPL Social Purity League 

WBA West Bengal Archives (Calcutta) 

WIA Women’s Indian Conference 

WSIQ Women’s Studies International Forum (formerly Women’s 

Studies International Quarterly) 


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Many Indian names have alternative spellings. In the text I have tried 
to use the most common or most accepted forms but I have used the 
original spellings in references in the footnotes. 


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The first historical accounts of Indian women date from the nineteenth 
century and are a product of the colonial experience. These accounts 
tell of an ancient time when women were held in high esteem followed 
by a long period when their status declined. Then Europeans came on 
the scene. The foreign rulers, according to these narratives, introduced 
new ideas about women’s roles and capabilities and these ideas were 
adopted by enlightened Indians. Until recently the history of women 
in British India has been recounted in this way, that is, as a slow but 
progressive march towards “modernity” following a long period of 
stagnation and decline. Both British missionaries and those Indian 
reformers who welcomed the opportunity to put forth a critique of 
their own society hypothesized a “golden age” followed by centuries 
of corruption and betrayal. Salvation came in the guise of European 
forms of governing, technology, and values. This way of writing about 
the past, particularly as linear movement through time toward a spe- 
cific goal, was a hallmark of European history. 

Both European-inspired histories and the Indian texts they cited 
shared a belief in a unique female nature. Indian texts essentialized 
women as devoted and self-sacrificing, yet occasionally rebellious and 
dangerous. Texts on religion, law, politics, and education carried differ- 
ent pronouncements for men depending on caste, class, age, and reli- 
gious sect. In contrast, women’s differences were overshadowed by 
their biological characteristics and the subordinate, supportive roles 
they were destined to play. Historians were equally essentialist in their 
portrayal of Indian women. Occasionally Indian texts and historical 
narratives singled out one woman for special attention but usually this 
was because her accomplishments were significant by male standards. 
Topics that were intimately interwoven with women’s lives — house- 
hold and agricultural technology; religious rituals and sentiments; 
fertility and family size; furnishings, jewelry and clothing; inheritance 
and property rights; and marriage and divorce — were largely over- 

In the 1970s the United Nations focused world attention on the 

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status of women. Member countries were asked to appoint committees 
that could gather statistics and produce reports on this topic. As India 
and other countries set up commissions to study the status of women, 
the UN declared 1975 International Women’s Year and 1975-85 
Women’s Decade. 

In India, as in the West, the international mandate was welcomed by 
a small but determined group of academics already examining ques- 
tions related to women’s status. Historians among this group first 
turned their attention to the glaring omissions in accounts of politically 
significant events and only later to studying issues of greatest salience 
to specific groups of women. 

Soon after the systematic study of women’s past began, students of 
history recognized they were witnessing a revolution. Gerda Lerner, an 
American pioneer in the field of women’s history and the first person 
to hold a chair in women’s history, said: “Women have a history; 
women are in history.” Her words became a manifesto. What emerged 
was a new way of thinking about gender. Instead of accepting feminine 
identity as natural and essential, historians and other social scientists 
treated it as constructed. This liberating hypothesis stimulated ques- 
tions about women’s unequal position. 

In the West there have been three general approaches to women’s 
history. The earliest of these was additive history, that is, history 
written after a re-examination of the sources to discover the contribu- 
tions and role of women. The second approach, genderized history, 
draws on a feminist perspective to rethink historiography and make 
gender difference a key to the analysis of social relations. A third 
approach, contributory history, privileges female agency while recog- 
nizing how patriarchy impedes women’s actions. 

Writing the history of women in a colonial setting presents addi- 
tional challenges. Colonial histories have narrated the civilizing 
mission of the British as rescuing Indian women from their own culture 
and society. Nationalist discourse, according to Partha Chatterjee, 
resolved the “woman question” by the end of the nineteenth century.! 
If Gandhi revived the “woman question,” as I would argue, nationalist 
historians have concluded that Gandhi brought women into public life 
and gave them the tools to solve their own problems. But this is too 

1 Partha Chatterjee, “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question,” Recasting 
Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (Delhi, Kali for 
Women, 1989), pp. 238-9. 

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simplistic and ignores the history of women before Gandhi came on the 
scene. The newer challenges to the task of writing women’s history 
come from the subaltern school, originating in Calcutta, and from his- 
torians interested in resistance in everyday life. 

The first volume of Subaltern Studies appeared in 1982, heralding a 
new school of history focusing on all non-elite colonial subjects. 
Borrowing the term “subaltern” from Antonio Gramsci, these histori- 
ans have explicated the interplay of coercion and consent during 200 
years of British rule. In their attempts to explain hegemonic processes, 
subaltern historians have uncovered and articulated the stories of sup- 
pressed peoples. Although they have paid some attention to women, 
the uncovering of women’s subalternity has not been their forte. 

It was the subaltern project that led Gayatri Spivak to write her chal- 
lenging article: “Can the Subaltern Speak?”? In this article she states the 
problem of writing the history of colonial women: 

as object of colonial historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological 
construction of gender keeps the male dominant. [f, in the context of colonial pro- 
duction, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is 
even more deeply in shadow. 

Spivak warns the uncritical historian to beware of the pitfalls of valor- 
izing “the concrete experience of the oppressed.”* This way of writing 
history often constitutes an autonomous subject without due recogni- 
tion of the dual oppression of colonialism and patriarchy, and the 
further oppression of Western scholarship.* She concludes this essay 
with a charge to the feminist intellectual to take her work very seri- 

Challenged by the work of James Scott in uncovering the everyday 
forms of resistance in Southeast Asia,’ Douglas Haynes and Gyan 
Prakash have extended this idea to South Asia and to issues of gender. 
Their aim is to shift the focus away from “extraordinary moments of 
collective protest” to a “variety of non-confrontational resistances and 
contestatory behavior.”* For women’s history, this can lead to a way of 

? Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation 
of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana and Chicago, University of 
Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 271-313. ° Ibid., p. 287.  * Ibid., p. 275. 

> [bid., p.295. © Ibid., p. 308. 

7 James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Yale 
University Press, 1985). 

§ Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash, Contesting Power (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 
1991), pp. I-2. 

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examining women’s agency even while they belong to and participate 
in an oppressive patriarchal society.’ 

Historians of British India are now producing serious monographs 
on how women experienced colonial rule and how it affected their lives 
as well how women and the “woman question” affected colonial poli- 

There are other ways of writing about gender, especially focusing on 
the colonial structures that controlled women’s lives and analyzing the 
documents that determined the construction of women in the domi- 
nant discourse. These have furthered our understanding of how hege- 
monic processes work. These studies take as their subject matter not 
the lives and actions of women but the way women were imagined and 
represented which in turn influenced how women saw themselves and 
what they did. New theoretical frameworks, questioning power rela- 
tionships, language, the observer’s gaze, and the dominance of posi- 
tivist notions, have found gender a compelling subject. This 
scholarship, when informed by a feminist perspective, contributes sig- 
nificantly to the production of women’s history. 

This volume belongs to women’s history and strives to be contribu- 
tory in the best sense of the term. I have drawn on women’s materials 
to the greatest extent possible to demonstrate that Indian women have 
not been as silent as some accounts would have us believe. 

At the dawn of women’s history as it is now written, Miriam Schneir, 
in a book entitled Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings (1972), 
stated: “No feminist works emerged from behind the Hindu purdah or 
out of Moslem harems; centuries of slavery do not provide a fertile soil 
for intellectual development or expression.”!° Historically this 
construction of the veiled and enslaved woman has fired the colonial 
imagination and allowed it to cloak outright exploitation as a “civiliz- 
ing mission.” In the 1930s and 1940s British feminists were eager to 
help their “little sisters” but remained convinced that imperial rule was 
benevolent. Post-colonial, cold-war feminists such as Mary Daly have 
condemned their own patriarchal systems but saved their most vitriolic 
attacks for third-world men in a form of literary “Paki-bashing.”" In 

% Nita Kumar, ed., Women as Subjects, South Asian Histories (Charlottesville and London, 
University Press of Virginia, 1994), p. 4- 

10 Miriam Schneir, ed., Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings (New York, Vintage, 
1972), p. XIV. 

11 Mary Daly, Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston, Beacon Press, 

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the first place, not all Indian women were behind veils, although certain 
ideas about modesty and respectability were widely shared. It is 
equally false to define women’s world as one which totally suppresses 
female agency. To go one step further and declare that Indian women, 
secluded and not secluded, had no voice is the third act of silencing. 

Recent scholarship on women, whether it be women’s history or a 
new questioning of the documents of history, is fueled by the work of 
archivists and historians locating and saving women’s writings and 
material objects. When I first became interested in women’s history in 
India I was warned about the difficulty of finding sources. That was 
1970. Now, a quarter of a century later, I am able to see both how far 
we have come and how much is left to do. In the early 1970s women’s 
records were not in libraries or archives but in the homes and memories 
of individuals. Those of us then engaged in research on women’s lives 
uncovered records, documents, journals, magazines, literature, 
memoirs, letters, photographs, pamphlets, all authored by women. 
Most important, we met women who were willing to record their oral 
histories. Researchers collected songs, folk tales, and artistic works, and 
reread phallocentric documents with a new sensitivity to gender. 
Research units and documentation centers undertook the task of pre- 
serving papers and books that might otherwise have disappeared. The 
Nehru Memorial Library devoted its attention to acquiring the per- 
sonal papers of women who had previously been overlooked by 
libraries and worked to enlarge its significant collection of oral histo- 
ries. Unfortunately some of the smaller libraries and provincial archives 
have not preserved valuable collections of women’s records and some 
important private collections have disappeared. SPARROW (Sound 
and Picture Archives for Research on Women) in Bombay is a recent 
and heroic attempts to preserve women’s documents, especially photo- 
graphs, films, and recordings.'? As yet there is no archive or museum 
devoted to preserving items of women’s material culture. 

In writing this book I have used a wide range of material produced 
by feminist scholars, as well as my own notes from years of research- 
ing women’s history in India. I have been an active participant in the 
discovery and preservation of women’s records and I have read through 
some private collections which I fear no longer exist. What I think 
makes this book unique is the extent to which I have been able to draw 

” Founded in Bombay by C. S. Lakshmi, Neera Desai, and Maitreyi Krishnaraj. 

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on women’s own accounts about the activities they participated in and 
witnessed. In privileging women’s own words, I understand the danger 
of making them agents of their own destinies. While I have tried to 
make the reader aware of the constraints which surrounded them, I am 
influenced by women’s perceptions of themselves as agents. The histo- 
rian has a duty to set personal narratives within a context, but it is also 
important to recognize that these women constituted themselves as 
subjects acting in the world. 

My object is to privilege women’s own accounts so I am focusing, 
throughout most of this book, on women who were literate. That 
makes them, by their small numbers, an elite. Unfortunately the term 
“elite” has been employed to categorize, and then dismiss, women who 
struggled to become literate. Anandibai Joshi is a case in point. Married 
at age nine, she endured a difficult life, often filled with privation, 
abuse, and social ostracism, before she finally came to America, studied 
at Philadelphia Women’s Medical College, and became India’s first 
foreign-trained woman doctor. Haimabati Sen was a child widow who 
was thrown out of both her brother’s home and her brother-in-law’s 
home. That she finally became a medical doctor, trained in the vernac- 
ular system, and then wrote a detailed memoir makes her part of an elite 
in the sense of having obtained higher education and a profession, and 
writing about her life. But it was not elite status that gave her or 
Anandibai Joshi this chance. They achieved what they did by sheer 
force of will. Many of the women who found a voice and left records 
did not lead privileged lives. They lived and worked within patriarchal 
societies but were not crippled in the process. I have also utilized non- 
traditional sources: oral history, women’s diaries and letters, songs, 
pamphlets, literature, and photographs to move beyond the elite and 
convey the complexity and diversity of India. 

I begin this work with male reformers in nineteenth-century India. I 
have chosen to proceed in this way because patriarchal systems offer 
women few opportunities until men decide it is time for change. I 
acknowledge the British as sparking this change. Many of the reforms 
they proposed had little to do with the deepest needs of the society. 
However, education was one of the items on the reform agenda that 
contributed to the emancipation of women. It was not an unmixed 
blessing since some educational schemes were designed to socialize 
women to be even more dependent and obedient than previously. 
Moreover, education often isolated women from their traditional allies 


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within the household. But there is an element of serendipity in educa- 

Many educated women began to define their own problems. As 
women’s organizations developed, men focused their attention on 
power politics. If the nationalists solved the woman question it was in 
terms of their own discourse; the women’s discourse about women’s 
problems was alive and well. 

I have discussed the women’s movement before the nationalist 
movement because women began asking for their rights before they 
were brought into the nationalist agitation. The women involved in the 
women’s movement justified their new roles with the ideology of social 
feminism, that is, they tied their arguments about women’s rights to 
women’s obligation to perform traditional roles and serve the needs of 
the family. Although conventional wisdom credits Gandhi with bring- 
ing women into public life, I would argue that they were already there. 
Gandhi gave them a blueprint for action. Equally important, Gandhi 
assured their husbands and fathers that these politically active women 
would not rebel against the family. Feminist demands for equality with 
men were never fully integrated into the nationalist program even 
though nationalism was feminized. 

I have devoted one chapter to assessing what the new colonial eco- 
nomic scene meant for women. The lack of sources available for this 
discussion has limited my analysis. There is a crying need for more 
work in this area. These are difficult topics for researchers, but it is 
essential historians take steps to uncover more about the lives of the 
many women employed on plantations, in domestic work and the agri- 
cultural sector, as well as in mining, transportation, and the new pro- 

Chapter 7 looks at the activities of women from the late 1930s until 
the early 1950s. The focus is women’s activism. By the 1940s women 
were part of all movements, conservative and radical, and began to view 
themselves differently. Increasingly they found social feminism 
wanting and began to borrow from more radical ideological frame- 
works, especially Marxism and its offshoots. By Independence in 1947 
the hegemony of the women’s organizations, who claimed to speak for 
all women, had been destroyed. 

The last chapter discusses certain themes in post-Independence 
India: political involvement, economic participation, and the contem- 
porary women’s movement. I argue that the momentous report, 


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Toward Equality, a report commissioned by the government to 
examine the status of women since Independence, has had a crucial 
impact on the contemporary women’s movement. The authors of this 
report have made us aware that the promises of the freedom movement 
were honored only in laws, regulations, and policy documents. Yet this 
in itself is no small matter, although it falls far short of Gandhi’s 
promise and what women want. As a historian, I would draw attention 
to the fact that Toward Equality appeared in 1974 — twenty-seven years 
after Independence. That it appeared at all is a tribute to what had gone 
before. Other nations that have experienced colonial rule, and many 
that have not, have not done nearly so well by their women. Not all 
Indian women benefited from the promises contained in the 
Constitution but the fact that women are continuing the fight for 
women’s rights is a significant point to make. 

The contemporary feminist movement in India is alive and well but 
divided by a variety of forces that threaten the consensus of the 1986s. 
The rise of right-wing movements with their women’s units is reminis- 
cent of the mobilization of women for the nationalist struggle. The 
legacy is in the mobilization of women for activities outside the home 
and confirms that Indian women are no longer excluded from politics 
or political activities. But this is not a movement for equality for 
women. Women’s involvement in these activities serves a fascist agenda 
and only empowers those who would scream for the enemy’s blood. 

I have used the term “feminist” throughout this book knowing full 
well that Sarojini Naidu and more recently Madhu Kishwar have 
declared “I am not a feminist.” Each of us defines feminist in her own 
way ~I prefer an inclusive definition that would allow me to see femi- 
nism in the speeches of Saraladevi Chaudhurani and Sarojini Naidu and 
in the writings of Dr. Haimabati Sen and Madhu Kishwar. Feminism 
supports equal rights for women and sees patriarchal society as respon- 
sible for their oppression. I would like to quote Veena Oldenburg’s 
comment on her decision to use the word feminist: 

Feminism has a long history and is no longer monolithic; multiple feminisms 
abound, and feminism is capable of the same kinds of distinctions one would expect 
in any analysis of the word patriarchy. I define the word feminist in its simplest 
political sense, as a person (and not necessarily a woman) whose analytical per- 
spective is informed by an understanding of the relationship between power and 

3 ATWC, Fourth Session, Bombay, 1930, p. 21; Madhu Kishwar, “Why I Do Not Call Myself 
a Feminist, Manusht, no. 61 (November—December, 1990), pp. 2-8. 


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gender in any historical, social, or cultural context. To me, the argument against 
using the word feminist is weakened by the fact that terms and theories of equally 
Western provenance — Marxist, socialist, Freudian, or post-structuralist — do not 
arouse similar indignation and are in fact (over)used as standard frameworks for 
analyses of Indian society by Indian scholars." 

This book is being written in a period of rapid political and social 
change. The end of the cold war and the breakup of the Soviet Union 
have contributed to a new climate where nationalism and the liberal 
ideals of democracy, progress, protest, and dissent are frequently under 
attack. There are challenges to conventional accounts and at the same 
time people are looking to history for both explanations of what is hap- 
pening and validation of their own claims. Within the field of “women’s 
history” other debates are taking place. As conflicting “schools” and 
new materials become part of our milieu, the charge to the serious his- 
torian seems formidable. One might be tempted to abandon history 
completely but there are those who, like Dipesh Chakrabarty, chal- 
lenge us “to write into the history of modernity the ambivalences, 
contradictions, the use of force, and the tragedies and ironies that 
attend it.”!5 In this book Iam not so much writing new history as emu- 
lating the best historians who were aware of their sources, self-con- 
scious about what they were doing, concerned about evidence that did 
not always “fit,” and tentative in their conclusions. It has been a great 
pleasure to work on this book and my hope is that it will stimulate 
others to become engaged in writing history, to include gender in their 
own conceptual frameworks, or perhaps just admire and enjoy what 
women have done. 

'§ Veena Talwar Oldenburg, “The Roop Kanwar Case: Feminist Responses,” Sati, the 
Blessing and the Curse, ed. John S. Hawley (New York, Oxford University Press, 1994), 
pp. 102-3. 

5 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifices of History: Who Speaks for 
‘Indian’ Pasts?” Representations, 3 (winter, 1993), p. 21. 

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Rammohun Roy’s (1772-1833) name is usually listed first among those 
of nineteenth-century reformers concerned with improving women’s 
status. Historians have called him the “father of modern India,” a 
“champion of women’s rights,” and a feminist. But his personal rela- 
tionships with women were far from ideal. He was married three times, 
at age nine, ten, and twenty-one years. His first wife died soon after the 
marriage, another died in 1826 and one outlived him. There is no evi- 
dence that he looked to his wives for companionship; in fact, there were 
rumors that his adopted son, Rajaram, was the child of his Muslim mis- 
tress.! After Rammohun’s father’s death he argued with his mother, 
Tarini Devi, and in anger left the family home with his wives and chil- 
dren. The relationship deteriorated even further when Tarini Devi 
encouraged a nephew to challenge Rammohun’s right to ancestral 
property. The suit began in 1817. Among the court records is an unused 
document showing that Rammohun was prepared to argue, in front of 
a judge, that his mother hated him, desired his worldly ruin, and would 
have even “welcomed his death.” Rammohun had developed a set of 
questions to be asked of his mother if she were called as a witness. He 
planned to ask if she was so angry at him for refusing to worship her 
idols that she would lie under oath to destroy him.? Rammohun admit- 
ted he admired his mother’s strength and independence yet he was 
willing to publicly humiliate her. Examined from this perspective 
Rammohun seems less than an ideal champion of women’s rights. 
Where were women’s voices? 

Unfortunately, Tarini Devi left no record of her side of the story. Was 
her quarrel with her son over religion? Or property? Or was she simply 

1S. N. Mukherjee, “Raja Rammohun Roy and the Status of Women in Bengal in the 
Nineteenth Century,” Women in India and Nepal, ed. Michael Allen and S$. N. Mukherjee 
(Canberra, Australian National University, 1982), p. 165. 

2 “On the Part and Behalf of the Defendant Above Named,” Raja Rammohun Roy Letters 
and Documents, ed. Rama Prasad Chanda and Jatindra Kumar Majumdar (Delhi, Anmol 
Publications, 1987), p. 234. 7 S. N. Mukherjee, “Raja Rammohun Roy,” pp. 164-5. 


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a cantankerous old woman who would not tolerate her son’s disobedi- 
ence? She died in 1822 and like so many of the women of her time what 
we know about her comes from her son’s writings. 

Rashsundari Devi (c. 1809 —?), a Bengali woman, wrote a story of her 
life, Amar Jiban (“My Life”), that was published in 1868.* This detailed 
memoir revolves around her day-to-day experiences as a housewife and 
mother. Obsessed with a desire to read, she stole a page from a book 
and a sheet of paper from her son and kept them hidden in the kitchen 
where she furtively pursued her education. This is the first auto- 
biography written in Bengali and it is rich in its details of the period 
when reformers were attempting to change the lives of women. When 
Rassundari Devi was finally able to write about her own struggle to 
master simple reading, she commented: “These days parents of a single 
girl take so much care to educate her. But we had to struggle so much 
just for that.”° 

Dr. Vina Mazumdar, one of contemporary India’s well-known fem- 
inist scholars, recalls that one of her great-great-grandmothers per- 
formed sati (cremated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) after this 
custom had been prohibited. Family history records this as a voluntary 
decision opposed by the woman’s sons and grandsons. One grand- 
daughter-in-law refused to accept the blessing of the woman about to 
become sati. It is this woman — the rebel — who has been remembered 
by Vina Mazumdar’s family as having a strong and vibrant personality.® 

What we know of the lives of these early nineteenth-century women 
we know either from memoirs written later, remembered lore, or the 
accounts of others. The accounts that exist are misleading. We know 
about Tarini Devi and Vina Mazumdar’s ancestresses because of our 
interest in nineteenth-century social reform. Rammohun Roy was con- 
sidered one of the greatest reformers, so all details of his life have been 
recorded. Sati, a custom that pronounced a woman virtuous if she 
agreed to be burned with her husband’s corpse, was strongly opposed 
by Rammohun Roy. Vina Mazumdar is only one of many Indians 
whose family history includes a sati story. Because social change — in 
British terms “social reform” — became such an important issue, our 

* Tanika Sarkar, “A Book of Her Own. A Life of Her Own: Autobiography of a Nineteenth- 
Century Woman,” History Workshop Journal, 36, (autumn, 1993), pp. 35-65- 

> “Rassundari Devi,” Women Writing in India 600 BC to the Present, 2 vols., vol. 1, 600 BC to 
the Early Twentieth Century, ed. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (New York, The Feminist Press, 
1991), pp. 190-202, quote from pp. 201-2. 

® Vina Mazumdar, “Comment on Suttee,” Signs, 4, no. 2 (winter, 1978), pp. 270-1. 


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accounts of Indian women in the early part of the nineteenth-century 
are often imbedded within discussions of sati, child marriage, widow- 
hood, polygyny, and prohibitions on education. These issues dominate 
the narrative, leaving us uninformed about women’s work and occupa- 
tions, values and emotional lives, and health and physical well-being. 
As Lata Mani has so rightly pointed out, the debates over social issues 
construed women as victims or heroines, denying them complex per- 
sonalities and agency. Mani writes: “Tradition was thus not the ground 
on which the status of woman was being contested. Rather the reverse 
was true: women in fact became the site on which tradition was debated 
and reformulated.”” 


In the nineteenth century, the “woman question” loomed large. This 
was not a question of “what do women want?” but rather “how can 
they be modernized?” It became the central question in nineteenth- 
century British India because the foreign rulers had focused their atten- 
tion on this particular aspect of society. Enamored with their “civilizing 
mission,” influential British writers condemned Indian religions, 
culture, and society for their rules and customs regarding women. 

The British were not the first outsiders with a radically different cul- 
tural tradition to conquer India. Centuries earlier Muslim dynasties had 
entered the sub-continent from the northwest and brought to India a 
new religion and a new way of organizing power relations. But signifi- 
cant changes that affected the lives of ordinary people first came with 
British rule. Traditional Hindu society was “decentered” and previous 
challenges from foreign invaders had allowed it to remain so. The tradi- 
tional state collected the rents and demanded obeisance but did not inter- 
fere with the social order. Muslim rule did not significantly alter this 
structure. But the British, pursuing commercial aims, introduced new 
relationships and explained their actions within a view of the world that 
was “clear, precise, instrumentalist, technical, scientific, effective, true, 
and above all beneficial to all who came into contact with it.”® 

7 Lata Mani, “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,” Recasting 
Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (Delhi, Kali for 
Women, 1989), pp. 117-18. 

8 Sudipta Kaviraj, “On the Construction of Colonial Power: Structure, Discourse, 
Hegemony,” Contesting Colonial Hegemony, ed. Dagmar Engels and Shula Marks 
(London, German Historical Institute London, 1994), p. 31. 


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The nineteenth century was a time of political, social, and scientific 
upheaval in Europe. The British regarded their domination of the sub- 
continent as proof of their moral superiority. In arguments over how 
to best rule their colonial subjects in India, they were led to discussions 
of the ideal relationship between men and women.’ James Mill, in his 
influential History of British India (first published in 1826), argued that 
women’s position could be used as an indicator of society’s advance- 
ment. The formula was simple: “Among rude people, the women are 
generally degraded; among civilized people they are exalted.” Mill 
explained that as societies advanced, “the condition of the weaker sex 
is gradually improved, till they associate on equal terms with the men, 
and occupy the place of voluntary and useful coadjutors.” Having 
learned about Hindu society through reading Halhed’s Code of Gentoo 
Laws, a translation of the Code of Manu, some religious works, and 
accounts written by travelers and missionaries, Mill concluded: 
“nothing can exceed the habitual contempt which the Hindus entertain 
for their women . . . They are held, accordingly, in extreme degrada- 

Missionaries concurred. Reverend E. Storrow came to India in 1848 
and pronounced Indian disunity a consequence of the low status of 
women. Storrow’s list of strong countries — Israel, Rome, and Western 
Europe — all derived their courage and virtue from the high position 
accorded women.!! Having linked military strength with the status of 
women, the British concluded that domination of India was natural and 

Later in the century, as part of the continuous process of legitimat- 
ing British rule, Sir Herbert Hope Risley characterized the Indian 
intelligentsia as interested in intellectual and political ideas, but 
unconcerned with reforming society. Risley was pessimistic about the 
general progress of India without reform. He concluded his com- 

9 See Mrinalini Sinha, “‘Manliness’: A Victorian Ideal and Colonial Policy in Late Nineteenth 
Century Bengal,” Ph.D. dissertation, SUNY Stonybrook (1988). Published title: Colonial 
Masculinity: the “manly Englishman” and the “effeminate Bengali”, in the late nineteenth 
century (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1995). 
10 James Mill, The History of British India, 2 vols. (New York, Chelsea House, 1968), pp. 

" Revd. E. Storrow, Our Indian Sisters (London, The Religious Tract Society, n.d.), pp. 

2 See Francis G. Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence: British Imperialism in India 
(Princeton, N,J., Princeton University Press, 1967). 


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History affords no warrant for the belief that the enthusiasm of nationality can be 
kindled in sordid and degenerate surroundings. A society which accepts intellec- 
tual inanition and moral stagnation as the natural condition of its womankind 
cannot hope to develop the high qualities of courage, devotion and self-sacrifice 
which go to the making of nations." 

The ideas which gained currency among the British rulers of India 
included humanitarianism, utilitarianism, social Darwinism, and 
nationalism.'* Positivist and social Darwinian theory developed rank- 
ings of religions and cultures showing India lower on the evolutionary 
scale than countries of the Middle East or Western Europe. If there 
were any hope for India, it would follow from the introduction of 
Western ideas and institutions. Yet few Western critics of Indian society 
really believed total regeneration was possible. At any rate, a new 
gender ideology and modification of the actual treatment of women 
would be the necessary prelude to any positive change. 


Colonial domination set the change in motion; Indians reshaped the 
imported ideas and institutions to fit the social and cultural milieu. The 
historian, Rajat K. Ray, described the impact of imported ideas on the 
Bengal Renaissance, when intellectuals in eastern India were rediscov- 
ering their past and engaging in new intellectual activity, in these terms: 
“{they] digested and borrowed and inherited elements in such a way 
that the new culture could not be said to be a pale imitation but was a 
genuinely indigenous product.” The ideology that emerged to rede- 
fine gender relations was an amalgam of new foreign ideas, indigenous 
concepts, and the response of Indian men and women to the foreign 
presence in their midst. 

Not all agreed that gender relations needed modification. A number 
of Indian intellectuals praised their own culture’s treatment of women'® 
or compared the conditions of Indian women with those of European 

‘3 Sir Herbert Hope Risley, The People of India, 2nd edn., ed. W. Crooke (Delhi, Oriental 
Books Reprint Corp., 1969), p. 171. 

14 Vina Mazumdar, “The Social Reform Movement in India — From Ranade to Nehru,” 
Indian Women: From Purdah to Modernity, ed. B. R. Nanda (New Delhi, Vikas 
Publishing, 1976), p. 46. 

'S Rajat K. Ray, “Man, Woman and the Novel: The Rise of a New Consciousness in Bengal 
(1858-1947),” IESHR, 16, no. 1 (March, 1979), p. 3. 

16 Tanika Sarkar, “The Hindu Wife and Hindu Nation: Domesticity and Nationalism in 
Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Studies in History, 8, no. 2 (1992), pp. 213-35. 


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women and concluded that females in both countries suffered hard- 
ships.!” Those who accepted the idea that society’s ills could be traced 
to the oppressed condition of women saw female education and female 
emancipation as the first steps towards progress.'* But both groups — 
those who extolled gender relations and those convinced of the need 
for reform — shared an ideology, later linked to the nationalist project, 
that separated the home from the world. According to Partha 
Chatterjee, Indians pursued science, technology, rational economics, 
and Western political forms while regarding the home as the source of 
“true identity” that needed protection and strengthening, not trans- 

By the last decade of the nineteenth century there was a recognizable 
reformist ideology. The shape of this ideology — particularly in its view 
of women - was retained throughout much of the twentieth century. 
First and foremost, Indian women were to be pitied. In 1839 Mahesh 
Chundra Deb spoke to the Society for the Acquisition of General 
Knowledge about the daily life of young married women: 

Suffice it to say that every man who has carefully examined the condition of 
Hindoo women cannot help pitying the benighted and miserable situation in which 
they are placed. Not withstanding all their kind attention, their pious and dutiful 
conduct, their submissive behavior towards their husbands, they frequently meet 

with severe scoldings and are even sometimes cruelly punished from ungrounded 
jealousy or a tyrannical whim.” 

The theme of Deb’s speech - the misery of Indian women — echoed 
the Western critics of Indian society and was repeated in speeches and 
essays throughout the century. But humanitarianism was only one of 
the arguments used to urge reform. Inspired and influenced by Western 
ideas, these reformers were also conversant with their own traditions. 
Rammohun Roy, Pandit Vidyasagar, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, and 
many others were trained in Hindu classics and saw India as recover- 
ing from a dark age. There had been a “golden age,” they argued, when 
women were valued and occupied positions of high status. This view of 
the Vedic past had been adopted from the Indologists and was useful to 

'? Tapan Raychaudhuri, Europe Reconsidered (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 336. 

8 David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, 
N,J., Princeton University Press, 1979). 

19 Partha Chatterjee, “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question,” pp. 238-9. 

29 Mahesh Chundra Deb, “A Sketch of the Conditions of the Hindoo Women” [1839], 
Awakening in the Early Nineteenth Century, ed. Goutam Chattopadhyay (Calcutta, 
Progressive Publishers, 1965). pp. 89-105. 


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refute Mill’s version of India.?! During this “golden age” women were 
educated, married only after they had reached maturity, moved about 
freely, and participated in the social and political life of the time. The 
power of such an idea may well have stifled serious historical research 
on women’s lives until recently. Uma Chakravarti has argued that for 
contemporary women this perception of the past “has led to a narrow 
and limiting circle in which the image of Indian womanhood has 
become both a shackle and a rhetorical device that nevertheless func- 
tions as a historical truth.” 

Acceptance of a golden age was widespread but explanations of “the 
fall” differed widely. Some reformers simply commented on wars and 
invasions, claiming that political disorder inevitably led to restrictions 
on women’s education and mobility. A number of reformers located 
the decline during the time of the smritis, that is, to a period when the 
vast body of law codes such as the Manusmriti, commentaries, epics — 
most prominently the Mahabharata and the Ramayana — and puranas 
or stories of the gods were written. These theorists argued that the 
decline in women’s status could be traced to these writings.”? But most 
of the reformers blamed Muslim rule. Ignoring the fact that rulers such 
as Akbar attempted to abolish sati and that Muslim law accorded 
women a higher status than Hindu law, these writers claimed child mar- 
riage, prohibitions on widow marriage, seclusion, and restrictions on 
female education were responses to the Muslim threat to women’s 

Both the “golden age” and “dark age” are problematic for historians 
but these concepts proved useful in the development of an ideology 
legitimating social reform. In order to persuade his audience that the 
woman question needed immediate attention, Mahesh Chundra Deb 
said: “in whatever light, then, we view the situation of the Hindoo 
women — whether we look to their physical or mental condition - we 
shall find to our great mortification that it is truly deplorable.” It was 
the postulation of a “dark age” that made this self-criticism palatable. 

The past had been squandered and change and reform were neces- 


1 “Y iterature of the Ancient and Medieval Periods: Reading against the Oriental Grain,” 

Women Writing in India, vol. 1, p. 49. 

Uma Chakravarti, “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?” Recasting Women, p. 28. 
Charles H. Heimsath, Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform (Princeton, N]J., 
Princeton University Press, 1964), pp. 114-15. 

“Ideals of Indian Womanhood,” JSR, 38 (September 24, 1927), p. 56. 

% Deb, “A Sketch,” p. 91. 





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sary to regain for society its lost vigor. These reformers were not 
revivalists, they were speaking to the colonial administrators in the lan- 
guage that had gained currency in the contest for moral authority. 
Colonial officials agreed that religion was central to Indian life, Indian 
people were slaves to religion, and sati (and many other customs) were 
religious practices. That the discourse on Indian military weakness 
versus British success focused on the topic of gender relations to the 
exclusion of a range of other issues such as trade patterns, technolog- 
ical innovation, the technology and methods of warfare, and dynastic 
failure is nothing short of amazing. Yet this is what happened.”® 

The discovery of the golden age and of the errors that had led to the 
fall made it possible for Indians to prescribe change. Once people 
understood the misery of women and the means of improving the situa- 
tion, it was simply a matter of will. Pandit Vidyasagar harangued his 

Countrymen! how long will you suffer yourselves to be led away by illusions! 
Open your eyes for once and see, that India, once the land of virtue, is being over 
flooded [by] the stream of adultery and foeticide. The degradation to which you 
have sunk is sadly low. Dip into the spirit of your Sastras, follow its dictates, and 
you shall be able to remove the foul blot from the face of your country.’ 

Reform, actually a return to the past according to most social 
reformers, was in harmony with both natural law and the dictates of 
reason. “Evil customs,” such as child marriage and polygyny, were not 
in harmony with nature. Rammohun Roy wrote of women who were 
“forced upon the pyre,” “bound” with ropes so they would perish with 
their husbands. Vidyasagar wrote of customs which had “hampered the 
evolution of her [woman’s] faculties,” and D. K. Karve wrote of a caste 
widow who “fell victim to the passion of some brute.”*8 According to 
reformers these customs were perverted, twisted, distorted practices 
born of ignorance and fear and followed without recourse to common 
sense. The first generation of Western-educated young men had 
evoked reason as the touchstone for both ideas and action. These later 
advocates of social reform combined rationalism with their appeal to 
revive the golden age. According to Vivekananda, there should be no 

76 Lata Mani, “Contentious Traditions,” Recasting Women. 

27 Isvarachandra Vidyasagar, Marriage of Hindu Widows (Calcutta, K. P. Bagchi and Co., 
1976), pp. 108-9. 

28 Neera Desai, Woman in Modern India, 2nd edn. (Bombay, Vora and Co., 1967), p. 65; 
Vidyasagar, Marriage of Hindu Widows, p. 123; Dhondo Keshav Karve, Looking Back 
(Poona, Hingne Stree-Shikshan Samstha, 1936), p. 45. 


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008 


hesitation in applying the full panoply of Western analytical methods 
to the “science of religion.” Similarly, Swami Dayananda made it clear 
that he would not defend “the falsehoods” of the Hindu religion but 
would unveil them just as he had exposed the errors of other religions.” 
The tests of reason, of course, supported the social system these 
reformers claimed had existed during the golden age. 


What do we know about women’s lives on the eve of this transforma- 
tion? There are, of course, the records of the reformers (mentioned 
earlier) but these are tainted by polemics. Constructing a clear picture 
of the lives of women before colonial rule is difficult, although recent 
feminist scholarship has added a great deal to our view of the past. The 
pre-British records include an abundance of prescriptive texts but 
fewer documents that shed light on the actual lives of women. 
Tryambakayajvan’s Stridharmapaddhati (“Guide to the Religious 
Status and Duties of Women”), translated by Julia Leslie, is the only 
extant work totally devoted to women’s duties. Written in the eight- 
eenth century, before the reformist programs, this text describes the 
lives of women from the highest ranking, land-holding groups. 
Unfortunately, “there are no references to women agricultural labor- 
ers, market women, or any of the vast army of women who must have 
been living and working outside the context of the court.”*° 

Among the higher castes, the female child spent her youth pre- 
paring for marriage. Her marriage to a man of the same caste and 
ideally higher status was arranged by her parents. Following the mar- 
riage ceremony she was sent to her husband’s home and required to 
adjust to their customs. Her husband was to be regarded as “the 
supreme god among all gods” and served accordingly. The fortunate 
woman gave birth to sons while issueless women or those who gave 
birth only to daughters were treated with disdain. The aging woman 
watched her children mature and marry and accepted the new roles of 
mother-in-law and grandmother. If her husband died before her, she 
became a widow with abstemious habits. After his death she was to 

29 M. K. Halder, Renaissance and Reaction in Nineteenth Century Bengal: Bankim Chandra 
Chatterjee (Columbia, Mo., South Asia Books, 1977), p. 188. 

© J. Julia Leslie, The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the 
Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 


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devote her life to his memory, her impurity could never be removed, 
and she was to live out her life as the most inauspicious of all crea- 
tures.?! By faithfully performing her duties, a woman helped to main- 
tain an ordered universe. 

Historically, women experienced these rules and prescriptions differ- 
ently depending on religion, caste, class, age, place in the family hierar- 
chy, and an element of serendipity. There were women who lived up to 
the ideal, but there were also women who rebelled against these prescrip- 
tions. The historical record confirms that women found an escape from 
conventional roles in religion and scholarship, and occasionally through 
political action.*? Some women were able to live outside patriarchal 
households and gain status as courtesans.** But the options open to 
women of extraordinary talent or those unhappy with their lives were 
limited. Surviving records inform us that a few women became educated, 
attained fame, and commanded armies but most were denied men’s 
opportunities to acquire knowledge, property, and social status. 

By the second half of the nineteenth century there were reform 
groups in all parts of British India. They focused attention on sati, 
female infanticide, polygyny, child marriage, purdah, prohibitions on 
female education, devadasis (temple dancers wedded to the gods), and 
the patrilocal joint family. Their activity acted as a stimulus and encour- 
agement to reform-minded individuals in other areas, and gradually 
reformist organizations with an all-India identity began to emerge. 


Across India, there is a long list of reformers who undertook major 
efforts on women’s behalf. In Bengal, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar cham- 
pioned female education and led the campaign to legalize widow 
remarriage, and Keshub Chandra Sen, a leader of the Brahmo Samaj,*4 

1 Tbid., pp. 273-304. >? Tharu and Lalita, Women Writing in India, introduction. 

3 For an interesting discussion of this theme, see Veena Oldenburg, “Lifestyle as Resistance: 
The Case of the Courtesan of Lucknow, India,” Feminist Studies, 16, no. 2 (summer, 1990), 
pp. 259-87. 

4 ‘The Brahmo Samaj began with a group of Bengali Hindus who wanted to rethink their reli- 
gious heritage. In 1815 Rammohun Roy assembled his friends for religious discussions and. 
by 1828 they were meeting for weekly services and sermons as the Brahmo Sabha. 
Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), author of the Brahma Covenant and a volume of scrip- 
tures and the designer of revised rituals, founded the Brahmo religion. When his followers 
wanted more dramatic action in the areas of caste equality, temperance, and equality for 

women, the Samaj split and then split again. By the 1870s it was considered a separate relig- 


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sought to bring women into new roles through schools, prayer meet- 
ings, and experiments in living. By the turn of the century, Swami 
Vivekananda, the leader of an activist order of Hindu monasticism, was 
arguing that women could become a powerful regenerative force. In 
North India, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of the Arya 
Samaj, encouraged female education and condemned customs he 
regarded as degrading to women: marriages between partners of 
unequal ages, dowry, and polygyny. At the same time, Rai Salig Ram 
(also known as Huzur Maharaj), a follower of the Radhasoami faith, 
advocated female emancipation in his volumes of prose, Prem Patra. 
Among Muslims, Khwaja Altaf Husain Hali and Shaikh Muhammad 
Abdullah introduced education for girls. In western India, Mahadev 
Govind Ranade founded the National Social Conference to focus 
attention on social reforms. At the same time, the Parsee journalist 
Behramji Malabari captured the attention of the British reading public 
with his articles in The Times on the evils of child marriage and the 
tragedy of enforced widowhood for young women. Dhondo Keshav 
Karve offered a practical solution with his institutions in Poona to 
educate young widows to become teachers in girls’ schools. In South 
India, R. Venkata Ratnam Naidu opposed the devadasi system while 
Virasalingam Pantulu worked for marriage reform. Both sought to 
increase opportunities for female education. Reformers were found 
throughout India and among all communities. They addressed a 
number of issues, most of them relating to marriage and the importance 
of female education. 

What is especially interesting about these nineteenth-century 
reformers is their activism. Their ideas on gender were rooted in per- 
sonal experience; during their lives they attempted to change those with 
whom they lived and worked. They were not simply reacting to British 
pressure — these issues were very real and they responded to them with 

To illustrate the efforts of these male reformers, I will sketch the life 
work of Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, from Bengal; Virasalingam 
Pantulu, a Telugu speaker from Madras Presidency; and Justice 

> In northern India, Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83) launched a vigorous campaign against 
popular Hinduism including the brahmin priesthood, rituals, and pilgrimages, and cus- 
tomary prohibitions on widow remarriage and female education. Holding the Vedas infal- 
lible, he established the first Arya Samaj (Noble Society) in Bombay in 1875. Within a few 
years, reformers in Delhi, Lahore, and other North Indian cities had set up independent 
Arya Samajes. 


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Mahadev Govind Ranade, from Bombay. These three men were born 
in the first half of the nineteenth century, were well educated, and had 
personal experiences which caused them to reflect on the plight of 
women in Hindu society. 

In 1828 eight-year-old Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-91) walked, 
with his father, from the village of Birsingha in Midnapur District to 
Calcutta to seek admission in an English-language institution. The fees 
at Hindu College were too high for his father to pay so Iswar Chandra 
was enrolled in Sanskrit College. While studying in Calcutta he lived at 
the home of a friend whose sister was a child widow. This was Iswar 
Chandra’s first experience of the hardships this custom imposed on 
women. Sometime later his old guru decided to marry a young girl. 
Iswar Chandra was enraged and demonstrated his anger by refusing his 
guru’s hospitality. Before a year had passed the guru died and left 
behind a girl widow with nowhere to go and no means of support.” 
Iswar Chandra vowed then to devote his life to improving the status of 
Hindu widows and encouraging remarriage.*’ 

Iswar Chandra also became an impassioned supporter of female 
education and an opponent of polygyny. He wrote lengthy tracts sub- 
stantiating his positions with scriptural citations and historical data. A 
decline in religion created the environment that allowed contemporary 
customs to thrive, he wrote. When his opponents protested, he insisted 
they were misinterpreting scripture and employed a masterful 
command of Sanskrit to point out their ignorance. 

In his first tract on widow remarriage (1855) Iswar Chandra claimed 
that this practice was permissible in Kali Yuga (“The Dark Age”), the 
age in which he and his contemporaries lived. Two thousand copies of 
this book were sold in the first week, a reprint of 3,000 soon sold out, 
and the third reprint was of 10,000 copies.°® But not everyone was con- 
vinced. On the streets of Calcutta Vidyasagar found himself insulted, 
abused, and even threatened with death.’ But he pressed on and urged 
the British to pass legislation that would enable Hindu widows to 
remarry. To support his request Iswar Chandra collected almost 1,000 
signatures and sent this petition to the Indian Legislative Council. The 
Council received thousands of signatures for and against this measure 

36 Desai, Woman in Modern India, p. 69; S. K. Bose, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (New Delhi, 
National Book Trust, 1969), pp. 5, 32. 

” Asok Sen, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and his Elusive Milestones (Calcutta, Riddlu-India, 
1977), p- 60. 8 Bose, Iswar Chandra, p. 35. » Sen, Iswar Chandra, p. 59. 


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but the members finally decided to support the “enlightened minority.” 
The Hindu Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. Although the 
value of this Act for improving the lives of women has been questioned, 
one cannot doubt Iswar Chandra’s desire to create a more humane 

The Remarriage Act did not change the status of widows. Frequently 
blamed for the husband’s death, the high-caste widow was required to 
relinquish her jewelry and subsist on simple food. Young widows were 
preyed upon by men who would make them their mistresses or carry 
them away to urban brothels. But woe to the widow who succumbed 
to a suitor and became pregnant. In 1881 the court at Surat in western 
India tried Vijayalakshmi, a young brahmin widow, for killing her ille- 
gitimate child. At the first trial she was sentenced to hang but on appeal 
this was changed to transportation for life and later reduced to five 
years. This case so angered Tarabai Shinde (c. 1850-1910), a young 
Marathi housewife, that she wrote Stri-purusha-tulana (“A 
Comparison Between Women and Men”). Vijayalakshmi’s case had 
triggered an intense public discussion about the misfortune of widows 
and the issue of widow remarriage. For Tarabai, it was clear that this 
issue was simply a metaphor for the general mistreatment of women. 
She wrote: “So is it true that only women’s bodies are home to all the 
different kinds of recklessness and vice? Or have men got just the same 
faults as we find in women?” As for widows: “Once a woman’s 
husband has died, not even a dog would swallow what she’s got to.”*° 
Tarabai Shinde’s cry for equality went unheeded in a world where 
reformers wanted to help women, not accord them equal status. 

Vidyasagar lived in a world where the males among kulin brahmins, 
an aristocratic caste with rigid marriage rules, were highly sought after 
as bridegrooms and able to marry as many women as they wished. As 
Vidyasagar collected data on this custom, he became horrified by the 
magnitude of the problem. Using as a sample 133 ulin brahmins of 
Hooghly District, Iswar Chandra revealed the abuses inherent in 
polygyny. One fifty-year-old man had married 107 times; Bholanath 
Bandopadhyaya (age fifty-five) had eighty wives; Bhagaban 
Chattopadhyaya (age sixty-four) had seventy-two wives, and so the 

#2 Rosalind O’Hanlon, “Issues of Widowhood: Gender and Resistance in Colonial Western 
India,” Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia, ed. 
Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1991) pp. 62-108, 
quotes from p. 93 and p. 96. 


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documentation continued. Arguing that the practice of kulinism was 
inhuman, Iswar Chandra presented the government with a petition 
signed by 2,500 persons requesting the legislative prohibition of polyg- 
yny. No action was taken and ten years later he presented another peti- 
tion, this time signed by 21,000 persons. The government, overly 
cautious about social reform in the wake of the rebellion of 1857, 
declined to act. Vidyasagar continued his campaign and although he 
produced anti-polygyny tracts in 1871 and 1873, the issue was dead.*! 

Vidyasagar’s third campaign focused on mass education for girls and 
boys. He had been appointed Special Inspector of Schools for the 
Districts of Hooghly, Midnapur, Burdwan, and Nadia and was able to 
use his influence to establish a system of vernacular education in 
Bengal, including forty schools for girls. J. E. D. Bethune, legal member 
of the Governor-General’s Council, had set up a girls’ school in 1849 
and it became Vidyasagar’s responsibility to guide it through its diffi- 
cult years. He remained associated with it until 1869. 

Despite this great man’s efforts, widow remarriage never received the 
approval of his society, polygyny was not abolished, and the battle for 
female education had only begun. From the perspective of women’s 
rights, the new law often proved harmful. Remarried women from 
castes that had traditionally practiced remarriage, were often deprived 
of their rightful inheritance* and those castes were denigrated as infe- 
rior.** Widow celibacy was lauded by the elite as a hallmark of respect- 
ability.*° Vidyasagar’s biographer has written about the elusive nature 
of Vidyasagar’s goals: he strove to introduce fundamental reforms 
within the colonial context. His proposals proved too radical for many 
of his contemporaries and although the colonial government criticized 
Indian customs, they were unwilling to back his efforts for change. 
Vidyasagar personified the best of the nineteenth-century social 
reformers; arguing for social change he demonstrated an “untiring will 
for positive social action.”* 

Kandukuri Virasalingam Pantulu (1848-1919) was born in 

“| Bose, Iswar Chandra, pp. 43-7. * Ibid., pp. 23-5. 

*® Lucy Carroll, “Law, Custom and Statutory Social Reform: The Hindu Widow’s 
Remarriage Act of 1856,” Women in Colonial India: Essays on Survival, Work, and the 
State, ed. J. Krishnamurthy (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 23-5. 

“ Prem Chowdhry, “Popular Perceptions of Widow-remarriage in Haryana: Past and 
Present,” From the Seams of History, ed. Bharati Roy (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 
1995); PP. 39-40. 

© Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, “Caste, Widow-remarriage and the Reform of Popular Culture in 
Colonial Bengal, “ From the Seams of History, p.34.  ** Sen, Iswar Chandra, p. 165. 


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Rajahmundry, the capital of Godavari District, in a Telugu-speaking 
district of Madras Presidency. Virasalingam, a brahmin trained in clas- 
sical Telugu, spent his life involved in movements to promote this lan- 
guage for modern education and communication. After he had passed 
his matriculation, he was appointed a teacher in a government school. 
Later he became headmaster of the Anglo-Vernacular School at 
Dhavaleswaram. A member of the Brahmo Samaj and Prarthana 
Samaj,” he published his own journal, Vikeka Vardhani (“Journal to 
Promote Enlightenment”) to encourage social reform. Above all, he 
believed in the necessity of purifying religion by opposing wrong 
customs and attempting to stop wrong conduct. Purified religion, 
social reform, and vernacular education would be the three pillars of a 
regenerated society purged of its evil ways.** 

Virasalingam made widow remarriage and female education the key 
points of his program for social change. He opened his first girls’ school 
in 1874 and in 1878 organized a Society for Social Reform. At their first 
meetings members of the society discussed the importance of the anti- 
nautch movement to wean people from hiring nautch (dancing) girls 
for celebrations, but by 1879 Virasalingam had made widow remarriage 
the key issue. Rajahmundry celebrated its first widow remarriage in 
1881 with Virasalingam performing the ceremony. The town was 
hostile towards this practice but Virasalingam persisted and before long 
there was a small community of remarried couples. Virasalingam con- 
tinued to look for prospective candidates while writing numerous arti- 
cles about the need for a change in public opinion. In 1891 a Widow 
Remarriage Association was formed, and thirty brahmin households 
signed a pledge promising to participate in the ceremonies and marriage 
feast whenever a remarriage occurred.*? Eventually the majority of the 

47 The Prarthana Samaj (Prayer Society) of Bombay began after the Brahmo Samaj mission- 
ary, Keshub Chandra Sen, had visited that city in 1864. Members of this organization 
believed in an all-powerful God and salvation through worship, and rejected idolatry and 
the authority of brahmin priests. Religious devotion mandated concern with the world and 
Prarthana Samajists dedicated themselves to gradual social reform. Even though they 
rejected conventional Hinduism as a religion, they did not want a break with Hindu society. 
Autobiography of Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu, trans. Dr. V. Ramakrishna Rao and 
Dr. T. Rama Rao, 2 parts ( Rajamundry, Addepally and Co., n.d.), p. 173. 

On Virasalingam see Autobiography; Neera Desai, Woman in Modern India; Pratima 
Asthana, Women’s Movement in India (Delhi, Vikas, 1974); Karen I. Leonard and John 
Leonard, “Social Reform and Women’s Participation in Political Culture: Andhra and 
Madras,” The Extended Family, ed. Gail Minault (Columbus, Mo., South Asia Books, 
1981), pp. 19-45; “Rao Bahadur Mr. K. Virasalingam Pantulu and His Wife,” JLM, 2 
(September, 1902), pp. 84-5. 





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prominent citizens of Rajahmundry joined Virasalingam’s associa- 

Virasalingam had a significant impact on female education. When 
reformers and conservatives debated female education in Rajahmundry 
the argument took a different form than it had in Calcutta and Bombay 
where colonial power was evident. Here the language of debate was 
Telugu and the controversy was conducted without reference to the 
colonial critique of Indian society. In this context reforms for women 
were not equated with westernization. The consequences of this move- 
ment were far-reaching: 

The widow marriage campaign was the catalyst which initiated .. . the first genera- 
tion of Western-educated Andhras into social, religious and political reform activ- 
ities. A symbolic effort to change the status of women, it posed a fundamental 
challenge to orthodox concepts of women and their role in family and society. The 
campaign had a major ideological impact upon the development of modern Telugu 
literature and the nationalist movement in Andhra.*° 

In Bombay, Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901) graduated 
from Elphinstone College in Bombay and became a teacher and 
journalist. Like so many other young men of his generation, he ques- 
tioned the customs and beliefs of his society. In 1869 Ranade joined the 
Widow Marriage Association, and in 1870 the Prarthana Samaj. At first, 
he and his colleagues were engaged in “intellectual protest against 
superficial dogmas untenable for a rational mind,” but later they 
became more interested in social action.>! 

In 1871 Ranade was made a judge in Poona where he joined a group 
of committed social reformers intent on achieving real change. Soon 
after he had received this appointment his wife of almost twenty years 
died. Social reform colleagues expected he would marry a widow. But 
Ranade’s father, anticipating this disaster, moved quickly to arrange a 
marriage between his thirty-one-year-old son and an eleven-year-old 
girl, Ranade protested but did not refuse the match. Married to 
Ramabai, Mahadev became both husband and teacher, mentoring the 
girl who became one of India’s most important social reformers.” 

In the following years Ranade tried to mediate between a reformist 
agenda and traditional society. He wanted to encourage widow remar- 

°° Leonard and Leonard, “Social Reform,” p. 36. 

5! Heimsath, Indian Nationalism, p. 179. 

52 Ramabai Ranade, Himself, The Autobiography of a Hindu Lady (New York, Longman, 
Green and Co., 1938). 


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riage and female education and oppose child marriage, but his personal 
world, located between tradition and modernity, was fraught with 
moral ambiguity. Other reformers voiced their disapproval but they 
were unable to push him towards a more radical stand. 

Ranade’s reputation as a social reformer rests on his role in building 
one of the most important institutions for social reform — the National 
Social Conference (begun in 1887) — and in his philosophy of social 
change. Firmly believing India had enjoyed a golden age, when women 
enjoyed a higher status than in his time, he blamed the smriti (“remem- 
bered” religious literature including law books, epics, and puranas) 
writers for the fall. Only gradual reform, accomplished without radical 
or wrenching change, could bring about the restoration of the golden 
age. Ranade argued that evolutionary change was inherently Indian; 
outside forces could act as a stimulant but the true impetus for change 
came from “the inner resources of the society itself.” 

Ranade described the society he hoped to see as changing “from con- 
straint to freedom, from credulity to faith, from unorganized to orga- 
nized life, from bigotry to toleration, from blind fatalism to a sense of 
human destiny.”5* He warned his critics that to stand still or work 
against change would result in decay and possibly the extinction of 
Indian society. 

Every year reformers, working alone or with local organizations, 
attended the National Social Conference where they learned about ini- 
tiatives all over the sub-continent. In his role as founder-leader, Ranade 
recommended four methods of accomplishing social change. His 
favorite method was using argumentation, especially citing examples of 
past tradition, to convince opponents that many customs were accre- 
tions rather than part of true Indian culture. If the appeal of history was 
ineffective, he suggested the reformer use a moral argument. It was only 
after trying to persuade people that reformers should focus on legisla- 
tion. When all else failed, social rebellion was in order. At the second 
annual meeting of the National Social Conference in 1889 over five 
hundred people took a solemn vow that they would support widow 
marriage and female education, and cease practicing child marriage and 
the exchange of dowry. This was a significant step, in Ranade’s view, 
towards the identification of reforms for women with an all-India 

°> Heimsath, Indian Nationalism, p. 181. % Tbid., p. 187. 


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After her husband’s death, Ramabai wrote a memoir describing her 
childhood, her marriage to Justice Ranade, her early education at his 
hands, and their life together until his death in 1901. This memoir, pub- 
lished in the early years of the twentieth century, includes Ramabai’s 
account of her childhood and marriage at age eleven in 1873. The child- 
hood she recalled was not one of terror and anxiety. Raised to regard 
early marriage as inevitable, Ramabai wrote of how she and other little 
girls looked forward to the celebrations associated with marriage. 
When taunted by the women in her husband’s household, she kept her 
peace and admitted that her interest in reading was unseemly in the 
presence of women with very little education.>*° At least in the way she 
recalled her life, Ramabai was a dutiful wife even if her “duties” were a 
departure from the normal tasks of women. 

These reformers viewed women as their subjects — to be changed as 
a consequence of persuasive arguments, social action, education, and 
legislation. The historian Sumit Sarkar has argued that these reformers 
were concerned primarily with modifying relationships within their 
own families and sought only “limited and controlled emancipation” 
of their womenfolk.°® Women themselves were not partners in the 
schemes created for their regeneration; more often they were portrayed 
as opposed to their own liberation. Without first-hand accounts by 
these women, their reluctance to change in the ways prescribed by their 
husbands and fathers could be read as nascent feminist resistance, an 
intelligent reading of their true interests, or plain and simple opposition 
to any change. Shudha Mazumdar has related her mother’s opposition 
to Shudha becoming a “boarder” at St. Theresa’s School for Girls: 

She felt that my being a boarder would result in many complications, and make it 
difficult, if not impossible to give me in marriage when the time came... To prevent 
me from becoming a permanent liability on the family, dependent on my brothers 
in old age, she recommended that to ensure my economic independence it was of 
paramount importance to execute a deed beforehand in my favor, granting me the 
rights of a substantial portion of my Father’s estate.*” 

But these reformers, like Shudha’s father, were unwilling to relinquish 
the power of the patriarchy or redistribute wealth. They dreamed of a 

55> Ramabai Ranade, Himself, chapter 5. 

56 Sumit Sarkar, “The ‘Women’s Question’ in Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Women and 
Culture, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (Bombay, Research Center for Women’s 
Studies, 1994), p. 106. 

5? Shudha Mazumdar, Memoirs of an Indian Woman, ed. Geraldine Forbes (New York, M. 
E. Sharpe, 1989), pp. 43-4. 


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world where women would be educated and free from some of the 
worst customs of the society — child marriage, sati, polygyny. But at the 
same time, these new women would be devoted to home and family. 


During the course of the nineteenth century, the pattern of women’s 
lives began to change. In reality the concept of the “perfect wife” was 
being redefined. First, there were modifications in the appropriate 
activities for a female at different stages of her life. Second, the 
appropriate arena for female action was expanded. And third, there was 
a new and growing approval of individualism. 

As a consequence of changes set in motion by the British conquest of 
India, by the end of the nineteenth century there were a number of women 
who were educated, articulate, mobile, and increasingly involved in public 
activities. In the rural setting life was dominated by the household — for 
both men and women. With increased urbanization and the growth of 
new professions associated with colonial domination, work was increas- 
ingly separated from the home. Paralleling this change was the establish- 
ment of new educational, religious and social institutions. As families 
moved from their village homes to the cities, they increased their contact 
with “foreigners” and witnessed the erosion of traditional household 
activity. Like boys of an earlier generation, some of these girls attended 
educational institutions, social gatherings unrelated to family affairs, and 
new religious ceremonies. These “new women, ” as they were called, were 
part of amodernizing movement which sought to modify gender relations 
in the direction of greater equality between men and women.*® 

A number of Indian men have written about their lives emphasizing 
the differences between themselves and their fathers and grandfathers. 
For example, Brajendra Nath De (1852-1932) was first educated at 
home, then sent to one of the new schools that taught English. He 
obtained a scholarship to study in England where he passed the civil 
service examination, returned home in glory, and began a career which 
made it necessary to live outside his traditional family home.*’ As one 

58 Ghulam Murshid, Reluctant Debutante (Rajshahi, Bangladesh, Rajshahi University, 1983), 

5° Brajendra Nath De, “Reminiscences of an Indian Member of the Indian Civil Service,” The 

oe Review, 127 (1953); 128 (1953); 129 (1953); 130 (1954)s 131 (1954); 132 (1954); 136 


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of the first eight Indians appointed to the Indian Civil Service (ICS), 
Brajendra Nath was considered an excellent example of the “modern” 
professional class, but his wife had been a child bride and he remained 
attached to his large joint family with its numerous dependants and 
obligations. He insisted on educating his daughters and one of them, 
Saroj Nalini Dutt, led the way in organizing rural women’s organiza- 
tions in the years immediately following World War I. 

Many of the “new women” were also educated in their homes and 
then sent to a girls’ school. Parents who cared about female education 
waited until their daughters were older before arranging their mar- 
riages or occasionally allowed young married women to continue their 
education. Older brides became mothers at a later age and often played 
a greater role in child-rearing. Often there were opportunities to exer- 
cise some choices of their own and consequently their status was far less 
derivative than had been true for a previous generation. 

There were also significant changes in what women could do — often 
characterized as a movement from the private to the public sphere. But 
this both overly simplifies the Indian context and overly dramatizes 
what actually happened. The shift was neither abrupt nor permanent 
and many women, who briefly attended a school or emerged from 
purdah to attend a “mixed” function, returned to the household where 
they continued to live in the more traditional fashion. 

Women also experienced increased opportunities for the expression 
of their individuality. Although women in earlier times were certainly 
not an undifferentiated group, we do not have sufficient records to go 
beyond generalizations about their lives. Formal education and partic- 
ularly the development of publications intended for and written by 
women gave women a voice. It is impossible to enumerate, let alone 
locate, all the literature from this period (c. 1850-World War I) but we 
know that in Bengal women produced almost 400 literary works, 
ranging from poetry to novels and autobiographies, and twenty-one 
journals.*! Through their writings they were able to communicate with 
each other and develop new social networks. 

Saraladevi Chaudhurani (1872-1954), a Bengali woman from the 
famous Tagore family, is an excellent example of the “new woman.” 

6 Meredith Borthwick, The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905 (Princeton, N|]J., 
Princeton University Press, 1985), chapter 5. 

61 Malavika Karlekar, Voices From Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali Women 
(Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 11. 


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Her mother, Swarnakumari Devi, was a novelist and editor of a 
women’s journal. Saraladevi was born into an extraordinary family in 
terms of wealth, prestige, and involvement in the major cultural activ- 
ities of the day. Saraladevi’s education began at home with a tutor, she 
then attended Bethune College, graduating with honors in English in 
1890. She continued studying — French, Persian, and then Sanskrit - in 
preparation for her MA examination. Remaining at home, she studied 
music, wrote songs, and wrote for her mother’s journal. Her boldest 
step was to leave home and become a teacher in Maharani’s School in 
Mysore. Saraladevi agreed to marry at age thirty-two and only then 
because her dying mother asked her to. In 1905 she married Rambhuj 
Dutt from Lahore, a Punjabi nationalist and member of the Arya 
Samaj. She had one son and continued her work as an educationalist, a 
patriot, and a feminist. 

Saraladevi was an unusual woman for her time but there were many 
others, less famous with less freedom, who also took advantage of 
opportunities to obtain an education and take the first steps towards 
controlling their own lives. 


The goal of the male reformers was progress. Without social reform to 
substantially improve women’s status, regeneration seemed doomed to 
failure. Humiliated by their colonial status, Indians of the late nine- 
teenth century were obsessed with the issues of strength and power. 
They needed an explanation for the weakness that had led to their 
defeat and an answer to the question of how to build up their strength. 
If they accepted the nineteenth-century European theory that the 
status of women was integral to the level and strength of civilization 
and the European conclusion that Indian customs were degrading to 
women’s status, they gained an explanation for their defeat and a pre- 
scription for reform. In Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s patriotic 
novel Anandamath (1882), nationalists were born when they came face 
to face with a battered and neglected image of the Mother Goddess. 
Dedicating their lives to the regeneration of the Mother, they took up 
the slogan, “Bande Mataram” (Hail to the Motherland). In the hands of 
the great reformer Vivekananda, worship of the Goddess, reverence for 

& Borthwick, The Changing Role of Women, pp. 131-3; “Saraladevi Chaudhurani,” DNB, 
vol. 1, ed. S. P. Sen (Calcutta, Institute of Historical Studies, 1972), pp. 289-91. 


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the Motherland, and a commitment to female education and improving 
the status of women became the triple vow of the modern man.® But 
Vivekananda regarded most of the social reform programs of his con- 
temporaries as inadequate to the great task of “national reconstruc- 
tion.” Change was essential but not through reliance on Western 
guidance, continuous breast-beating about the evils of Hinduism, or 
leadership by English-educated intellectuals. It must come from the 
people, guided and educated by the intelligentsia. 

The debate over the Age of Consent Act in 1891, an Act to raise the 
age of consent from ten to twelve, degenerated into a battle for control 
of Indian women’s sexuality. By this time many of the best-educated 
and influential men were involved with nationalist politics and the 
“woman question” was no longer a subject on which educated Indians 
and British rulers could agree.®* But these issues were not discarded as 
the “new women” moved forward to set up their own organizations 
and reorganize social reform priorities. The changes these male reform- 
ers proposed could not resolve the “woman question.” They had little 
understanding of women’s lives beyond those of women in their own 
families. Moreover, many of them doubted the efficacy of legal mea- 
sures even as these changes were enacted. In her review of three recent 
books published on the history of women in India, Janaki Nair com- 
ments on the “limited operation of the ‘modernization’ paradigm.” She 
writes: “The agenda of ‘modernization,’ to which both colonialist and 
nationalist discourse laid claim, did not, indeed could not, include the 
wider transformation of Indian society.”® Nevertheless, the steps 
taken by these respectable and well-educated Indian men linked 
improving women’s status with the modernization agenda. Their cam- 
paign set in motion further attempts to establish institutions that would 
be supportive of a new generation of women leaders. 

6 M. K. Haldar, Renaissance and Reaction in Nineteenth Century Bengal: Bankim Chandra 
Chatterjee (Columbia, Mo., South Asia Books, 1977), p. 188. 

* Raychaudhuri, Europe Reconsidered, p. 338. 

6° Partha Chatterjee argues that the nationalists dispensed with the “woman question” by rel- 
egating it to the realm of the spiritual. Recasting Women, pp. 233-53. 

6 Janaki Nair, “Reconstructing and Reinterpreting the History of Women in India,” /WH, 
3, no. 1 (spring, 1991), p. 132. 


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Among the earliest women’s memoirs from the nineteenth century are 
stories of a passionate desire to learn to read. Rassundari Devi, born c. 
1809, taught herself to read by stealing precious moments from her 
housework and the responsibilities of caring for twelve children. Later, 
she described her craving for knowledge: 

I was so immersed in the sea of housework that I was not conscious of what I was 
going through day and night. After some time the desire to learn how to read prop- 
erly grew very strong in me. I was angry with myself for wanting to read books. 
Girls did not read... That was one of the bad aspects of the old system. The other 
aspects were not so bad. People used to despise women of learning. . . In fact, older 
women used to show a great deal of displeasure if they saw a piece of paper in the 
hands of a woman. But somehow I could not accept this.! 

Rashsundari’s progress was slow but she learned to read, to write, and 
finally wrote about her own experiences. 

Haimabati Sen (c. 1866-1932), born a half-century later, recalled her 
childhood in Khulna District of East Bengal: 

The outer quarters were my resort, that is where J spent all my time; during the 
office hours I stayed in the school room. The teacher was very fond of me. I greatly 
enjoyed listening to the lessons. But I had no right to education. Though I lived like 
a boy in every respect, in matters of education I remained a woman. It is a popular 
superstition in our country that women, if educated, have to suffer widowhood; 
hence that path was entirely closed for me. But I was inspired by an eager wish God 
had planted in my heart. 

Fortunately, a sub-inspector visited the school and heard Haimabati 
answer the questions her brothers missed. The sub-inspector spoke to 
her father and Haimabati became a regular pupil. 

Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) was awarded the title “Pandita” in 
recognition of her great learning. Ramabai’s first teacher was her 
mother. Anant Padmanabha Dongre, Ramabai’s father, was a great 
Vedic scholar who decided to educate his wife over the objections of 

' Women Writing in India, vol.1, ed. Tharu and Lalita, p. 199. 
2 From Child Widow to Lady Doctor: The Intimate Memoir of Dr. Haimabati Sen, trans. 
Tapan Raychaudhuri, ed. Geraldine Forbes and Tapan Raychaudhuri, in press. 


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the community. Ramabai’s rigorous education began at age eight and 
continued until she was fourteen. She memorized the Bhagavata 
Purana and the Bhagavad Gita; then studied Sanskrit grammar and 
vocabulary. At this time her family was traveling from one pilgrimage 
site to another and Ramabai learned first-hand how various sects prac- 
ticed Hinduism.’ 

One cannot generalize from these three cases about women’s desire 
to learn. But given conventional notions about the impropriety, even 
danger, of women’s education we can be certain these headstrong 
women were a minority. In his Report on the State of Education in 
Bengal (1836) William Adam wrote: “A superstitious feeling is alleged 
to exist in the majority of Hindu families, principally cherished by the 
women and not discouraged by the men, that a girl taught to read and 
write will soon after marriage become a widow.” Adam also com- 
mented on the fear, shared by Hindus and Muslims, that a “knowledge 
of letters” might facilitate female intrigue. Because Hindu women 
were totally dependent on fathers, then husbands, and finally sons for 
support, they said prayers and performed rituals to insure longevity for 
these men. If learning to read would lead to a husband’s death, then 
pursuing knowledge was tantamount to suicide. This was a sex-segre- 
gated world; men and women did different work and occupied separ- 
ate spaces. Women interacted primarily with women and it was women 
who enforced the prohibition against female education. Many of the 
women who learned to read before the 1870s have reported hiding their 
accomplishments from other women. Even if mothers were lenient 
with daughters, mothers-in-law and the other women in the father-in- 
law’s home were seldom as kind. It is difficult to impute motives to the 
women who vehemently opposed education. Subjects of a harsh patri- 
lineal, patriarchal system, they were not in a position to oppose pre- 
vailing codes. Their survival depended on upholding the status quo and 
an educated stranger in their midst posed an obvious threat. Those 
women and girls who were eager to learn had no recourse but to look 
to the men who controlled their lives. 

Missionaries began the first girls’ schools but their efforts were soon 
rivaled by Indian reformers. Despite their valiant efforts, there were no 

+ Nicol Macnicol, Pandita Ramabai (Calcutta, Association Press, 1926) pp. 11-13; “Ramabai 
Pandita”, DNB, vol. 111, pp. 457-9. 

* Syed Nurullah and J. P. Naik, History of Education in India: During the British Period 
(Bombay, Macmillan, 1943), p. 21; Meredith Borthwick, The Changing Role of Women, pp. 


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1 Satire on women’s changing roles: “Wife assaulting her husband” by 
Nibaran Chandra Ghosh, Kaligat, c. 1900 


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real advances in female education until the second half of the nineteenth 
century when the government offered financial support. Even then, 
efforts to organize girls’ schools languished until the urban profes- 
sional elite joined reformers in supporting formal education for girls. 
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, institutions proliferated 
and the number of educated women grew steadily. The debate then 
turned to what was the most suitable type of education for women. 
Before the century was over a few women came forward to articulate 
their ideas about female education. By the twentieth century women 
were ready to design a curriculum and set up schools for girls. 


Traditionally education meant learning to read sacred literature. 
Among Hindus, members of the priestly caste, brahmins, were learned 
in all branches of sacred knowledge, while the other twice-born castes 
(kshatriyas and vaishyas) were given a less rigorous program but also 
learned practical skills. Shudras and most women were not taught the 
sacred books but some women were taught to read. Some women from 
upper-class Vaisnavite families learned to read puranic literature.° 
Muslim girls were expected to learn the Quran and some accounting 
skills but the strict seclusion observed by upper-class families pro- 
hibited their daughters from attending schools. Consequently, what 
they learned about their religion they learned at home, either from their 
families or through tutors.® At the turn of the century there were only 
eleven Quran schools for girls in Bengal with 142 pupils.” 

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, female literacy was 
extremely low in relation to male literacy. Male literacy, ranging from 
approximately 6 percent in Bengal to 20 percent in the Deccan, was also 
low in comparison with Western nations or Japan. Moreover, indige- 
nous schools for boys were on the decline.’ Boys attended three kinds 

> Aparna Basu, “Mary Ann Cooke to Mother Theresa: Christian Missionary Women and the 

Indian Response,” Women and Missions: Past and Present: Anthropological and Historical 
Perceptions, ed. Fiona Bowie, Deborah Kirkwood, and Shirley Ardener (Providence, 
R.I./Oxford, BERG, 1993), p. 199. 

Sonia Nishat Amin, “The Early Muslim Bhadramahila: The Growth of Learning and 
Creativity, 1876-1939,” From the Seams of History, p. 112. 

Usha Chakraborty, Condition of Bengali Women Around the Second Half of the 
Nineteenth Century (Calcutta, Usha Chakraborty, 1963), p. 52. 

Aparna Basu, Essays in the History of Indian Education (New Delhi, Concept Publishing 
Co., 1982), pp. 31-2; Nurullah and Naik, History of Education in India, pp. 12-13. 





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of schools: small village schools which taught elementary reading and 
accounting; higher schools for Hindus, primarily brahmins, which 
taught Sanskrit grammar, lexicography and literature; and Persian and 
Arabic schools for Muslims. We do not know how many of these 
schools there were throughout India, but in Bengal there were approx- 
imately 100 traditional institutions per district with a total of 10,800 
students. There were 164 Hindu schools in Poona in the 1820s. Aparna 
Basu, contends that “the state of higher learning among Hindus and 
Muslims resembled that which existed in Europe before the invention 
of printing.”® 

Female education was informal and largely limited to practical 
matters. Women from respectable families often studied classical or 
vernacular literature as “a pious recreation,” and girls from propertied 
families received some education in keeping accounts.'° But most 
females learned only the household arts. 


English education was introduced into India because the East India 
Company needed clerks and translators. From 1813 the Company set 
aside some money for education, and after the Charter of 1833 English 
became the official language. In 1844 Lord Hardinge announced that 
English-educated Indians would be given preference for government 
appointments. Free-traders voiced their support for this policy believ- 
ing it would help develop an Indian population loyal to the British. The 
missionaries joined the chorus of approval. Eager to convert Indians 
from influential families, missionaries recognized how much easier it 
would be with English as the language of professional advancement. 
Liberals believed in the civilizing influence of Western philosophy and 
literature. It was only at the end of the century that these men saw the 
dangerous side of education, that is, its tendency to promote national- 
ism and political unrest. Then, the government made attempts to 
control and even curtail education.'! 

Long before the government decided to sponsor English education, 
Indian gentlemen set up Hindu College in Calcutta. Opened in 1816, 

> Basu, Essays, p. 33. 

'° Kalikinkar Datta, Survey of India’s Social Life and Economic Condition in the Eighteenth 
Century, (1707-1813) (Calcutta, Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1961), pp. 23-4. 

™ Basu, Essays, pp. 7-9. 


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Hindu College was designed to prepare young Indian men for lucra- 
tive positions with the East India Company. In the first three decades 
of the twentieth century Hindu College and similar schools through- 
out British India depended on the patronage of wealthy Indians and 
were in direct competition with traditional schools teaching Sanskrit, 
Persian, and Arabic. As economic patterns changed, patronage for 
traditional schools disappeared. At about the same time, bright young 
men decided to study English.” 

In contrast to support for boys’ schools, there was little interest in 
the education of girls. The colonial government, despite pressure 
exerted by missionaries and liberals, was unconcerned with female 
education. The missionaries were interested in female education and 
schools for girls because, they argued, women needed to be brought 
into the fold to make conversions permanent. But since men made the 
decisions, female education was ancillary. 

Unmarried female missionaries arrived in India in the 1840s and were 
assigned to work with women and children. These missionary women, 
educated and eager to prove their worth, concentrated on converting 
adult married Indian women to Christianity.'* They gained entry to 
households as teachers where they read stories, taught needlework, and 
attempted to bring their charges to Christ. Rarely were they successful 
in gaining converts. When it became apparent that these zenana pro- 
jects were unproductive, the mission authorities substituted girls’ 
schools. Missionary women continued to teach and it was their stu- 
dents, Indian women from Christian families, who became teachers in 
a number of the new girls’ schools.!° 


The opening of Hindu College in 1816 was closely followed by the 
founding of the Calcutta School Society to promote female education. 
Radha Kanta Deb, the secretary of this society, became a patron of 
female education and assisted in the formation of the Calcutta Female 
Juvenile Society (founded in 1819 by Baptists). In 1821, the School 
2 Thid., p. 14. 

3 Harihar Das, Life and Letters of Toru Dutt (London, Humphrey Milford, 1921), p. 8. 

14 Geraldine Forbes, “In Search of the ‘Pure Heathen’: Missionary Women in Nineteenth 

Century India,” EPW, 21, no. 17 (April 26, 1986), pp. ws2—ws8. 

'5 Glendora B. Paul, “Emancipation and Education of Indian Women Since 1829,” Ph.D. dis- 
sertation, University of Pittsburgh (1970). 


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™ or x 



2 Entrance to Forman Girls’ School, Lahore, 1936 


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Society brought Miss Mary Anne Cooke to Calcutta but could not 
raise the money to open schools. The Church Missionary Society 
stepped in, employed Miss Cooke, and opened thirty schools for 
“respectable” Hindu girls. These schools enjoyed the patronage of 
Hindu gentlemen and were staffed by brahmin pundits, but they failed 
to attract girls from the higher castes. The religious instruction deterred 
prestigious families while pupils from the lower classes or Christian 
families were lured to the school by gifts of clothing and other items. 

The Church Missionary Society was more successful in South India 
where it opened its first boarding school for girls in Tirunelveli in 1821. 
By 1840 the Scottish Church Society could claim six schools with a 
clientele of 200 Hindu girls. By mid-century the missionaries in Madras 
were instructing nearly 8,000 girls, the majority of whom were 
Christians, in day schools and boarding schools." 

One of the most important schools for girls was the Hindu Balika 
Vidyalaya opened in 1849 in Calcutta by J. E. Drinkwater Bethune, legal 
member of the Governor-General’s Council and president of the 
Council of Education. The school was secular, instruction was in Bengali, 
and the girls were transported in a carriage emblazoned with a Sanskrit 
verse declaring that a daughter’s education was a father’s religious duty. 
Pandit Vidyasagar was appointed school secretary. Bethune persuaded 
several prominent families to endorse this experiment and by 1850 there 
were eighty pupils. When Bethune died in 1851, support for the school 
declined. In 1863 the school had ninety-three girls aged five to seven, 
three-quarters of whom were from the “lowest class,” a clear indication 
of continuing upper-caste prejudice against female education.'” 


Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India from 1848 to 1856, 
declared that no single change was likely to produce more important 

'6 Dr. (Mrs.) R. Vishalakshmi Neduncheziar, “Education of Girls and Women in Tamilnadu,” 
Status of Women Souvenir 1973 (Madras, Task Force Sub-Committee on Education, 
Tamilnadu, 1975), no page numbers. 

7 J. C. Bagal, Women’s Education in Eastern India: The First Phase (Calcutta, The World 
Press Private Ltd., 1956), pp. 77-95; N. S. Bose, The Indian Awakening and Bengal 
(Calcutta, Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1969), pp. 188-9; “Hindoo Women,” Calcutta 
Review, 40 (1864), pp. 80-101; “The Bethune Female School,” The Bengalee (January 13, 
1863), p. 13; Borthwick, Changing Role, pp. 73-7. 


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and beneficial consequences than female education.'* Sir Charles 
Wood, president of the Board of Control from 1853 to 1855, issued an 
education despatch in 1854 that detailed a shift in government policy, 
from providing higher education for the elites to support for mass 
education in the vernacular. This new focus on a total system of educa- 
tion was to include both sexes. The despatch read: 

The importance of female education in India cannot be over-rated; and we have 
observed with pleasure the evidence which is now afforded of an increased desire 
on the part of many of the natives to give a good education to their daughters. By 
this means a far greater proportional impulse is imparted to the educational and 
moral tone of the people than by the education of men.'” 

The moral and financial support of the colonial authorities was 
essential to the spread of female education, but did not guarantee 
schools for girls. Unlike education for males, education for females did 
not automatically enhance the prestige and financial standing of the 
family. In fact, the opposite may have been true. 

Indian norms and social customs made the British model of school- 
ing difficult, if not impossible. Deeply ingrained notions of sex segrega- 
tion and, in some areas, of complete seclusion, meant girls had to have 
female teachers and study in separate institutions. The widely accepted 
ideal of youthful marriage limited a girl’s school-going years. 
Moreover, the demands on women for food production and nurturing 
left little time for lessons and studying. 

There was a third set of problems associated with the institutions for 
female education. Indians were unaccustomed to sending their daugh- 
ters to “schools” yet this was the only practical method of accomplish- 
ing the task. Zenana education — education given in the home — was 
expensive, cumbersome, and largely ineffectual. Schools were the 
answer but what kind of schools? Who would teach? What would be 
taught? Which families would choose to send their daughters to school 
and for how long? If girls were married prior to puberty, could they 
continue their education as married women? The leaders of Indian 
society had to respond to these questions — a far more difficult task than 
providing moral and material support. 

18 ‘YB. Mathur, Women’s Education in India, 1813-1966 (Bombay, Asia Publishing, 1973), p. 
25. 9 [bid., p. 29. 


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The breakthrough came with the establishment of government schools, 
such as Bethune’s, and schools sponsored by reformist religious institu- 
tions. First the Brahmo Samaj, and later the Prarthana Samaj, Arya 
Samaj, and Theosophical Society all supported female education. 

In 1854 there were approximately 626 girls’ schools (Bengal: 288, 
Madras: 256, Bombay: 65, and NWFP and Oudh: 17) with a total of 
21,755 students.”° Obviously these schools were very small and the 
total number of girls receiving this education was minuscule in relation 
to the total population. Yet, a shift in attitudes towards female educa- 
tion had taken place. 

Indians supported female education because they wanted social and 
religious reform, or social and financial mobility, or both. The founders 
of Hindu College and other early schools for boys wanted to advance 
the opportunities of their own class. In the case of female education, 
early supporters saw opportunities for social mobility as the demand for 
educated brides increased. They were also motivated by a desire for 
social reform, possible only if women as well as men were educated. 
Many Western-educated Bengali gentlemen undoubtedly wanted to 
“wean away their own wives and daughters” from various forms of 
popular culture regarded as licentious and vulgar. This increased the 
social distance between the “new women” and their less educated sisters 
and deprived educated middle-class women of an avenue of protest 
offered by street performers and popular songs.”! The concern here was 
not with women as individuals, but with their development as compan- 
ions to men, as “scientific” nurturers, and as members of civil society. 

Members of the Brahmo Samaj, the Bengal-based reform society, led 
the movement for female education and equality between the sexes. 
Keshub Chandra Sen, a Brahmo leader, lectured on the importance of 
female education in 1861 and the following year organized a society for 
males who supported reforms for women. In 1865, the Brahmo Samaj 
sponsored the first organization where women met for religious 
instruction, sewing lessons, and discussions of social issues.” 

0 Ibid., p. 26. 

21 Sumantha Banerjee, “Marginalization of Women’s Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century 
Bengal,” Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, pp. 130-1. 

22 Borthwick, Changing Role, p. 291. 


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aie Se a ‘ae 
t . ~ — ae 
war BP a ie ee a 

3 Girls from the Brahmo Samaj by N. B. Pujary, c 1904 


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The topic of women’s education led to a split in the Brahmo Samaj 
in 1866. That year, Navabidhan (Keshub Sen’s breakaway group) wel- 
comed Miss Mary Carpenter to Calcutta. Carpenter’s mission was to 
encourage female education and she was quick to notice the shortage of 
suitable teachers.”? She spoke publicly about the problem, presented 
her proposals to the Governor-General, and helped establish the 
National Indian Association to promote mutual understanding 
between Indian and English people. In 1872 Carpenter, Keshub Sen, 
and another English woman, Annette Akroyd, set up a normal 
school. Later Akroyd broke with Keshub and worked with another 
group of Brahmos to established the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya (Hindu 
Girls’ School). By 1878 this school had merged with the older Bethune 
School to become Bethune College, an affiliate of Calcutta University. 
In 1883 Kadambini Basu and Chandramukhi Basu received their BAs 
from Bethune, becoming the first women graduates in the British 

In Madras it was the Theosophical Society that encouraged female 
education. Speaking as a leader of the society, Annie Besant 
(1847-1933) asserted that in ancient ttmes Hindu women were edu- 
cated and moved freely in society. She urged a return to this “golden 
age.” In England Besant had been identified with women’s emancipa- 
tion since her public lecture on women’s suffrage in 1874.76 Besant had 
been associated with a number of other movements in England before 
she read Madame Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine in 1889. She then decided 
to join the theosophists and make India her home. Madame Blavatsky, 
a founder of the Theosophical Society, viewed child marriage, child 
widowhood, and sati as perversions of the original Hindu doctrine.”” 
When Besant first spoke in India in 1893, she spoke of the greatness of 
the Indian past and the need to regain that past. Later she focused on 
specific problems and by 1901 had written an article for the Indian 
Ladies Magazine on the “Education of Women.” Besant warned that 

23 Mary Carpenter, Six Months in India, 2 vols. (London, Longman, Green and Co., 1868), 
vol. 11, pp. 142-5. 

4 Lord Beveridge, India Called Them (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1947), p. 83. 

25 David Kopf, “The Brahmo Idea of Social Reform and the Problem of Female 
Emancipation in Bengal,” Bengal in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, ed. J. R. 
McLane (East Lansing, Mich., Asian Studies Center, 1975), pp. 47-50. 

26 Annie Besant, The Political Status of Women, 2nd edn. (London, C. Watts, 1885), pp. I-11 

27 Hi. P. Blavatsky, “Hindu Widow-Marriage,” A Modern Panarion: A Collection of Fugitive 
Fragments (London, T. S. Publishing Society, 1895), vol. 1, p. 243. 


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India’s fate would be sealed if women were not educated. But Western 
education was not the answer; it would “unsex” women. Indians 
should look to their own ideal of womanhood — the Goddess Durga.”® 
Besant pledged her efforts to this reform and founded a women’s 
college based on these principles.” 

In North India female education was encouraged by the Arya Samaj, 
a reformist Hindu sect which followed the teachings of Swami 
Dayanand Saraswati. By the end of the nineteenth century, progressive 
Arya Samajists recognized the importance of involving women in their 
reform efforts. The Jullundar Samaj opened the Arya Kanya Pathshala 
(Girls’ School) in 1890 with a lady principal in charge.*° 

The Kanya Mahavidyalaya (Girls’ Higher School) of Jullundar was 
opened somewhat later. Both this high school and the elementary girls’ 
school, firmly established by 1892, owed their existence to the efforts of 
Lala Devraj. He opened his first school for girls in the family home, sup- 
ported it through the sale of “waste paper,” and staffed it with teachers 
who were partially compensated with food from his mother’s kitchen. As 
public acceptance for theidea of female education grew sodid the school’s 
enrollment. Before long a cadre of experienced women teachers and 
schoo] administrators had designed special instructional materials. This 
institution occupied a special place in the community and “became acat- 
alyst for various kinds of change relating to women in [the] Punjab.”*! 


Between 1849, when Bethune School opened, and 1882, when the 
Indian Education (Hunter) Commission reviewed the progress of 
education in India, serious efforts had been made to develop primary 
schools for girls and teacher-training institutions. Higher education for 
women and co-education were still contentious issues.*? Faced with the 

38 “Mrs. Besant on Indian Womanhood,” /LM, 1, no. 7 (January, 1902), pp. 195-7; “Indian 
Women,” MR, 25 (1919), pp. 271-2. 

2° Arthur H. Nethercot, The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (Chicago, University of 
Chicago Press, 1963), pp. 17, 55, 73; “Annie Besant,” DNB, vol. 1, pp. 51-3. 

°° Kenneth W. Jones, Arya Dharma: Hindu Consciousness in Nineteenth Century Punjab 
(Delhi, Manohar, 1976), pp. 104-5. 

31 Madhu Kishwar, “Arya Samaj and Women’s Education: Kanya Mahavidyalaya,” EPW, 21, 
no. 17 (April 16, 1986), pp. ws9-ws24; Kumari Lajjavati, “A Pioneer in Women’s 
Education,” ISR, 45 (June 1, 1945), pp. 134-5. 

»% Premila Thackersey, Education of Women: A Key to Progress (New Delhi, Ministry of 
Education and Youth Services, 1970), p. 6. 


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4 Indian girls at school in Madras, by R. Venkiah Bros, c. 1930 

fact that 98 percent of school-age girls were not in school, authors of 
the Hunter Commission Report recommended more liberal grants-in- 
aid for girls’ schools than for boys’ and special scholarships and prizes 
for girls. In the next two decades higher education expanded rapidly; 
whereas there were only six women in Indian universities in 1881-82, 
by the turn of the century there were 264. During the same time period 
secondary school enrollment rose from 2,054 to 41,582. 

The story of women’s education in the period following the Hunter 
Commission and the end of the century can be told through the work 
of three pioneer educationalists — Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, founder 
of the Sharada Sadan in Bombay and Poona (1889), Mataji Tapaswini 
who began the Mahakali Pathshala of Calcutta (1893), and D. K. Karve 
who began a school for widows in Poona (1896). These three examples 
are particularly significant because they represent efforts to build 
female schools distinct from those of the religious reform organiza- 
tions. These were not secular public schools in the contemporary sense; 
in fact, they were all narrowly caste-, class-, and community-based. 

33 Thackersey, Education of Women, pp. 1-11; Mathur, pp. 40-4. 


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These three examples are especially worthy of attention because they 
highlight the involvement of women in structuring and defining female 


Pandita Ramabai was truly remarkable as a pioneer in women’s educa- 
tion and rebel champion of women’s rights. Her father supervised her 
education and allowed her to remain unmarried. When her father and 
mother died, Ramabai was sixteen years old, unmarried, and able to 
read Sanskrit. She and her brother traveled throughout India lecturing 
on female education and social reform. The Calcutta elite were 
enchanted and bestowed on her the name “Saraswati” — the Goddess of 
Learning — and called her “Pandita” because she seemed as learned as 
other brahmin pandits. Other audiences were outraged and they jeered 
and booed when she attempted to speak.** 

Ramabai’s brother died in Calcutta and she married his close friend, 
Bipen Behari Das Medhavi (a shudra by caste). The next year, at age 
twenty-three, Ramabai gave birth to a daughter. Unfortunately her 
husband died the following year. 

Returning to Poona, Ramabai began to work with reformers to 
educate women through the Arya Mahila Samaj (Aryan’s Women’s 
Society).*> While in Poona she gave evidence before the Hunter 
Commission and stressed the urgent need for women doctors and 
teachers. Determined to learn English and study medicine, Ramabai 
sought help from members of the Anglo-Catholic Community of St. 
Mary the Virgin whose mother house was at Wantage in Oxfordshire, 
England. They were able to give her some assistance while the balance 
of her expenses were met through the sale of Stri Dharma Neeti 
(“Morals for Women”), her book urging women to take charge of their 
* Jyotsna Kapur, “Women and the Social Reform Movement in Maharashtra,” M.Phil thesis, 

Delhi University (1989), p. 79. 
> The Letters and Correspondence of Pandita Ramabai, compiled by Sister Geraldine, ed. A. 

B. Shah (Bombay, Maharashtra State Board of Literature and Culture, 1977), pp. 15-183 

Rajas Krishnarao Dongre and Josephine F. Patterson, Pandita Ramabai: A Life of Faith 

and Prayer (Madras, Christian Literature Society, 1969), pp. 6-10; Muriel Clark, Pandita 

Ramabai (London, Paternoster Bldg., 1920), pp. 24-5; “Pandita Ramabai,” Men and 

Women of India, 1, no. 6 (June, 1905), pp. 316-19. Meera Kosambi, “Women, 

Emancipation and Equality: Pandita Ramabai’s Contribution to Women’s Cause,” EPW, 

23, no. 44 (October 29, 1988), pp. ws38- ws49; Meera Kosambi, At the Intersection of 

Gender Reform and Religious Belief (Bombay, SNDT, Research Center for Women’s 
Studies, Gender Series, 1993). 


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own lives. Ramabai, her young daughter, and a traveling companion, 
Anandibai Bhagat, left for England in 1883. Soon after the three of them 
had settled at Wantage, Ramabai declared she was unwilling to convert 
to Christianity. Some months later Anandibai committed suicide (the 
records here become very elusive) leaving Ramabai extremely shaken. 

Ramabai was only twenty-five years of age and had already watched 
her parents, her brother, her husband, and her closest friend die. It was 
at this time, alone with her small daughter in a strange country, that 
Ramabai decided to accept baptism.** She continued her studies until 
1886 when she decided to sail for America to attend the graduation cer- 
emonies of her cousin Anandibai Joshi. 

To finance this trip and popularize her cause Ramabai wrote The 
High Caste Hindu Woman. Ten thousand copies of this book were sold 
before Ramabai had left America. In 1887 Boston admirers set up a 
Ramabai Association to support her work in India. She traveled 
throughout the United States and Canada studying educational, phil- 
anthropic, and charitable institutions and lecturing to various groups. 
By May of 1888, she had collected over $30,000 in the name of her 

In India Pandita Ramabai established Sharada Sadan (Home of 
Wisdom), a school for widows, in Bombay. This was to be a non-sec- 
tarian school where all the caste rules of brahmins were scrupulously 
observed. It attracted some high-caste Hindu widows, among them 
Godubai (renamed Anandibai after her marriage to D. K. Karve) but 
generally the Hindu community remained suspicious of Ramabai’s 

Ramabai attempted to forestall criticism by forming an Executive 
Committee composed of reformers who were known as staunch 
Hindus. This plan did not work and less than one year later Bombay 
newspapers carried articles critical of Ramabai and her school. When 
financial problems forced her to move the school to Poona, the news- 
paper Kesari charged her with converting widows to Christianity. 
Ramabai’s admitted crime was allowing widows to attend her personal 
prayer meetings. By 1893 twenty-five girls were withdrawn. But there 
was no dearth of widows in need of shelter and before long Ramabai had 
other students. By 1900 the Sharada Sadan had trained eighty women 
who were able to earn their own living through teaching or nursing.*® 

%© Letters and Correspondence, p. 14. 7 Ibid., pp. xx-xxi. 8 Ibid., pp. 257-362. 


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Ramabai’s second school, Mukti, was established thirty miles outside 
of Poona at Kedgaon following the famine that began in 1897. She 
began taking women and children who were victims of famine into 
Sharada Sadan where she fed and clothed them, and enrolled them in 
her school. Attempting to control the plague, the government placed 
restrictions on the movement of people; in Poona the city magistrate 
placed a limit on the number of inmates in Sharada Sadan. Since she 
could not keep famine victims in Poona, Ramabai took her charges to 
Kedgaon where she had purchased 100 acres of land. By 1900 this 
venture had grown into a major institution housing 2,000 women and 
children attending school and involved in industrial training and pro- 
duction. Financing for Mukti came from an American committee 
which willingly approved all her schemes.” 

Given a free hand, Ramabai urged the inmates of her home to 
become Christians and developed a unique educational program to suit 
their needs. Her own version of Christianity was doctrinally eclectic, 
combining ideas she had learned from the sisters at Wantage, and from 
Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Indian Christian friends. Ramabai saw 
caste as the great flaw in Hindu society. It led to false valuing of the 
intellect and denigration of physical work. Caste associations pro- 
moted narrow self-interest and inhibited the development of a democ- 
ratic spirit. 

Ramabai designed a remedial curriculum. Literature selected for its 
emphasis on moral models would engender a spirit of caring; classes in 
physiology and botany were included to teach students about their 
own bodies and the physical world in which they lived. Industrial 
training was included — in printing, carpentry, tailoring, masonry, 
wood-cutting, weaving and needlework — as well as training in farming 
and gardening. All students were required to join “unions” or societies 
such as the Temperance Union or the Christian Endeavor Society in an 
effort to break down caste barriers and develop new loyalties based on 
interest. As members of these societies, the children learned simple 
parliamentary rules and were encouraged to take charge of their own 

Ramabai’s educational work impressed contemporaries, but her 
connection with Christianity has obfuscated her contribution to 
women’s education. An acknowledged Christian when hatred of the 

» Ibid., pp. 342-416. © ‘Ibid., p. 412. 


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ruling power was growing daily, her work angered some of the most 
powerful men in western India. Ramabai believed the intensity of their 
anger was related to the fact that many of her pupils came from the 
higher castes. She argued that these men would have remained uncon- 
cerned if her work were confined to low-caste women.*! 

There were many issues that provoked Ramabai’s sharp and unpop- 
ular comments. When she heard about the Rukhmabai case, she 
exploded in angry denunciations of both the British and Indian men. 
Rukhmabai, married as a child, had been tried and sentenced to prison 
(but was never imprisoned) because she refused to have a conjugal rela- 
tionship with her husband (see chapter 3). Ramabai wrote: 

Our only wonder is that a defenseless woman like Rukhmabai dared to raise her 
voice in the face of the powerful Hindu law, the mighty British Government, the 
129,000,000 men, the 330,000,000 gods of the Hindus; all these have conspired 
together to crush her into nothingness. We cannot blame the English Government 

for not defending a helpless woman; it is only fulfilling its agreement made with the 
male population of India. 

Ramabai’s greatest legacy was her effort, the first in India, to educate 
widows and the pupils she left behind to carry on her work. 


The Mahakali Pathshala (Great Mother Kali School) of Bengal stands 
in sharp contrast to Pandita Ramabai’s schools, with their missionary 
connection and foreign support. Founded in Calcutta in 1893 by Her 
Holiness Mataji Maharani Tapaswini, this school and its many 
branches has been styled a “genuine Indian attempt” at developing 
female education.® This school received no financial assistance from 
foreigners and employed no foreign teachers. Founders of the institu- 
tion accepted the “school” model for female education, but opposed 
co-education and the use of one syllabus for both sexes. Their aim was 
to educate “girls on strictly national lines in the hope that they might 
regenerate Hindu society.” This was a project consistent with those of 
nationalist “revivalists,” who, in the historian Tanika Sarkar’s view, did 
not automatically oppose reform “in the name of resisting colonial 

| [bid., p. 257. 

* [bid., p. 257; Kosambi, “Women, Emancipation and Equality,” pp. ws44—ws45. 

*® Minna S. Cowan, The Education of the Women of India (Edinburgh, Oliphant, Anderson 
and Ferrier, 1912), p. 113. 


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knowledge.” Despite their differences with the liberal reformers, they 
too believed in the relationship between progress and female education 
and looked to a future where Indian women would play a larger role in 
the affairs of the country. 

Gangabai (Mataji Maharani Tapaswini), a brahmin woman of the 
Deccan who had learned Sanskrit and studied sacred literature, opened 
her first school with thirty pupils.** She had come to Calcutta with a 
mission: to promote female education in harmony with Hindu reli- 
gious and moral principles. Unlike Pandita Ramabai, Gangabai 
believed that Hindu society could be regenerated from within. Her 
notion of an ideal education for women was translated into a syllabus 
which included: knowledge of sacred literature and history; an under- 
standing of the myths and legends that spoke of the duties of the daugh- 
ter, wife, daughter-in-law, and mother; and practical skills such as 
cooking and sewing.** This syllabus was praised by “Hindoo gentle- 
men of the middle-class” who believed that much of the female educa- 
tion then in existence “demoralized and denationalized” young Hindu 
women.*” Cooking lessons were especially popular in light of the 
prevalent belief that educated girls avoided the kitchen. Financial 
support for this institution grew rapidly and within ten years there 
were twenty-three branches with 450 students. As the school expanded 
it published its own Bengali and Sanskrit textbooks. Gangabai turned 
more and more to supervision while the actual administration of the 
school was left in the hands of an illustrious board of trustees presided 
over by the Maharaja of Darbhanga, Bengal’s largest landlord. 

This school proved immensely popular. Patrons approved of the 
emphasis on religious injunctions, domestic skills, and strict purdah. 
Although the original curriculum included very little formal reading and 
writing, this gradually changed. In 1948 the Mahakali Pathshala was affili- 
ated to Calcutta University and by that time all that remained of the orig- 
inal curriculum was the performance of afew pujas (religious rituals).**In 

* Tanika Sarkar, “Rhetoric Against the Age of Consent,” EPW, 28, no. 36 (September 4, 
1993), pp- 1869-78. 

4M. M. Kaur, The Role of Women in the Freedom Movement (1857-1947) (New Delhi, 
Sterling, 1968), p. 85. Kaur claims that Maharani Tapaswini was a niece of the Rani of 
Jhansi. * Kaur, The Role of Women, p. 145. 

7 “The Mahakali Pathshala,” The Statesman (February 3, 1985), p. 7. 

48 Latika Ghose, “Social and Educational Movements for Women and by Women, 
1820-1950,” Bethune School and College Centenary Volume, 1849-1949, ed. Dr. Kalidas 
Nag (Calcutta, S. N. Guha Ray, 1950), p. 146; Cowan, The Education of Women in India, 
p. 113; “The Mahakali Pathshala,” p. 7. 


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the early years of the twentieth century the existence of this school and its 
popularity were regarded as indicators that the conservative elements of 
society, at least in Bengal, had given theirapproval totheconceptof female 


In the 1890s Dhondo Keshav Karve established a number of female 
schools in Poona. In his autobiography, Looking Back, Karve recon- 
structs his personal history to explain how his experiences led him to 
build a school for widows in 1896. Other accounts tell the story of 
Godubai Joshi (later Anandibai), a child widow who became Karve’s 
second wife. She dreamed of setting up a widow’s home soon after she 
became Pandita Ramabai’s first pupil. What may well have been the 
culmination of the life-long dream of two people has been known as 
“Karve’s Home.” Anandibai joked about this when she was very old: 

Sometimes in fun I tell him that although people call him Maharshi, some of the 

credit is due to me. For if I had not managed the family affairs and set him free to 
carry out his public activities, he could not have achieved so much. 

Karve’s association with reform movements dated back to his college 
years. After graduation from Elphinstone College he taught mathemat- 
ics in three different high schools in Bombay before accepting a posi- 
tion at Fergusson College in Poona. There he was elected a life member 
of the Deccan Educational Society.°! When his wife died, he decided he 
would marry a widow and chose Godubai, the twenty-two-year-old 
sister of his college friend. People in his home town excommunicated 
him and persecuted his mother. These actions shocked Karve and 
caused him to question remarriage as a way of helping child widows. 
At the same time he became increasingly interested in education as a 
way of assisting widows to become financially independent. In 1896 he 
opened a shelter for widows that became a school. 

The curriculum in this school was designed to make young widows 
employable and self-sufficient. Because schools for girls were scarce, 
Karve was asked to admit unmarried girls as well. To accommodate this 
new clientele, Karve set up the Mahilya Vidyalaya (Girls’ School) to 

*” ILM, 3, no. 1 (July, 1903), p. 16; JLM, 3, no. 6 (December, 1903), pp. 194-5. 

5° D. D. Karve, ed. and trans. The New Brahmins: Five Maharashtrian Families, ed. assis- 
tance, Ellen E. McDonald (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1963), p. 79. 

>! “(Maharshi) Dhondo Keshav Karve,” DNB, vol. 1, pp. 299-301. 


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develop “good wives, good mothers, good neighbors.” He believed 
that widows needed an education “that would make them econom- 
ically independent and would enable them to think for themselves”? 
but unmarried girls needed an education that would reinforce their 

Parvatibai Athavali, Anandibai’s widowed sister, played an impor- 
tant role in the growth and expansion of Karve’s schools. Married at age 
eleven, Parvatibai became a widow at age twenty, the third widowed 
daughter in her father’s home. Rejecting all discussion of remarriage, 
Parvatibai declared her wish to study and “do some work of impor- 
tance.”°> After receiving her education in Karve’s school, she became a 
teacher and then the superintendent. Parvatibai, a voluntarily tonsured 
widow, orthodox in her food habits, spoke publicly against widow 
remarriage.* Through her, Karve gained credibility with conservatives 
who previously characterized him as a radical because of his own 
remarriage. In her public lectures, Parvatibai insisted a woman’s true 
mission in life was to marry. She supported the curriculum of Karve’s 
school with instruction in the vernacular languages and emphasis on 
childcare and homecraft. Traditionally, these subjects had been taught 
by the older women in the households, but the increased complexity of 
women’s work made formal education necessary.*° Parvatibai warned 
women against rejecting their “natural roles” to enter the tyrannical 
market place. Yet she had entered the market place and from her own 
account not unwillingly. She explained her own life as follows: 

I felt that a widow who had one or two children and who had had some actual expe- 
rience of the happiness of domestic life, if she were able to do some work of impor- 

tance would not be tempted to enter again into the duties of a married life. In 
accordance with this idea, I settled on my ideal of life.** 

In her description of the ideal education for a woman and the ideal life- 
course, Parvatibai seemed to ignore the lesson of her own life. Like 
Karve, she regarded public roles for women as an aberration rather than 
the norm. 

Karve spent much of his money on his institutions and even cashed 
in his life insurance policy of Rs 5,000 to raise funds for the home. 

52 Quoted in D. D. Karve, The New Brahmins, p. 51. 

53 Parvati Athavale, My Story, The Autobiography of a Hindu Widow, trans. Revd. Justin E. 
Abbott (New York, G. P. Putnam, 1930), p. 30. 

>* Dhondo Keshav Karve, Looking Back (Poona, Hinge Stree-Shikshan Samastha, 1936), p. 
75. 5 Athavale, My Story, p.133. © Ibid., p. 30. 


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Anandibai, now the mother of his child, was alarmed because she knew 
that if Karve died she would be refused even domestic employment. 
Many brahmin widows found employment as cooks or maidservants 
but if they married a second time they were considered unclean. By her 
own account Anandibai, “cried, quarreled with him, abused him” but 
could not get him to budge. Karve was similarly neglectful of their day- 
to-day needs. Finally Anandibai realized that for survival she would 
have to seek employment. She completed a course in midwifery and 
earned enough to provide for the family’s needs.*” 

Karve’s third institution for women was the Women’s University 
founded in 1916. He had heard of the Women’s University in Japan and 
concluded that this model would be more suitable for India than the 
Western co-educational university. As president of the National Social 
Conference in 1915 he said: “we must recognize that both national and 
social economy require that women should occupy a station of their 
own distinct from that of men... but that the office they have to fill is 
different, though equal — perhaps greater in importance.”*® All courses 
at the women’s university were conducted in the vernacular, special 
subjects like home science were included, and it was “possible for 
women to avoid difficult subjects like mathematics and physical 
science.”°? This institution limped along for the first few years until it 
was adopted by Sir Vithaldas Thackersey who contributed Rs 
1,500,000 in 1920 with the stipulation that the university be named after 
his mother (thereby becoming Shreemati Nathibai Damodar 
Thackersey Indian Women’s University or SNDT) and relocated in 


By the turn of the century the number of schools for girls and school 
enrollment had risen dramatically. By the end of World War I, there 
were educational institutions for women in all parts of the country, and 
enrollments tripled at the school level and quintupled in universities.*! 
Parents now had more options: they could choose the type of institu- 
tion, the curriculum, even the language of instruction. These alterna- 

°” Karve, Looking Back, pp. 77-82. 8 Ibid., p. 104. 

°° Ibid., pp. 95-106; D. D. Karve, The New Brahmins, p. 56. 

6° G. L. Chakravarkar, Dhondo Keshav Karve (New Delhi, Publications Division, 
Government of India, 1970), pp. 169-87. 6! Basu, Essays, p. 14. 


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tives assuaged the fears of conservatives and liberals, the religious and 
the non-religious, those who desired radical change and traditionalists, 
anglophiles and anglophobes. Institution-builders like Karve had effec- 
tively argued that female education was the ideal method of smoothing 
over the rough spots in the transition from tradition to modernity and 
his successors continued to echo his reasoning: 

In the eyes of men of forethought and ambition, a woman trained on these lines to 
the profession of wifehood, is a far more desirable companion than an amateur 
wife. The training which a girl gets in her own home and under her own mother in 
India is admirable as far as it goes, but modern life has introduced many complex- 
ities to deal with for which a regular and systematic training is necessary. 

Maharani Tapaswini and K. D. Karve were educating young women 
from conservative homes to become, as they argued, better wives and 
mothers in a modern world. To gain the support of conservative com- 
munities, they developed curricula dominated by home science and 
religious lore. And their rhetoric matched their curricula. Karve may 
have educated young widows to be self-supporting but he was clear 
that unmarried girls needed to be taught how to become good wives 
and mothers. Maharani Tapaswini was not at all interested in education 
for employment. 

Pandita Ramabai stands in direct contrast to these two educators. She 
was critical of her own society and renounced Hinduism to become a 
Christian. She built a successful school in terms of numbers but she 
relied for both material and psychological support on foreign mission- 
aries. They sent her money and praised her while her own community 
ostracized her. Ramabai wanted to make women capable of supporting 
themselves. It was an appealing idea as long as her focus was lower-class 
women; upper class/caste families were unwilling to contemplate eco- 
nomic independence for their wives and daughters. 

Between 1900 and 1920 “new women,” that is, women who were the 
beneficiaries of the social reforms and educational efforts of the nine- 
teenth century, stepped forward to begin their own schools. They too 
were aware of conservative attitudes towards female education, but the 
picture had changed considerably. The demand for female education 
was growing steadily and what parents wanted, it seemed, was reassur- 
ance that these new schools observed “traditional” customs. To illus- 

6 “Thackesay (sic) Women’s University Convocation,” Sir Visvesvaraya’s convocation 
address, June 29, 1940, JAR, 1 (January-June, 1940), (Calcutta, Annual Register, n.d.), p. 


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trate the change I will sketch the educational efforts of two women: 
Begum Rokeya and Sister Subbalakshmi. 


In 1909 Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) began an 
institution for Muslim girls in the district town of Bhagalpur, Bihar. She 
set up this school soon after her husband’s death but his relations were 
offended. Driven out of her home by her step-daughter, Begum 
Rokeya closed the school and moved to Calcutta where she opened 
another school, Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School, in 1911. Although 
this was not the first school set up by a Muslim woman for Muslim 
girls, Begum Rokeya’s systematic and undaunted devotion to this 
project has earned her the title of pioneer. This school, with Urdu as its 
language of instruction, was designed and organized for students who 
observed purdah even though Begum Rokeya wrote and spoke pub- 
licly about the evils of this custom.© 

Begum Rokeya was fortunate, by her own account, in having an 
elder brother and a husband who encouraged her interest in education. 
Her elder sister Karimunnessa had not been so lucky. When it was dis- 
covered that Karimunnessa had learned to read English, she was sent to 
live under the watchful eye of her grandmother until her marriage 
could be arranged. To be on the safe side, Rokeya’s elder brother taught 
her to read English in the dead of night. Syed Sakhawat Hossain, her 
husband, was a widower who had been educated in the West. He 
looked to his young wife for companionship and soon after their 
wedding gave her lessons in English and encouraged her to write 
essays. At age twenty-one, only three years after their marriage, 
Rokeya was publishing articles about women’s condition. Over the 
years she wrote a number of articles, short stories, and novels in which 

® Sources on Begum Rokeya include Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rokeya 
Sakhawat Hossain, ed. and trans. Roshan Jahan (Dhaka, Bangladesh, BRAC Printers, 
1981); Ghulam Murshid, Reluctant Debutante (Rajshahi, Bangladesh, Rajshahi University, 
1983); Amin, “The Early Muslim Bhadramahila,” pp. 107-48; Sonia Nishat Amin, “The 
World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal: 1876-1939,” Ph.D. dissertation, University 
of Dhaka (1993); Sonia Nishat Amin, “Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and the Legacy of the 
‘Bengal’ Renaissance,” Journal of Asiatic Society, Bangladesh, 34, no. 2 (December, 1989), 
pp. 185-92; Sonia Nishat Amin, “The New Woman in Literature and the Novels of 
Nojibur Rahman and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain,” Infinite Variety: Women in Society and 
Literature, ed. Firdous Azim and Niaz Zaman (Dhaka, University Press Limited, 1994), 

pp- 119-41. 


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she developed her ideas on the need to awaken women to their oppres- 
sion and the role of education in this process. 

In three of her essays, “Ardhangi” (“The Female Half”), “Griha” 
(“The House”), and “Borka” (or burqah - “The Veil”), Rokeya com- 
mented on women’s asymmetrical development, lack of economic 
means, and confinement for the sake of male honor. In “Sugrihini” 
(“The Ideal Housewife”) she pointed out that education would help 
women fulfill their traditional roles knowledgeably and professionally 
and hence contribute to the progress of the nation. Additionally, educa- 
tion would make it possible for women to grow and develop in step 
with their menfolk. 

Begum Rokeya’s school conformed, in curriculum and purdah 
restrictions, to the schools for Muslim girls in the Punjab and United 
Provinces.** Emphasis was placed on literacy and practical subjects 
such as handicrafts, home science, and gardening. The curriculum in 
Begum Rokeya’s school also included physical fitness training. But this 
was the only deviation from an educational program designed to 
produce good wives and mothers: companions and help-mates to their 
husbands and teachers for their children. 

The strictest rules of female seclusion were observed in transporting 
the girls to and from the school and there was only slight modification 
(curtains replacing closed shutters) when the young pupils vomited and 
fainted in the hot, airless carriage. Inside the school the girls covered 
their heads. This was a new form of modest attire, suitable for the 
modernizing women now entering new spaces where neither the 
burqah, designed as outdoor wear, nor the clothes worn inside the 
home were suitable. The new head coverings signified concern with 
both modesty and modernity. 

While Begum Rokeya’s school conformed to rules of female seclu- 
sion, she wrote stinging criticisms of the practice. In addition to her 
essay on the burgah, she wrote Sultana’s Dream (1905), a short story 
in which women ran the world and men hid indoors, and 
Avarodhbasini (“The Secluded Ones”) (1929), forty-seven serialized 
reports documenting the custom of purdah. Her satirical writings on 
female seclusion were meant to inform an audience ignorant of the real 
tragedy of purdah (her own aunt was killed by a train because she 

6 Gail Minault, “Purdah’s Progress: The Beginnings of School Education for Indian Muslim 
Women,” Individuals and Ideals in Modern India, ed. J. P. Sharma (Calcutta, Firma K. L. 
Mukhopadhyaya, 1982), pp. 76-97. 6 Jahan, Inside Seclusion, pp. 33-5. 


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would not cry out for help). Seclusion, Begum Rokeya wrote, “is not a 
gaping wound, hurting people. It is rather a silent killer like carbon 
monoxide gas.” She denied this custom had any basis in the Quran or 
Shari’ah (the Muslim religious law). 

Rokeya’s campaign was unpopular. Accused of being both pro- 
Christian and a Europhile, Rokeya attracted more hostility when she 
endorsed Katherine Mayo’s Mother India. But her school remained 
open, attended by Muslim girls from good families. Apparently her 
central argument, that neglect of female education would ultimately 
threaten Islamic culture, struck a responsive chord. 


At about the same time that Begum Rokeya opened her school for 
Muslim girls in Calcutta, Sister Subbalakshmi (1886-1969) established 
a school for young high-caste widows in Madras. Sister Subbalakshmi’s 
concern was society’s discarded child widows. Her plan was to trans- 
form these unfortunate and inauspicious women into useful and valued 
members of society.*” 

Prior to her own marriage at age eleven, Subbalakshmi had received 
four and a half years of formal schooling. Her husband died shortly 
after their wedding and she returned to her parents’ home in Rishyiyur, 
Tanjore District. Her parents decided not to burden her with all the 
restrictions normally placed on widows and instead arranged to send 
her to school. Their community reacted so violently that Subramania 
Iyer, Subbalakshmi’s father, decided to move. In Madras, Subramania 
Iyer taught his daughter English at home and then sent her to a convent 
school. The nuns’ dedication so impressed the young Subbalakshmi 
that she resolved to devote her life to educating widows. Although she 
never became a Christian, she was affectionately known as “Sister 
Subbalakshmi” in recognition of her dedication to her chosen work. 

Subbalakshmi completed her matriculation and enrolled in 
Presidency College, Madras University. As the first Hindu widow in 

6 Tbid., p. 20. 

8” Monica Felton, A Child Widow’s Story (London, Victor Gollancz, 1966); Women Pioneers 
in Education (Tamilnadu) (Madras, Society for the Promotion of Education in India, 1975); 
interview with Mrs. Soundarain, Madras (January 22, 1976); letter from Rabindranath 
Tagore to Miss M. F. Prager, Eur. Mss., B 183, [OOLC; interview with Sister Sublakshami 
(sic) (December 10, 1930), RWC, box 28; Malathi Ramanathan, Sister R. Subbalakshmi: 
Social Reformer and Educationalist (Bombay, Lok Vangmaya Griha, 1989). 


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Madras to study for a BA, she was threatened with excommunication, 
harassed in the streets, and ostracized in the classroom. By 1911 she had 
completed her BA degree and was ready to begin her life’s work. She 
set up her first school in her father’s home in a Madras suburb and 
began with a class of four brahmin widows. 

Subbalakshmi’s interest in helping widows coincided with that of 
Miss Christina Lynch (later Mrs. Drysdale), the Irish feminist who was 
appointed inspectress of female education in Coimbatore. Miss Lynch 
was deeply troubled by the difficulty of finding “suitable” (high-caste) 
teachers for the schools. At the same time she was aware that Madras had 
over 22,000 widows between the ages of five and fifteen, many of them 
brahmins. Meeting with Subbalakshmi’s father, Miss Lynch explained 
that she had worked out a plan whereby the government would support 
a home for young brahmin widows willing to be trained as teachers. 
Meanwhile, Sister Subbalakshmi was pursuing the same scheme with her 
friends and relations. In 1912 the Sarada Ladies Union was formed as a 
women’s club to provide its members with an opportunity to hear lec- 
tures, discuss new ideas, and collect money for a brahmin girls’ school. 

In 1912 the government agreed to support a boarding school for 
training teachers. The government would pay the rent and give scholar- 
ships to three girls; the remainder of the operating expenses had to be 
met through donations and fees. In order to make this plan more 
acceptable to critics of education for Hindu widows, Miss Lynch pro- 
posed shifting the school from a liberal section of the city to the more 
orthodox Triplicane. This meant Subbalakshmi had to locate a “home” 
for the widows. After an extensive search she finally settled on the Ice 
House, the old warehouse along the beach once used to store ice from 
Boston. The Ice House was slowly made habitable for the thirty-five 
girls who by this time had joined Subbalakshmi. As Sister 
Subbalakshmi commented, “There was a lot of gossip and ill-talk” 
about the large number of girl widows and female staff who occupied 
the Ice House without male protection. The presence of so many inaus- 
picious women walking about forced local people to modify their 
schedules. Subbalakshmi wrote: 

I remember how the orthodox elders in a well-to-do family wanted the bride- 
groom’s procession either before 9 a.m. or after 10 a.m. so that there would be no 
contact (seeing) the widows on their way to school.® 

68 By Sister Subbalakshmi, n.d. enclosed in a letter from R. Tagore, Eur. Mss., B 183, IOOLC. 


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The school’s curriculum was set by the government. The aim was to 
train these women as teachers: first, they were prepared for regular 
classes, then they completed the syllabus for matriculation, and finally, 
they entered Queen Mary’s College (begun in 1914 as the first college 
for women in Madras). In 1922 the Lady Willingdon Training College 
and Practice School, an institution for teacher training, opened with 
Sister Subbalakshmi as principal. At this institution Sister 
Subbalakshmi was able to implement some of her ideas on education. 
The college offered three programs: post-graduate training for poten- 
tial high school teachers, secondary training for teaching through the 
eighth grade, and training for elementary teachers. English was empha- 
sized (because teachers who knew English were in demand), some 
vocational subjects were required to instill the value of working with 
the hands, a training course in physical education was available and 
popular, and Hindu and Christian priests offered moral and religious 
instruction. Before long Sister Subbalakshmi was compelled to open 
Sarada Vidyalaya, a high school and boarding school for adult widows. 
This facility was necessary because the Ice House did not accept 
widows over age eighteen even though the age of marriage was gradu- 
ally shifting upward and the concept of widows working as teachers 
was gaining acceptance. 

The boarding school was run in strict conformity with orthodox 
Hindu customs. In the early days of the school, Sister Subbalakshmi 
denounced remarriage. Her widowed aunt, V. S. Valambal Ammal, was 
described by a visitor to the home as a woman in “disfigured [shorn 
hair] condition” wearing a white sari and performing a traditional puja 
(act of worship). Mrs. Drysdale utilized her inspection tours to locate 
high-caste widows and would often pay the train fare of reluctant 
fathers who wanted to see for themselves how the institution was run. 

Sister Subbalakshmi understood the importance of running the 
boarding school for widows in accordance with orthodox customs and 
caste rules. At the same time her own life was one of rebellion against 
the accepted role for a widow. She defied caste rules by opening a 
school for the fisherfolk in the area of the Ice House. When she was 
warned that as a government servant she could not join the Women’s 
Indian Association, Sister Subbalakshmi continued to attend branch 
meetings while scrupulously avoiding the more public annual confer- 

6 Ibid. 


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ences. When the Women’s Indian Association and the All-India 
Women’s Conference began their campaigns in support of the Child 
Marriage Restraint Bill, Sister Subbalakshmi lectured against the 
custom and gave evidence before the Joshi Committee about the 
harmful effects of youthful marriage. Her activities suggest that she was 
idealistic yet shrewd. She was willing to compromise as long as it served 
her long-range goals. 

Spiritually, Sister Subbalakshmi was deeply attracted to Swami 
Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna Mission. She regarded Ramakrishna 
and his disciple Vivekananda as the first religious reformers to be 
deeply concerned with the woman question. Although the model of the 
Catholic nun attracted her in her childhood, as an adult Sister 
Subbalakshmi drew her spiritual sustenance and philosophy of action 
from reformed Hinduism. 


What these examples accentuate is the extent to which successful 
experiments in female education were a product of the labor of edu- 
cated Indian women. Many of the schools were geographically limited, 
communally bound, and caste-sensitive. They were schools for females 
only, the teachers were females, and curricula were geared to gender- 
specific socialization. 

Looking at female education and its products in the second decade 
of the twentieth century one can begin to answer the question of how 
far female education had achieved the results desired by the three 
groups who had promoted it: the British rulers, Indian male reformers, 
and educated Indian women. 

The British wanted their civil servants to have educated wives to 
further ensure their loyalty. Uneducated wives (or wives who were 
educated only in the vernacular and traditional subjects) would split the 
household into two worlds. Just as the British were certain that rebel- 
lious plots were hatched and nurtured in inaccessible zenanas, they 
believed English-educated Indian women would raise their children to 
be anglophiles. Despite this dream, education did not promote loyalty 
among women except those married to civil servants. They became 
help-mates to their husbands but there were some renegades even 
among this group. Many women became critics of British policy in 



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Reform-minded Indian men were interested in developing a pro- 
gressive society. If women were educated, Indian society could no 
longer be characterized as decadent and backward. On a personal 
level, these men yearned for companionship and the support an 
educated woman could give them as they advanced professionally. 
They wanted women to take responsibility for helping the less for- 
tunate members of their communities. On the national level, they 
envisioned women in charge of social reform while men pursued 

Educated women accompanied their husbands to their civil service 
postings, joined husbands who had left their ancestral homes, opened 
schools, and entertained district magistrates. The two-person career 
was finally possible with the appearance of the carefully groomed, 
English-speaking wife. Women took over the task of social reform at a 
time when men were becoming obsessed with political action and 
worried that social reform might complicate the task of arousing the 
masses. While men feared education might cause women to “go too 
far,” female educators promised to graduate “professionalized house- 
wives.” The educational system was overwhelmingly conservative, but 
the education of women had unexpected and unanticipated conse- 

The first generation of educated women found a voice: they wrote 
about their lives and about the conditions of women. The second 
generation acted. They articulated the needs of women, critiqued their 
society and the foreign rulers, and developed their own institutions. 
That these institutions were often as conservative as those designed by 
men should not be taken as a sign that these women wished to preserve 
the status quo. Rather it should be taken as evidence that they under- 
stood their subordinate position very well. 

Through their efforts to develop institutions women learned the 
limits of their power. Deviant behavior was severely punished. Within 
households girls who wanted to learn were teased and ostracized. 
Those who attended schools were stoned in the street and marginalized 
in the classroom if they attended boys’ schools. They were harassed 
when they sought to practice their professions. By straining for new 
lives, these “new women” learned where the boundaries were and just 
how far they could go. But this was a dynamic process; women were 
becoming educated and then becoming the educators. The boundaries 
of the early nineteenth century had been stretched considerably by the 


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5 The companionate wife, Shudha Mazumdar in riding breeches, Darjeeling, 
C. 1933 


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early twentieth century. What was deviant behavior for one generation 
was acceptable behavior for the next. What is more important, by the 
early years of the twentieth century Indian women were full partici- 
pants in the redefinition of their futures. 


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The educational experiments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth 
centuries produced a “new woman” with interests that went beyond 
the household. Lado Rani Zutshi, the mother of Manmohini Sahgal, 
was educated at home by tutors. Manmohini wrote about her mother: 

[she] settled in Lahore in 1917 to educate her daughters . . . she joined the YWCA 
to continue her English and painting lessons. In the evenings she went to her class 
riding a bicycle. No other Indian lady of her status in Lahore had the courage to 
do this ... In Lahore, she started a ladies’ recreation club and became its president.! 

For the first time in India’s history women began to communicate 
with women outside their families and local communities. On the one 
hand there was a small group of women who shared English as a 
common language. This made possible communication across language 
barriers. On the other hand, there were growing numbers of women 
literate in the vernaculars which enabled them to learn about women’s 
issues in the new women’s journals. Both groups, marginalized by 
more traditional society, sought the companionship of women like 
themselves. Encouraged by their male guardians to “move with the 
times” they joined the new clubs and associations formed for women. 
From small local clubs and women’s auxiliaries of the Indian National 
Congress and the National Social Conference came a variety of 
organizations and associations that reflected women’s concerns. By the 
eve of Independence in 1947 a coalition of national women’s organiza- 
tions could rightfully claim it was the second most representative body 
in India. 

These organizations became the medium for the expression of 
“women’s opinion.” At the same time they were a training ground for 
women who would later take up leadership roles in politics and social 
institutions. Those institutions, in turn, played an important role in the 
construction of the Indian nation. Their model was undoubtedly 

1 Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, An Indian Freedom Fighter Recalls her Life, ed. Geraldine 
Forbes (New York, M. E. Sharpe, 1994), p. 33- 


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6 Raja Indra Chandra Singh Ladies’ Group, n.d. 

Western: the view of women and of women’s civic responsibility was 
adopted wholesale. Nevertheless, in the Indian context these organiza- 
tions developed in harmony with a view of the “new woman” as a 
companion and help-mate to man, an ideal mother, and a credit to her 


The first organizations for women were begun by men who belonged 
to the new religious reform associations. In Bengal, Keshub Chandra 
Sen, the charismatic leader of the Brahmo Samaj, developed educational 
programs, a women’s journal, prayer meetings, and Bharat Ashram 
(literally “Indian hermitage”) where families lived together and emu- 
lated the lifestyle of the English middle class. Before long, other 
members of the Samaj argued that Keshub was too conservative and 
they broke with him to form the Sadharan (General) Brahmo Samaj.’ 
Members of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, motivated by the ideal of 

2 Sivanath Sashtri, History of the Brahmo Samaj, 2nd edn. (Calcutta, Sadharan Brahmo 
Samaj, 1974), pp. 105-64. 


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male-female equality, formed new associations for women of their 

The Prarthana Samaj did similar work in Bombay. Those men who 
were closely involved with the Samaj from the beginning, especially the 
famous Prarthana trio - G. R. Bandavarkar, Narayan Ganesh 
Chandavarker, and M. G. Ranade — were concerned with social reform, 
principally improving women’s status. When Pandita Ramabai 
Saraswati arrived in western India in 1882, Justice Ranade and his 
friends helped her set up the Arya Mahila Samaj for the general uplift 
and enlightenment of women.’ 

Ramabai, Justice Ranade’s wife, became the backbone of this 
organization. Ramabai wanted the Samaj to provide a support network 
for newly educated women through weekly lectures and “at homes” 
where women could meet and become friends. As these women devel- 
oped self-confidence, she predicted they would begin to define the role 
of the educated woman. The Arya Mahila Samaj imagined the ideal 
woman as an efficient housewife, entering the public world to help 
during emergencies such as floods, famines, and plagues.‘ 

Women also met in the women’s auxiliaries of general reform 
associations. The most notable of these was the Bharata Mahila 
Parishad (Ladies’ Social Conference) of the National Social 
Conference. The National Social Conference was formed at the third 
meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1887 to provide a forum 
for the discussion of social issues; the Mahila Parishad was not inaugu- 
rated until 1905. The women who took part in the general meetings of 
the National Social Conference doubted their male colleagues took 
women’s problems seriously.° 

The first meeting of the Bharata Mahila Parishad was held in a hall 
packed with over 200 women. Women had arranged this meeting and 
barred men from attending. They began with prayer, in Marathi and 
Gujarati, and an opening statement by the president, Lady 
Bhalchandra. Ramabai Ranade, newly widowed, was one of the first 
speakers. She encouraged women to work side by side with men for the 
regeneration of the nation. They could, she suggested, devote their 


“Arya Mahila Samaj,” Directory of Women’s Institutions, ed. K. J. Chitalia, vol. 1, Bombay 
Presidency (Bombay, Servants of India Society, 1936), p. 6. 

“Arya Mahila Samaj” (n.d.), notes by Mrs. Leela Joshi (received from the author); “Arya 
Mahila Samaj: An Appeal” (n.d.), cyclostyled sheet received from Sarojini Pradhar; 
“Pandita Ramabai Saraswati,” Women’s Forum (March-April, 1972), no page numbers. 
“The Indian Social Conference,” /LM, 3 (1904), p. 225. 




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spare time to volunteer work: teaching orphans, inspecting schools for 
girls, and helping widows find respectable employment.® Next, Mrs. 
Abbas Tyabji read a paper on Muslim women’s education, followed by 
lectures on philanthropic and charitable work. The general discussion 
focused on a number of issues including medical relief, domestic life, 
early marriage, and child welfare.” 

At subsequent annual meetings, there were usually as many as 300 
and sometimes over 700 women present. The organizers believed it was 
important for women to meet separately from men even if the issues 
and speeches were remarkably similar to those heard in the meeting of 
the National Social Conference. The main topics continued to be 
female education and the need to abolish “evil” social customs, such as 
child marriage, dowry, and neglect of widows. The discussions of what 
roles women might play in changing the situation were tentative. By 
and large the women who attended these meetings believed they first 
needed to educate themselves about the problems.® 

Within the Parsee community the major organization for women’s 
social work, the Stri Zarthosti Mandal (Parsee Women’s Circle) 
emerged from plaque-relief work done by the family of Mr. Naoroji 
Patuck. Deeply touched by the hardships suffered by women, Mr. 
Patuck set up a work class in his home. By 1903 there were over fifty 
women enrolled and his family decided to ask other women to join 
them in forming an organization. Miss Serenmai M. Cursetjee became 
the first president and remained at the helm of the Mandal for the next 
thirty-six years. During this time the organization expanded its agenda 
to include medical care and education and successfully sought funding 
from the wealthy Parsee philanthropist Sir Ratan Tata.’ Equally impor- 
tant, the organization served as a training ground for women who 
became active in a wide range of activities and organizations in the 
1920s and 193038. 

As these associations received publicity, they spurred the formation 
of new organizations for women. Begum Jahan Ara Shah Nawaz, later 
a prominent and influential member of national women’s organiza- 
tions, explained that the first ladies’ society she joined was the brain- 

® “Mrs. Ranade’s Address,” LM, 3 (1904), p. 259. 

“The Ladies Gathering,” ILM, 4 (1905), pp. 219-20. 

“The Indian National Social Conference,” JLM, 5 (1906), pp. 230-2; “Ladies Gathering at 
Surat,” LM, 6 (1907), p. 380; ”The Ladies Social Conference,” LM, 8 (1908), pp. 227-8. 
Golden Jubilee Stri Zarthosti Mandal, 1903-1953, and Silver Jubilee Sir Ratan Tata 
Industrial Institute, 1928-1953 Volume (Bombay, 1953), pp. 5-7. 

wo oN 



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child of her uncle, Shah Din. He had read about a Sikh Conference in 
Lahore where 2,000 women collected enough money to set up a high 
school for girls. Fearful that Muslim women would fall behind, he 
ordered the women in his (Mian) family to meet twice a month to 
discuss female education and social reform. They were to write articles 
on these topics, present them at meetings for discussion, and begin 
“social work” with poor women in surrounding villages. The experi- 
ence gained from working within the family led these women to initi- 
ate a larger organization and Begum Shah Nawaz’s mother, 
Amir-un-Nisa (called the Mrs. Pankhurst of the Mian family), became 
a founder-member of Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam (the Muslim 
Women’s Association) in the Punjab. By 1915, women of the Mian 
family were playing a leading role in the All-Indian Muslim Women’s 

While male-inspired and male-guided organizations for women did 
invaluable work in educating women and providing them with their 
first experience with public work, they also imposed limitations. 
Specifically, male reformers regarded the household as the primary 
focus and fundamental arena of activity for women. They envisioned 
households run by modernized women who had imbibed scientific 
ideas about hygiene and child-rearing. These men wanted their wives 
to take part in activities outside the home: social work to help the 
unfortunate and relief work when disaster struck. Their wives could 
assist in nation-building not through political agitation but by building 
institutions to ameliorate the worst situations arising from social 
customs. Women’s associations were also useful institutions to accom- 
plish the aim of transforming young brides into companions and help- 
mates. When young women attended these meetings they were 
temporarily removed from the influence and dominance of the older 
women of the households to a place where they could pursue further 
education, develop friendships with other educated women, and work 
together on philanthropic schemes. 

The restrictions that accompanied male support and tutelage were 
revealed whenever women wanted to strike out on their own. The reli- 
gious-reform and communal associations dealt with women’s problems 

10 Gail Minaulkt, ed., “Sisterhood or Separation? The All-India Muslim Ladies’ Conference 
and the Nationalist Movement,” The Extended Family (Columbus, Mo., South Asia 
Books, 1981), pp. 83-108; Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, Father and Daughter: A Political 
Autobiography (Lahore, Nigarishat, 1971), pp. 13-23, 42-50. 


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as defined by male leaders. But these patrons would not automatically 
extend their support to problems identified by women on their own. 
When Haimabati Mitra, a child widow from Bengal, sought out leaders 
of the Brahmo Samaj to help her gain an education, they looked for a 
bridegroom. Ina conversation with her friend Sarojini, Haimabati said 
that all she wanted to do was study. Sarojini’s retort was, “You should 
study after you have got married.” Haimabati, by now rather cynical 
about Brahmo promises, said, “The future depends on God’s will, of 
course. My wishes are of little consequence.”!! In Bombay, the Parsee 
Panchayat (Council) welcomed the views of women on family law but 
soundly defeated Bai Dinhai F. S. Patuck’s proposal that sex differences 
be eliminated from inheritance laws.'? 

British support for female education did not extend to issues of 
autonomy. The much publicized Rukhmabai case (actually a series of 
court cases between 1884 and 1888) proved that British law could be 
used to force women to submit to the most onerous of patriarchal 
customs. Rukhmabai, married at age eleven to Dadaji Bhikaji, remained 
in her father’s home after her marriage. She continued to study and 
passed the matriculation exam. When Dadaji demanded she come to 
live with him she refused. He sued for restitution of conjugal rights. 
Rukhmabai won but Dadaji appealed and the court ordered her to live 
with her husband or go to prison.’ Tilak, an outspoken opponent of 
British rule in India, approved of this decision, claiming British law was 
upholding the dharmasastras (texts on morals and law and manuals of 
human conduct). Ranade and other reformers formed the Rukhmabai 
Defense Committee to bring this case to public attention. Pandita 
Ramabai exploded in anger. The government advocated education and 
emancipation but when a woman refused to “bea slave,” wrote Pandita 
Ramabai, the government “comes to break her spirit allowing its law to 
became an instrument for riveting her chains.”'* In 1888 the two parties 

"| From Child Widow to Lady Doctor: The Intimate Memoir of Dr. Haimabati Sen, trans. 
Tapan Raychaudhuri, ed. Geraldine Forbes and Tapan Raychaudhuri, in press. 

2 Golden Jubilee Stri Zarthosti Mandal, pp. 25-6. 

‘3, Meera Kosambi, “Women, Emancipation and Equality: Pandita Ramabai’s Contribution 
to the Women’s Cause,” EPW, 23, no. 44 (October, 1988), p. ws44; C. Heimsath, Indian 
Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 
1964), pp. 170-1; Dagmar Engels, “The Limits of Gender Ideology,” WS/Q, 12, no. 4 
(1989), pp. 428-9; Ruth Woodsmall, Notebooks, 1916-1917, box 3, Diaries, 1913-1917, 

'* Letters and Correspondence of Pandita Ramabai, ed. A. B. Shah (Bombay, Maharashtra 
State Board of Literature and Culture, 1977), pp. 175-8. 


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reached a compromise and Rukhmabai was saved from imprisonment. 
Rukhmabai then studied medicine in England and returned to India to 
become the head of a Hindu hospital in Poona.'* This case made it clear 
that colonial administrators could not be relied upon to protect the 
women they had encouraged to seek an education when those same 
women defied the patriarchal system. 


Women began to define their interests, propose solutions, and take 
action only after they formed their own associations. Women’s associa- 
tions, called by various titles, sprang up all over India in the late nine- 
teenth and early twentieth centuries. Most were geographically limited 
but they shared the goal of bringing women together to discuss 
women’s issues. Saraladevi Chaudhurani, critical of the women’s meet- 
ings held in conjunction with the Indian National Social Conference, 
called for a permanent association of Indian women. Women 
responded favorably and Saraladevi began planning the first meeting. 
When male colleagues criticized her, she charged them with patron- 
izing women. These men, she wrote, “advertise themselves as champi- 
ons of the weaker sex, equal opportunities for women, female 
education and female emancipation,” which they make “their pet sub- 
jects of oratory at the annual show.”'® These men lived in the “shade of 
Manu,” she charged and were unwilling to allow women independent 
action. Saraladevi’s organization, the Bharat Stree Mahamandal (the 
Large Circle of Indian Women) had its first meeting in Allahabad in 

The Bharat Stree Mahamandal planned to open branches in all parts 
of India to promote female education. It developed branches in Lahore, 
Allahabad, Delhi, Karachi, Amritsar, Hyderabad, Kanpur, Bankura, 
Hazaribagh, Midnapur, and Calcutta to bring together “women of 
every race, creed, class and party ... on the basis of their common inter- 
est in the moral and material progress of the women of India.”!8 

The Mahamandal’s leaders regarded purdah as the main stumbling 

15 Woodsmall, Notebooks, 1916-1917, RWC. 

'6 Saraladevi, “A Women’s Movement,” MR (October, 1911), p. 345. ” Ibid. 

'8 J.C. Bagal, “Sarala Devi Chaudhurani,” Sahitya Sadhak Charitmala, no. 99 (Calcutta, 
Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, 1964), p. 24; Saraladevi, “A Women’s Movement,” p. 348. 


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block to popular acceptance of female education. To get around this 
practice, they would send teachers into the homes to teach reading, 
writing, music, sewing, and embroidery." Saraladevi had written about 
the importance of women escaping male domination, so only women 
were allowed to join this organization. Most of the members had 
worked previously with male-dominated women’s organizations and 
designed projects similar to those favored by male reformers. 

The few surviving accounts of these early organizations give us 
glimpses of women articulating their needs and assuming leadership 
roles. They recognized their world was different from that of their 
mothers and grandmothers and sought the linguistic and social skills 
necessary for new roles. Further education was seen as essential since 
many of them had married young. Some of the mahila samities 
(women’s associations) taught basic subjects such as mathematics and 
geography while others offered only English. Especially popular were 
lectures and classes on health, childcare, hygiene, and nutrition in a 
world where “science” was equivalent to “modern.” The expansion of 
opportunities beyond the home required that women learn new social 
skills such as polite conversation, serving tea, and public speaking. 

Women leaders were defining women’s issues as female education, 
child marriage, the observance of purdah, and women’s status in the 
family. Many of them believed all women shared the same problems. 
Clearly they spoke from a specific class orientation but they did so at 
a time when there was considerable prejudice against female education, 
child marriage was preferred, and widow remarriage was unheard of in 
respectable families. Female seclusion and sex segregation prevailed but 
strict purdah was practiced only in some parts of India. When they 
assumed all women experienced difficulties with in-laws they were 
drawing on experience; their evaluation of women’s status in the family 
was based on their knowledge of laws and personal observation. If 
asked for examples to verify their perceptions, many of these women 
would have recounted stories of their relatives, their servants, and what 
they had heard from a vast network of informants. In a limited way 
they understood many of the problems shared by all women. What 

19 “An Account of the Work Among Women in Calcutta,” JL M, 8 (May-June, 1935), p. 176; 
“The Bharat Stree Mahamandal,” MR (September, 1912), p. 312; Saraladevi, Jibaner 
Jharapata (Kalikata, Sahitya Samsad, 1958), pp. 196-7; Saraladevi, “A Women’s 
Movement,” p. 348; Latika Ghose, “Social and Educational Movements for Women by 
Women, 1820-1950,” Bethune School and College Centenary Volume, 1949-1959, ed. Dr. 
Kalidas Nag (Calcutta, S. N. Guha Ray, 1950), pp. 150-1. 


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they did not share was the same economic base as the women they 
claimed to represent. Hence their perception of the viability of certain 
options was limited to women like themselves. They set up girls’ 
schools, widows’ shelters, and handicraft training centers to help only 
women from their own class. The rural poor would not have been able 
to send their daughters to school even if they favored female education. 
Widows’ homes were suitable for women from respectable families 
who needed to earn some money but often these homes were restricted 
to brahmin widows. Handicraft production — particularly sewing and 
embroidery — enabled only some high-caste women to earn a living 
because they had access to a clientele, homes they could live in, and 
space to work. Jaijee Lam, widowed in 1898 at age twenty-eight with 
two children, earned a living embroidering saris. She was famous for 
her skill in Chinese embroidery, then the rage in women’s fashion, and 
was able to support herself and her children in a respectable manner. 
But the family’s standard of living was not due to her earnings alone; 
her husband left her some property. In defining women’s problems and 
suggesting suitable remedies, the founders of these early women’s 
organizations tended to look at women like Jaijee Lam as models. 
Consequently, their institutions were able to serve some of the unfor- 
tunate women of their own class but few others. 


After World War I national women’s organizations were created. Three 
major organizations: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA), the 
National Council of Women in India (NCWIJ), and the All-India 
Women’s Conference (AIWC) emerged between 1917 and 1927. 

The Women’s Indian Association 

The Women’s Indian Association had humble beginnings. Margaret 
Cousins, an Irish feminist, theosophist, and musician, arrived in India 
in 1915. Soon after, an officer of the Theosophical Society in Adyar 
invited a number of women to meet with her. After this meeting 
Cousins spoke with Dorothy Jinarajadasa (an Irish feminist married to 
the highly respected Singalese theosophist C. Jinarajadasa) about 
forming a women’s organization. Many of the Indian women already 
belonged to the Tamil Madar Sangam (Tamil Ladies’ Association) and 
had joined with British women in forming the National Indian 


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Association to promote female education, particularly English lan- 
guage instruction, and the teaching of crafts.?° As the two groups began 
to mix more freely, they decided to form the Ladies’ Recreational Club 
to sponsor tea parties, badminton, and tennis. Cousins and Jinarajadasa 
were proposing a new organization that would combine education, 
crafts, and sports.! 

Once the WIA was formed, Jinarajadasa was anxious to encourage 
the formation of branch organizations. She wrote to Theosophical 
Lodge secretaries throughout Madras Presidency explaining that a 
local branch of the Women’s Indian Association could play a key role 
in effecting the regeneration of India.”” The response to these letters 
was so positive Jinarajadasa was inspired to write: “there is practically 
no opposition from the Hindu man to anything that woman really 
wishes to do.” 

The women who formed this organization decided to call it the 
Women’s Indian Association because membership was open to both 
Indians and Europeans. Annie Besant became the first president with 
Margaret Cousins, Dorothy Jinarajadasa, Mrs. Malati Patwardhan, 
Mrs. Ammu Swaminathan, Mrs. Dadhabhoy, and Mrs. Ambujammal 
as honorary secretaries. By the end of the first year there were thirty- 
three branches; within five years, forty-three branches, twenty centers 
and 2,300 members. Each branch accepted the main aims of the associa- 
tion but remained self-governing. This made it possible to mobilize the 
branches to express women’s opinion.” 

Despite this organization’s obvious connection with and dependence 
on the Theosophical Society, it defined itself as an association that 
included and represented women of all races, cultures, and religions. 
Each branch was to chart its own course of work in four main areas: 
religion, education, politics, and philanthropy. The organization 
defined women as religious “by nature” and encouraged non-sectarian 
religious activity. But the most important work was educational and the 
branches were encouraged to set up adult classes for literacy, sewing, 

70 Kamala Bai L. Rau, Smrutika: The Story of My Mother as Told by Herself, trans. Indirabai 
M. Rau (Pune, Dr. Krishnabai Nimbkar, 1988), pp. 26-32. 

“Report of the Madanapalli Branch of the WIA, 1916-1937,” WIA Papers. 

“A New Society for Indian Ladies,” New India (May 10, 1917), p. 9. 

Mrs. D. Jinarajadasa, “The Emancipation of Indian Women,” Transactions of the Eighth 
Congress of the Federation of European National Societies of the Theosophical Society, held 
in Vienna, July 21-26, 1923, ed. C. W. Dijkgraat (Amsterdam, 1923), p. 86. 

24 Women’s Indian Association, Quinquennial Report, 1917-1922, WIA Papers. 



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and first aid. The WIA had been politically active from the beginning 
when they sent a delegation to meet with Secretary of State Montagu in 
1917 to request the franchise for women. The fourth area of work — 
philanthropy — involved feeding the poor, setting up shelters for 
widows, and providing relief for disaster victims.*° The WIA’s monthly 
journal, Stri Dharma, published in English but including articles in 
both Hindi and Tamil, carried news of events of interest to women, 
reports from the branches, and articles on women’s condition. 

The early organizers of the WIA found it very difficult to bring 
women together to form local branches. The branch officer from Salem 
complained, “It is actual bull-work to drag our reluctant sisters from 
their kitchens and to persuade them to spend a few minutes at the 
meeting periodically.” Where the branches were successful it was fre- 
quently due to the determination of one or two women. In Surat, 
Kanuben C. Mehta asked her husband to write (in English) to Dorothy 
Jinarajadasa saying his wife wanted to form a branch.”” Kanuben’s first 
group had thirty members and they collected enough money to begin 
a craft class. Further efforts resulted in classes in English and drawing 
(each attended by fifteen girls) and weekly meetings at which adult 
women read and discussed books. Whenever attendance fell off, 
Kanuben would visit the homes of the members and urge them back to 
the meetings. This became a tightly knit group that responded quickly 
to the central office’s requests for “women’s opinion.” Kanuben soon 
learned English and began to correspond directly with the center; by 
the end of 1921 she had organized lectures on franchise, hygiene, and 
child welfare.”® 

Born and nurtured in Madras, the WIA competed for women’s atten- 
tion with the self-respect movement. The self-respect movement had a 
larger agenda than women’s rights; its goal was to establish a society 
free from the domination of the priestly caste, with justice and equal- 
ity for all human beings. Ideologically more radical in its critique of 
existing gender relations and particularly of the role of religion in 

35 WIA, Quinquennial Report, 1917-1922. 

26 S. Kamakshi to Dear Sister (August 10, 1924), file no. 3, DRP. 

?? From Chhanganram Mehta to D. Jinarajadasa (March 27, 1918), DRP. 

28 Chhanganram Mehta to D. Jinarajadasa (May 2, 1918); C. Mehta to M. Cousins (June 17, 
1991); C. Mehta to Dear Sister (September 12, 1919, July 28, 1920, April 10, 1921); 
Kanuben Mehta to Dear Sister (April 10, 1921, December 1, 1921); K. Mehta to 
Jinarajadasa (February 9, 1922); K. Mehta to M. Cousins (March 23, 1922, April 11, 1922); 


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assigning women a subordinate position, the self-respect movement 
found it difficult to fight issues of property ownership, caste privilege, 
and gender discrimination all at the same time. In the final analysis, the 
self-respect movement rejected brahmanical symbols while it retained 
the same limited definition of women’s roles.”? The presence of the self- 
respect movement helped limit the appeal of the WIA to high-caste 

The National Council of Women in India 

The National Council of Women in India (NCWI) was the next all- 
India women’s organization established. By 1925 women of Bombay, 
Calcutta, and Madras had utilized the networks developed doing war 
work to link their various clubs and associations into a new council.*° 
The International Council of Women convened its first meeting in 
Washington D.C. in 1888 to advance women’s social, economic, and 
political rights.3! The Marchioness of Aberdeen, president of the 
International Council from 1922 to 1936, learned of the Indian council 
and invited them to join the International Council.*? In 1925 the NCWI 
was established as a national branch of the International Council of 

Mehribai Tata (wife of Sir Dorab Tata), chair of the Executive 
Committee of the Bombay Council in its first year, played a key role in 
its advancement. Mehribai was a member of the small Parsee commu- 
nity of Bangalore. Her father, H. J. Bhabba, a well-known education- 
alist, supervised his daughter’s education and introduced her to his 
European friends. Accustomed to socializing with both Europeans and 
Indians, Mehribai was well suited to marry the eldest son of Mr. 
Jamsetjee Tata, the founder of Tata Industries. The couple married in 
1898 and Mehribai became a member of India’s most important indus- 
trial family. 

During a trip to Europe in 1904, Lady Tata began to admire the 
commitment of English women to civic issues. In India, she had 

29 Prabha Rani, “Women’s Indian Association and the Self-Respect Movement in Madras, 
1925-1936: Perceptions on Women,” paper delivered at the Women’s Studies Conference, 
Chandigarh (October, 1985); C. S. Lakshmi, “Mother, Mother-Community and Mother- 
Politics in Tamil Nadu,” EPW, 25, nos. 42 and 43 (October 20-27, 1990), pp. ws72-ws83. 

3° BPWC, First Annual Report, BPWC Papers, BPWC Library, Bombay; “History of the 
Council Movement,” Bulletin (January, 1932), p. 4, Premchand Papers. 

31 Veronica Strong-Boag, The Parliament of Women (Ottawa, National Museum of Canada, 
1976), Pp. 72-3. 

32 BPWC, Fifth Report, p. 4, BPWC, Sixth Report, p. 8, BPWC Papers. 


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been critical of English women for doing so little to help their 
Indian sisters.*? Opposed to passive charity, for example giving 
money to set up an orphanage, Mehribai urged middle-class 
women to visit the slums and talk with people about the “disgrace 
of living on charity” and the “necessity of self-respecting honest 

In her view, purdah, caste differences, and lack of education pre- 
vented women from working to change social conditions. As a neces- 
sary first step, she urged men to support female education and freedom 
of movement for women. That her voice was heard, both nationally 
and internationally, was quite natural given her wealth, social position, 
and poise. Whenever she spoke in Europe or the United States she was 
noticed for she always appeared in “native dress” adorned with “ropes 
of wonderful pearls” and occasionally wearing the largest privately 
owned diamond in the world. 

In adopting a philanthropic style modeled on that of upper-class 
English women, those women who joined Lady Tata were also partic- 
ipating in a strategy followed by their menfolk. Many of these women, 
particularly in Bombay Presidency, were married to wealthy men 
involved in industry and banking. Just as these men supported charities 
and made donations that would please their rulers, so these newly 
emancipated women engaged in public activities that would be seen as 
“enlightened” by British officials in India and policy-makers in 

Despite the influence of women like Lady Tata in establishing the 
ideology of the Council, the interests of individual members deter- 
mined its work. Standing sectional committees were formed to deal 
with art, labor, legislation, and the press. Generally, the committees col- 
lected information, prepared memoranda, and presented these to the 
proper authorities.*” The committee on legislation to improve women’s 
status was the most active. This was partly because of the leadership of 
Mithan Tata Lam, the first Indian woman to pass the bar exam and 

33 Lady Tata, A Book of Remembrance (Bombay, J. B. Dubash, 1933), pp. 12-13. 

3* Lady Tata to Miss Serenbai Maneckjee Cursetjee (March 3, 1931), A Book of 
Remembrance, pp. 138-9. 

8 Lady Tata, “An Address Delivered by Lady Tata to the Battle Creek College, USA” 
(November 29, 1927), A Book of Remembrance, pp. 100-3. 

6 Douglas E. Haynes, “From Tribute to Philanthropy: The Politics of Gift Giving in a 
Western Indian City,” JAS, 46, no. 2 (May 1987), p. 341. 

” NCWI, Third Biennial Report, 1930-2, NMML. 


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practice law in India, and partly because this was the kind of “social 
work” that could be carried out without fear of losing status. 
Charitable schemes continued although the idea of visiting the slums 
and chawls (workers’ quarters) never appealed to the members of the 
Council. The new arena of activity that interested these women was 
petition politics. 

Because of its elitist nature, the Council failed to grow and become a 
vital national organization. The annual membership fee was Rs 15; it 
took Rs 500 to become a life member and Rs 1,000 to become a patron. 
When it was first organized the National Council had three life 
patrons: the Dowager Begum Saheb of Bhopal, Maharani Saheb of 
Baroda, and Lady Dorab Tata. The president was H. H. the Maharani 
of Baroda. The Maharani continued to serve the organization as presi- 
dent in 1928, 1930-4, and 1936-7; from 1938 to 1944 the Maharani Setu 
Parvati Bayi of Travancore was president. Other women who held 
important positions on the executive committee included Lady Dorab 
Tata; Miss Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first lady barrister;>* Mrs. Tarabai 
Premchand, the wife of a wealthy banker; Mrs. Shaffi Tyabji, a member 
of one of Bombay’s leading Muslim families; and Maharani Sucharu 
Devi of Mourbhanj, a daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen. These were all 
women of wealth and position, capable of affording the expensive 
travel expected of the Council’s leaders and with enough space to house 
the Council “office.” Many women simply could not afford to join this 
organization nor did they feel comfortable in the presence of these 
affluent and titled women. But this was not the only reason the associa- 
tion did not “take,” as Tarabai Premchand put it. The councils were 
politically and socially conservative. Because of the connection with 
the British and the wealth and status of the leading members, the 
NCWI remained aloof from the struggle for independence. Socially 
they opted for the status quo. As late as 1928 the Bengal Council of the 
NCWI passed a resolution asking for a female probation officer for 
Calcutta and then recommended the appointee be a British woman. 
They argued that having an Indian woman do this type of work was too 
“progressive” and should be avoided for some time.*? They found 
village work difficult and unhealthy; the villagers distrustful and 

38 Antoinette Burton, “Empire, Oxford, and Imperial Culture: Cornelia Sorabji at Somerville 
College, 1889-1892,” At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in 
Late-Victorian Britain (in progress). 

Bengal Provincial Council Report, NCWI Report, 1928-9. 


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hostile.*° Instead of re-evaluating their techniques and perhaps mod- 
ifying their style, members of the NCWI demanded that conditions for 
village work be improved. 

The members of the NCWI looked to government for the improve- 
ments they desired. Shut off from actual work among the people whose 
condition they wished to improve, yet completely confident that they 
understood both the problems of Indian women and the solutions to 
these problems, they advised the government on welfare issues. They 
found this work congenial and their contacts, established through 
family, marriage, and social interaction, gave them a credibility that 
exceeded their experience or numbers. Their main concern was that 
India “measure up,” in international terms, to minimum standards for 
health and welfare found elsewhere. And both British men and Indian 
men in power had a vested interest in insuring the same. 

Members of the NCWI had not followed Lady Tata’s advice to visit 
the slums but there were a few women who had. One of these was 
Maniben Kara (1905-79), a social worker who became a leading trade 
unionist.4! As a child Maniben had secretly visited the chawls with 
some foreign friends. She recalled she had been shocked and ashamed: 
shocked because she had known nothing of this other world and 
ashamed because she had lived very close to it. She went on to study 
social work in England and returned to India in 1929. Back in Bombay, 
she organized the Seva Mandir (Service Organization) to work among 
the poor. She recalled that while Communists accused her of sabotag- 
ing a revolution, women from the slums asked if she had nothing better 
to do with her time.#? Chided by those she wanted to help, Maniben 
became a member of M. N. Roy’s group of radical humanists and redi- 
rected her energies towards organizing workers. She was unable to do 
much to bring women into the labor unions because of their household 
work and notions of female propriety. She had no interest in the work 

of the NCWI and they considered her work “radical.” 

The All-India Women’s Conference 
The most important of the women’s organizations and the most truly 
Indian of the three was the last to be formed. The All-India Women’s 

*© NCWIL, Biennial Report, 1938-40, p 

41 “1 ife Sketch of Maniben Kara” fonpaplened’ received from Western Railway Employees 
Union (Bombay, 1979). 

* Interview with Maniben Kara (Bombay, April 24, 1976); “Maniben Kara,” s-14 (September 
17, 1969), South Asian Archive, Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge. 


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Conference (AIWC)* first met in Poona in January of 1927, following 
more than six months of serious work on the part of Margaret Cousins 
and other women belonging to the WIA. Mr. Oaten, director of Public 
Instruction in Bengal, urged women to decide what kind of education 
was suitable for Indian girls and then tell the government “with one 
voice what they want, and keep on telling us till they get it.” A reply to 
his challenge was published in Str Dharma and this eventually led to 
plans for a Conference. 

Margaret Cousins sent circular letters to women leaders throughout 
India suggesting they organize local conferences to discuss educational 
issues. Each conference would prepare a memorandum on female 
education for presentation at an all-India Conference to be held at 

At the first meeting of the Conference there were eighty-seven 
members from the local reception committee, fifty-eight delegates 
from local conferences and over 2,000 observers (men and women). 
The Rani Saheb of Sangli delivered the opening address and introduced 
the first president, the Maharani Chimnabai Saheb Gaekwad of Baroda. 
In her opening remarks the Rani insisted women needed a special type 
of education, not feminist in nature for that would imply antagonism 
between men and women, but an education to help them understand 
their position as “supplemental” to that of men. The Maharani of 
Baroda focused on social customs — especially purdah and child mar- 
riage — which hampered the growth of female literacy. This was a time 
of women’s awakening, she said, noting women’s new interest in poli- 
tics, but she too called for education compatible with “women’s 

Delegates to the Conference included a large number of professional 
educationalists as well as social reformers, women associated with the 
nationalist movement, and the wealthy and titled. The general resolu- 
tions outlining the best type of education for females included basic 
assumptions about women’s place in society. The delegates favored, 
they said, an educational system that would allow for the fullest 
development of the individual’s latent capacities. But at the same time 
they wanted to teach all girls the ideals of motherhood, how to make 
the home attractive, and how to help others. Their more specific resolu- 

*} Aparna Basu and Bharati Ray, Women’s Struggle: A History of the All India Women’s 
Conference 1927-1990 (New Delhi, Manohar, 1990). 
* M. Cousins, “How the Conference Began,” Roshni, special number (1946), p. 14. 


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tions stressed the importance of moral and physical education, 
deplored child marriage, and urged special arrangements for educating 
purdah women.* 

The AIWC did not advocate mass education for all women nor did 
they envision a world where all middle-class and upper-class women 
would receive the same education as men.** The majority of the women 
at the Conference agreed that the educational system should concen- 
trate on producing educated wives and mothers but they also wanted 
women doctors, professors, and lawyers. Regardless of whether the 
curriculum stressed home science or natural science, there was general 
agreement that education should complement gender roles. 

In their discussion of female education, delegates to the Conference 
commented on women’s role historically. They maintained that in 
ancient India women had equal access to education, political power, 
and wealth. Social customs — particularly child marriage and purdah - 
resulted from foreign invasions and prevented women from receiving 
instruction. This interpretation of history — past greatness followed by 
a dark age — legitimized the organization and the thrust of its programs. 
But this historical interpretation also limited their appeal since the 
foreigners blamed for a fall in women’s status were Muslims. 
Acceptance of the “golden age” theory both limited their potential for 
attracting women from other communities and classes and inhibited a 
radical feminist critique of their society. 

By 1928 the All-India Women’s Conference on Educational Reform 
decided there could be little progress in educational matters unless 
harmful social customs were eradicated. The next year the AIWC 
widened its scope to include all questions of social welfare and declared 
their main activity to be organizing public opinion on these issues. 
With the 1930s came the civil disobedience movement and the organi- 
zation’s decision to remain apolitical. In making this choice the AIWC 
opted to preserve its identity as a petitioning organization. 

The organization faced a similar decision as the number and range of 
social issues grew. Beginning with education, then adding social 
customs which restricted female education, notably child marriage and 
purdah, the AIWC continued to enlarge its purview. By the mid-1930s 
the list of sub-committees included labor, rural reconstruction, indige- 
nous industries, textbooks, opium, and the Sarda Act. At the same time 

“© AIWC on Educational Reform, Poona (January 1927), pp. 28-32, AIWC Library, New 
Delhi. = *°_-Ibid. pp. 32-42. 


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their resolutions ranged from advocating film censorship to urging 
widespread instruction in birth control. The leaders were aware their 
work was taking them in two directions: one that would benefit women 
specifically and one aimed at helping the entire nation. Their work on 
behalf of women was increasingly focused on legal disabilities while 
concern with the welfare of the nation led them toward Gandhi’s 
program of reconstruction and social action. Their interest in women’s 
status in law propelled them towards collaboration with British offi- 
cials and members of the legislature while the Gandhian emphasis on 
village uplift and untouchables involved work at the grass-roots level 
as well as a totally different interpretation of the dynamics of social 

By 1936 the contradictions were apparent. In her presidential address 
that year, Margaret Cousins reviewed the progress of the AIWC since 
its inception. She recalled the first Conference as representing the intel- 
ligentsia whereas, in 1936, the AIWC included a “solidarity of sisters” 
ranging from maharanis to harijans. Their work had “raised the pres- 
tige, dignity, influence, power and capacity of our united womanhood 
and gained from the public a new and deep appreciation of women’s 
ability and their rights of citizenship.” Speaking of future directions, 
Cousins urged her sisters to pay close attention to Nehrw’s critique of 
their program as “superficial” because it did not inquire into “root 
causes.” Their research and study of social questions must be rigorous 
and their efforts for reform must be defined as part of a larger plan for 
a regenerated India. Yet in her final statements Cousins encouraged 
AIWC members to continue their work on all fronts: “Work first for 
political liberty, for liberation from subjection both internal and exter- 
nal, and side by side with that supreme task work for all our already 
expressed ideals and reforms.”* 

Margaret Cousins’ optimism about the solidarity of the sisterhood 
masked deep-seated problems within the organization. Even Cousins’ 
elevation to this honorary position was debated at length in the back- 
rooms of the AIWC. Everyone knew that she had helped found the 
association but a number of women did not want an English woman as 

At the end of the 1930s and in the early 1940s the AIWC faced a 
series of challenges to its claim that it represented and could speak for 

*” AIWC, Eleventh Session, Ahmedabad (December 23-27, 1936), pp. 23-5. 
8 From Hilla Rustomji Faridoonji to Mrs. S. C. Mukherjee (April 4, 1936), AIWC Files. 


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7 Renuka Ray as president of the All-India Women’s Conference with two 
of her officers, 1952 

all women. Amrit Kaur, one of Gandhi’s devoted followers, wanted the 
organization to emerge as a political force for women. This proposal 
was voted down. The AIWC was committed to a comprehensive legal 
bill for women. This project was not popular with Muslim women, 
many of whom believed Muslim law came from the Quran and could 
not be tampered with. Efforts to bring lower-class rural and urban 
women into the organization centered on dropping membership dues 
to 4 annas rather than developing programs of interest to these women. 
None of these problems was solved at the national level. 

By the 1940s the AIWC was establishing itself as the premier 
organization representing women. In 1939 the old system of presenting 
resolutions from the floor ended; thereafter resolutions were submitted 
by the branches before the meeting. In 1941 the AIWC established its 
quarterly journal, Roshni, and in 1946 set up a central office with a 
permanent staff. With the organizational details complete they could 
devote their energies to two major tasks: publicity and propaganda on 
women’s issues, and research to provide a data base on women in India. 

The provincial branches took on new life during the war years. Some 
of these organizations took up local issues, sometimes with a 


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vengeance, supporting peasant movements, teaching untouchables, 
encouraging political involvement. They reached out to women the 
central body had ignored. But this was hard work. In a report to the 
honorary general secretary Kulsum Sayani, Mrs. Dina Asana confessed 
her failure in educating adult women: 

In some quarters — where women are willing to learn, they are so abjectly poor that 
they have neither the time nor the means to get out of their grinding poverty and 
sufferings. In other localities — [where] women have time and are willing to learn, 
their menfolk discourage them . . . actually prevent them from going to classes. 
Some of us have been successful in teaching our servants.” 

At the same time, other branches of the AIWC became prestige 
organizations, places where women played out games of status and 
influence while accomplishing little for either the women of their own 
class or for the downtrodden.*° 


The development of the various Indian women’s national organiza- 
tions, their efforts to cooperate with one another, and their relation- 
ships with Indian males, British officials, and British women can be 
viewed through the issue of child marriage in the second half of the 
1920s. A focus on this issue is particularly significant because it is the 
first social reform issue in which organized women played a major role 
in both the development of arguments, in this case against child mar- 
riage, and the work of political petitioning. Efforts to secure passage of 
the Child Marriage Restraint Act taught these women lessons about 
competing agendas and the difficulties of collaborating with their 
apparent well-wishers. At the same time they learned to distinguish 
between effective petitioning and effective action. In many ways their 
work on child marriage was a rite of passage into a world where every 
act had political meaning. 

Child marriage had long been a thorny topic in British India.*! 
British missionaries and officials expressed their horror of pre-puberty 

9 Letter from Mrs. Dina Asana to the honorary general secretary (November 11, 1944), 
AIWC Files, no. 326. 

5° AIWC Files, no. 374; Kolaba Women’s Association, AIWC Konkan Constituency half- 
yearly report for January-June 1936, AIWC Files, no. 136; AIWC Circular no. 6 (May 8, 
1939), AIWC Files, no. 203. 

51 Geraldine Forbes, “Women and Modernity: The Issue of Child Marriage in India,” WS/Q, 
2, no. 4 (1979); PP. 407-19. 


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8 Wedding portrait, Sahayram Basu (age twenty) and his bride Ranu (age 
eight), 1907 


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marriage which many Indians explained as only the first marriage to be 
followed by the garbhadhan (consummation) ceremony immediately 
on the attainment of puberty. In 1860 the criminal code set the age of 
consent for both married and unmarried girls at ten years. The issue 
reappeared in the 1880s and in 1891 the criminal code was amended to 
raise the age of consent to twelve years.’ The age of the female when 
the marriage was consummated could now be publicly questioned, 
proof positive that the British were carrying out their “civilizing 
mission” in India. However, there were no convictions under the Act 
until thirty years later. By then there were new reasons to re-examine 
the age of marriage in India. 

A revival of interest in the age of marriage and age of consent can be 
traced to discussions in the League of Nations. Concern with traffic in 
women and girls led to consideration of the age of consent and ulti- 
mately to proposals in the Indian Assembly.® Various bills addressing 
these questions were introduced and defeated until 1927 when Rai 
Sahib Harbilas Sarda introduced his Hindu Child Marriage Bill. Only 
a few months later a muck-raking American journalist, Katherine 
Mayo,™ published Mother India, a devastating attack on Indians and 
Indian customs. Using hospital records, official accounts, and per- 
sonal interviews, Mayo wrote a “pot-boiler” that both shocked and tit- 
illated the American and British reading public. Mayo berated Indians 
for their treatment of women of all ages, focusing particularly on sexual 
behavior and lingering on accounts of child brides “raped” by their 
older husbands. She concluded that social customs accounted for the 
weakness of the Indian race and made it clear that these people were not 
ready to “hold the reins of Government.”** Some Indian men called the 
attack scurrilous; others argued that British officials had prevented 
them from eradicating these social evils.°” Eager to escape blame, 

2 Tanika Sarkar, “Rhetoric against Age of Consent, Resisting Colonial Reason and Death of 
a Child-Wife,” EPW, 28, no. 36 (September 4, 1993), p. ws1870. 

53 Barbara N. Ramusack, ‘Women’s Organizations and Social Change: The Age-of-Marriage 
Issue in India,” Women and World Change: Equity Issues in Development, ed. Naomi 
Black and Ann Baker Cottrell (Beverly Hills, Sage Publications, 1981), p. 201. 

54 For an insightful review of Mayo in her pre-India days see Gerda W. Ray, “Colonialism, 
Race, and Masculinity: Katherine Mayo and the Campaign for State Police” (unpublished 
paper, 1992). 

55 Mrinalini Sinha, “Reading Mother India: Empire, Nation, and the Female Voice,” JWH, 6, 
no. 2 (1994), pp. 6-44. 

5° Katherine Mayo, Mother India (New York, Harcourt Brace, 1927), p. 32. 

>” J. T. Sunderland, “Miss Katherine Mayo’s ‘Mother India’ Weighed in the Balance, What is 
the Verdict?” MR, 16 (1929), pp. 1-6. 


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9 Wedding portrait, Ronen and Padmini Sen Gupta, 1938 


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government officials began telling the Assembly and “the world at 
large” that they supported beneficent social legislation. 

The Assembly referred Sarda’s bill to a select committee of ten 
chaired by Sir Morophant Visavanath Joshi. The committee included 
only one Indian woman, Mrs. Rameshwari Nehru, recommended by 
the WIA.’ Once appointed, the committee moved quickly to assess 
public attitudes; they sent out 8,000 questionnaires and announced a 
tour to hear testimony from a wide range of witnesses.°° 

The women’s organizations promoted this legislation at every stage. 
They generated propaganda against child marriage, commented on 
proposed bills, petitioned, met with the Joshi Committee, lobbied to 
secure passage of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, and worked, after 
its passage, for registration of births and marriages and other legislation 
to make it a meaningful Act. 

Throughout the country AIWC branches organized meetings at 
which women’s opinions could be expressed. In their speeches women 
refused to confine their remarks to child marriage. This was only one 
of many customs that “crushed their individuality and denied them 
opportunities for education and development of mind and body.Ӣ! 
Sharifah Hamid Ali organized a special campaign to support the Sarda 
Act. Addressing Muslim women in Sind, she told them she was the 
mother of seven daughters, two of whom had been “victim to this 
custom.” This personal experience made her postpone the marriages of 
her other daughters until they were mature and educated. Begum 
Hamid Ali, who was not married until she was twenty-five years of age, 
believed the minimum age for females should be eighteen. Another 
woman, Mrs. Diwan, spoke at a woman’s meeting in Gujarat about the 
need to change consciousness among women: 

It is very essential that the outlook of women should undergo a radical change. To- 
day women themselves believe that it is proper for them to do certain work and 

improper to do others. .. [and] that it is dangerous to remain unmarried. This infe- 
riority complex must be got rid of. 

Women agitating against the custom of child marriage had begun to 
fault the whole system including their socialization into it. However, 
*° GOI, Home Dept., Judicial (July 11, 1927), file no. 382/27, p.8. > ‘Ibid. 

® Report of the Age of Consent Committee, 1928-1929 (Calcutta, 1929), p. 3- 

6! Speech by Smt. Akilabai, “Child Marriage Bill,” The Hindx (clipping, n.d.), DRP. 
& Tbhid. 

% The Indian Quarterly Register, 2, nos. 3 and 4 (July-December, 1929), (Calcutta, n.d.), pp. 


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the radical statements of the platform rarely made their way into the 
more carefully considered petitions and resolutions delivered to 
government officials. 

When they met with the Joshi Committee, AIWC members sought 
to destroy the arguments made by the opposition. They denied that 
women favored youthful marriage, that later marriages would lead to 
immorality, that all men supported child marriage, and that child mar- 
riage was a part of Vedic religion. At no time did they argue that the 
decision of whether or not to marry, whom to marry, and when to 
marry should bea matter of individual right. Rather, they couched their 
support of a later age of marriage in terms of preparing women to fit 
biologically determined roles. 

The Joshi Committee recommended fifteen as the minimum age of 
marriage with twenty-one the age of consent. There can be no doubt of 
the influence of world opinion on both Indian and British legislators. 
In America and Britain the proceedings of the legislature were followed 
as if the outcome would prove or disprove Mayo’s conclusions. In 
their private correspondence, British officials make it clear they felt 
they had no option but to support this measure. Had they not sup- 
ported it, the charge of reformers and nationalists — that foreign rule 
inhibited social reform — would gain credence. But the final measure 
was a compromise, the minimum age of marriage for females was set at 
fourteen, for males eighteen, and the age of consent was not mentioned. 
Passed at the beginning of October 1929, the Act took effect in April 

The women’s organizations rejoiced when the Sarda Act was passed. 
The NCWI was the most cautious in its praise saying this was the first 
campaign in the battle against social evils, but not a victory. The WIA 
was less hesitant and immediately called a meeting to congratulate Rai 
Sahib Harbilas Sarda. The Sarda Act, in their view, was the major 
achievement of 1929.6’ The AIWC reacted the most positively, calling 
the Sarda Act a “great achievement” and a “personal triumph.”® 

The euphoria was short-lived. Government commitment to rigid 
enforcement diminished from the time officials began to assess the 

* AIWC, 1929, p. 95. 

$ Legislative Assembly Debates, January 29, 1929, vol. 1, p. 197; September 10, 1929, vols. 1v 
and v, pp. 679-80; September 19, 1929, vols. rv and v, p. 1110. 

6 NCWI, 1928-9, p. 20. 

6? WIA, Golden Jubilee Celebration Volume (Madras, 1967), Pp. 5- 

68 ATWC, 1930, pp. 12, 24. 


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opposition and conclude it came primarily from the Muslim commu- 
nity. Muslim leaders had threatened “formidable agitation” even before 
the Act was passed. Following its approval they threatened to break 
the Sarda Act “and other laws” by joining with Gandhi and Congress 
in their anti-government campaign.” The British were not about to test 
the practicality of this threat. 

Muslim leaders asked that the Act be amended to exclude Muslims.”! 
The women’s organizations tried to combat this move in a number of 
ways. The AIWC claimed they spoke for all women in India” and 
Muslim women members presented a memorial in support of the Sarda 
Act. In it they told the Viceroy: 

We, speaking also on behalf of the Muslim women of India, assert that it is only a 
small section of Mussalman men who have been approaching your excellency and 

demanding exemption from the Act. This Act affects girls and women far more 
than it affects men and we deny their right to speak on our behalf.” 

That the government did not amend or repeal the Act had less to do 
with the watchful eye of the women’s organizations than with world 
opinion and the importance of political consistency. British officials 
were aware an amendment would suggest weakness. Moreover, the 
subject was one that excited “the interest and attention of the League 
of Nations.” The best tack was to simply leave it alone since there was 
general agreement that the Sarda Act was a dead letter.” 

Enforcement of the Act was practically non-existent. It was difficult 
to make a charge and difficult to obtain a guilty verdict. Moreover, 
many of those found guilty were pardoned. The number of child mar- 
riages increased as there was a rush to celebrate marriages before the 
Act came into effect.”> The government blamed reform-minded Indians 
for not personally supporting the Act and not doing more to educate 
the masses about the evils of child marriage.’* Indian reformers blamed 
the government. 

The Child Marriage Restraint Act had a profound effect on the 
women’s organizations. It was a consensus issue and this made it easy 

6 GOI, Home Dept., Judicial 1929, file no. 561/29. 

70 “Civil Disobedience Movement in Delhi,” GOI, Home Dept., Political, file no. 
256/1/1930. 7 GOI, Home Dept., Judicial, file nos. 272/31, F73/31, 793/32, 76/32. 

72 AIWC, 1931, p. 43. 

73 WLA Appendix D, “Muslim Ladies Defend Sarda Act,” Report, 1930-1. 

74 GOI, Home Dept., Judicial, file nos. 269/31, 65/30. 

> GOI, Home Dept., Judicial, file nos. 818/33, 65/30. 

Samuel Hoare to E. Rathbone (November 7, 1933), RP, folder no. 6. 


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for women from different regions and communities to work together 
and for the three national organizations to coordinate their activities. 
As the Joshi Committee traveled throughout India it heard arguments 
against child marriage presented by numerous women. These women 
created the impression that India had its fair share of educated, articu- 
late women who understood the problems of their country and had 
formulated answers. 

Support for the women’s position created the illusion that women’s 
issues and the women who presented them were being taken seriously. 
Because a law prohibiting child marriage had been passed, many people 
considered the child marriage problem solved. Only the women’s 
organizations and a few male reformers continued to fret about 
enforcement. In the long run, this experience helped women engaged 
in this campaign appreciate the weakness of their position. 


During World War II the women’s organizations emerged as fully 
mature entities able to respond to the most important national and 
international issues of the day. Their hegemony was short-lived but in 
the meantime they participated in almost every major committee or 
planning group meeting to discuss India’s future. They took a stand on 
the war and worked to improve conditions in famine-stricken Bengal 
and other regions of the country that were suffering. They decided not 
to form a separate women’s party but continued to work for a new civil 
code that would recognize women’s rights. 

One might look at the changes these groups went through and ask 
what progress, if any, they made. Their numbers had grown but they 
had not, except in a very few cases, reached beyond the urban middle 
class for members. They had gained the right to speak for India’s 
women but they were still addressing issues of propriety and pursuing 
legislation they knew would not be enforced. 

Both their successes and failures can be attributed to social feminism 
which served as the ideological basis for their demands. Although 
many of the participants in these women’s organizations decried the 
term “feminism,” equating it with man-hating and suffragette violence, 
they sought greater autonomy for women. When they petitioned for 
education, the vote, and amelioration of social evils it was to enable 
women to fulfill their social obligations to the family and nation. They 


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sought a family order in which women would be respected and 
honored. A few women in these organizations questioned the double 
standard and demanded complete autonomy for women. But their 
views were subordinated to those of the majority. It is easy to under- 
stand why they did not adopt a radical ideology. These women’s 
organizations matured with male support and flourished in partnership 
with male-dominated nationalist parties. To put the needs of women 
first would have been antithetical to their construction of the Indian 
woman as nurturing and self-sacrificing. Moreover, it would have 
forced them to choose between nationalism and feminism. The 
development of a social feminist ideology made possible the peaceful 
coexistence of feminism and nationalism in a new construct that 
Margot Badran has called “feminist nationalism.””” 

Who benefited from the existence of these women’s organizations? 
The answer is the large numbers of middle-class women who gained 
experience in working with organizational structures. They learned 
first-hand the dynamics of the political world and learned them, in part, 
from other women. As the organizations centralized, many women 
became frustrated with their aims and left to work with more marginal 
groups. Those who stayed with the organizations put their new-found 
wisdom about petition politics to good use as they fought for women’s 
franchise and women’s legal rights. What always needs to be recalled is 
that their attempts to change the social reality for women were played 
out in an environment that could be especially cruel to women who did 
not conform. Women like Maniben Kara paid a heavy price for choos- 
ing labor union work when she became discouraged with social work. 
Not a small part of the price for Maniben was her realization that as a 
labor union leader she was not able to change the patriarchal order and 
bring women into the unions. Hence the history of these social 
organizations is one of notable accomplishments and severe limita- 

77 Margot Badran, “Dual Liberation: Feminism and Nationalism in Egypt, 1870s-1925,” 
Feminist Issues, 8, no. 1 (1988), pp. 15-34. 


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In 1917 Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu announced the 
British government’s intention of including more Indians in the gov- 
erning process. To learn more about Indian and European opinion, 
Montagu and Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, planned a tour of India to 
listen to the views of individuals and groups. Hearing of the proposed 
tour, Saraladevi Chaudhurani applied for an appointment for members 
of the Bharat Stri Mahamandal to discuss women’s educational needs.! 
Members of the newly formed Women’s Indian Association in Madras 
also requested an audience. Officials informed both groups that only 
deputations on political subjects were welcome so Mrs. Margaret 
Cousins sent a new application. She requested an audience for women 
to present their political demands. On December 15, 1917, Sarojini 
Naidu (1879-1949), an Indian poetess and long-time Congress worker, 
led an all-India delegation of prominent women to meet with Montagu 
and Chelmsford. Members of this delegation presented an address 
documenting the awakening of Indian women to their civic 
responsibilities. They wanted women to have the status of “people” in 
a self-governing nation within the Empire.’ With this deputation, 
Indian women began their struggle to secure for themselves political 
and civil rights. 

When these women asked for the vote, they claimed they spoke 
for all women. In the nineteenth century, British officials expressed 
their concern for “Indian women” and in that earlier time would 
have been delighted with such a claim. But the British now defined 
their “civilizing mission” differently. After World War I British 

' “Tadies’ Deputation,” /SR, 28 (November 11, 1917), p. 121. 

2 “A Ladies’ Deputation to Mr. Montagu,” NJ (October 25, 1917), p. 5; “Women’s 
Deputation to Mr. Montagu,” NJ (December 13, 1917), p. 5; Dr. (Mrs.) Muthulakshmi 
Reddi, Mrs. Cousins and ber Work in India (Madras, Women’s Indian Association, 1956), 
pp. 1-5; J. H. and Mrs. Cousins, We Two Together, (Madras, Ganesh and Co., n.d.), p. 3105 
“A Copy of the Address Presented by the All-India Women’s Deputation to Lord 
Chelmsford (Viceroy) and Rt. Hon’ble E. S. Montagu (Secretary of State),” pamphlet, 
Suffrage-India, FC. 


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critics of Indian society complained that middle-class Indians had no 
sympathy for the customs and traditions of the rural masses.’ 
Previously it was “Indian women” who needed protecting, now it 
was “poor women.”* Women who expected the British to welcome 
their petitions and memorials, were now criticized for ignoring the 
masses of Indian women. 

Prominent nationalists were equally suspicious of women’s 
demands, although for different reasons. Indian men who encouraged 
female education and the formation of social organizations did not 
relish hearing women speak about the evils of patriarchy. By remaining 
silent these women fed the stereotype of themselves as ignorant and 
subordinate. If they spoke bluntly about the sufferings of Indian 
women, they were labeled disloyal to their culture. Franchise and civil 
rights were ideal issues for women to pursue since discussions of them 
could take place without reference to sensitive social or cultural 
matters. Nevertheless, women who threw themselves into this work 
learned the difficulties inherent in the pursuit of women’s rights within 
a colonial framework. 


The Indian women who formed a deputation to Lord Chelmsford and 
Mr. Montagu asked for the franchise on the same terms as men. They 
organized women’s meetings to support their request and appealed for 
help from the Indian National Congress and other political organiza- 
tions. In 1918 the Provincial Conferences of Bombay and Madras 
passed resolutions to remove sex disqualification from the reform bill. 
Similar resolutions were approved by the Andhra Provincial 
Conference, the Bombay Special National Congress, the India Home 
Rule League, and the Muslim League. 

In August of 1918 Sarojini Naidu spoke on behalf of women’s suf- 
frage at the special session of Congress held in Bombay. Mrs. Naidu 
persuaded her audience that extending the franchise to women was 
rational, scientifically and politically sound, compatible with tradi- 

> Report on Indian Constitutional Reform, Parliamentary Papers, vol. viii (Cmd. 91091), p. 

* [bid., pp. 116, 151; Judith M. Brown, Modern India (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1985), 
p. 152. 


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tion, and consistent with human rights. Referring to the objection 
that politics would make women less feminine, she promised her 

Never, never, for we realize that men and women have their separate goals, separ- 
ate destinies and that just as man can never fulfill the responsibility or the destiny 
of a woman, a woman cannot fulfill the responsibility of man... We ask for the 
vote, not that we might interfere with you in your official functions, your civic 
duties, your public place and power, but rather that we might lay the foundation of 
national character in the souls of the children that we hold upon our laps, and instill 
into them the ideals of national life.° 

Five thousand delegates attended this special session; the resolution 
passed by a 75 percent majority. 

When the Thirty-Third Session of the Indian National Congress met 
in Delhi in December of 1918, Saraladevi Chaudhurani presented the 
resolution supporting the vote for women. Saraladevi told her audience 
that women had as much right to chart their own destinies as men for 
this was the age of human rights, justice, freedom, and self-determina- 
tion. The world has outgrown certain ideas, she said, particularly the 
“fanciful division of intellect and emotion being the respective spheres 
of men and women.” Going beyond the assertions of Sarojini Naidu, 
Saraladevi contended that the “sphere of women” included “comrade- 
ship with men in the rough and tumble of life and to being the fellow- 
workers of men in politics and other spheres.”® 

These meetings were followed by gatherings all over India — of pro- 
vincial and district Congress conferences and of women’s organizations 
~ to express support for women’s franchise. Behind the scenes Indian 
women and a few British women, especially Dorothy Jinarajadasa and 
Margaret Cousins, worked conscientiously to make their case. At this 
ume petition politics seemed the only way to make an impression on 
government. Moreover, British suffragists had advised them that these 
tactics would be effective. Montagu himself told Millicent Fawcett, a 
long-standing member of British female suffrage organizations, that it 
would be up to Indian women to make a strong case for the Franchise 
Committee. Mrs. Fawcett communicated this message to her friends in 
India, and it was cited in letters sent to WIA branches. Her letter said 

> Report of the Special Session of the Indian National Congress, Bombay, August 19-31 and 
September 1, 1918 (Bombay, 1918), pp. 109-10. 

® Report of the Thirty-Third Session of the Indian National Congress, Delhi, December 
26-31, 1918 (Delhi, 1918) pp. 118-21. 


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concerned women should write to the chair of the Franchise 
Committee and request an interview.’ 

The Southborough Franchise Committee toured India in 1918 to 
gather information. They accepted women’s petitions but interviewed 
women from only two provinces: Bengal and Punjab.® In their final 
report they concluded that granting the franchise would be premature. 
Lord Southborough decided Indian women did not want the vote and 
even if they did, social customs would impede its implementation.’ 

Indian women who had worked for the franchise were furious. The 
Southborough Committee had ignored their resolutions and petitions 
and overlooked the fact that women were already serving on municipal 
councils and other local bodies. The WIA swung into action. Annie 
Besant and Sarojini Naidu went to England to present evidence before 
the Joint Select Committee while local branches of the WIA held meet- 
ings, passed resolutions, and forwarded their comments to London.!° In 
Bombay, women held a protest meeting and sent letters and telegrams to 
the members of parliament. Mrs. Jaiji Jehangir Petit, chair of the Bombay 
Women’s Committee for Women’s Suffrage, sent this cable to London: 
“Women ask no favor but claim right and justice. If the vote is denied it 
will mean serious check to women’s advancement in India.”"! 

Two members of the Southborough Committee had been in favor of 
extending the franchise to Indian women: Mr. Hogg and Sir C. 
Sankaran Nair, the only Indian member of the Viceroy’s Executive 
Council. After the committee published its report, Sir Sankaran Nair 
met with the Bombay Committee and advised them to send a delega- 
tion to give evidence before the Joint Select Committee. The Bombay 
Committee on Women’s Suffrage decided to send Mrs. Herabai A. Tata 
and her daughter Mithan (after marriage Mithan Lam) to England with 
Sir Sankaran Nair.” 

7 Letter from D. Jinarajadasa and Meenakshi Ammal Mahadeva Sastri to “Dear Madam” 
(November 14, 1918), box 70, FC. 

8 Letter from M. Cousins to A. Besant (June 4, 1919), Theosophical Society Archives, 

° Mrs. Herabai Tata, “A Short Sketch of Indian Women’s Franchise Work,” pamphlet (n.d.), 
Suffrage-India, FC. 

10 Letter from M. Cousins to “My Dear Sisters” (May 28, 1919), AIWC Files. 

' Tata, “A Short Sketch.” 

2 Mithan Lam, “Autumn Leaves: Some Memoirs of Yesteryear,” an unpublished memoir, p. 
7; correspondence of Mrs. Herabai A. Tata to Mrs. Jaiji J. Petit, chairman (sic) of the 
Bombay Women’s Committee for Women’s Suffrage. For work done in England by Mrs. 
Tata at the time of the first Indian Reform Act, December, 1919, see account no. 612, AIWC 


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to Herabai and Mithan Tata in London, 1919 


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Herabai’s budding feminism was encouraged by Princess Sophie 
Duleepsingh, granddaughter of the famous Ranjit Singh who had ruled 
the Punjab from 1799 until his death in 1839. Princess Sophie lived in 
England but she often vacationed in Kashmir and it was here they met. 
Sophie, who wore a “votes for women” badge, explained the suffrage 
movement to Herabai. Under her tutelage Herabai became “a firm 
believer and worker for the cause of women’s suffrage.” When the 
Bombay Committee decided to send a representative to England, 
Herabai expressed her willingness to go. Herabai’s husband approved 
of this plan and agreed to support the venture. Their unmarried daugh- 
ter, Mithan, also keenly interested in women’s rights, accompanied her 
mother to London.” 

Herabai wrote a detailed account of her efforts on behalf of women’s 
suffrage. Even though the WIA sent Annie Besant and Sarojini Naidu 
as representatives, Herabai was the real soldier in this campaign. She 
wrote letters and sent memoranda to influential individuals, asked for 
support from a wide range of organizations, and addressed every group 
that invited her to speak. Herabai and Mithan researched all topics 
associated with women’s franchise and prepared substantial reports to 
argue their case. Tata Ltd. sponsored their work through a contribution 
made to the Bombay Suffrage Committee. This was sufficient to pay 
for Herabai’s voyage and most of her expenses; the remainder of their 
expenses were borne by her husband.'* 

Annie Besant warned the Joint Select Committee that they were 
making a mistake by ignoring women’s demands. According to Besant, 
Indian political councils included women until the British imposed 
their notions of women’s proper place. If the British continued to 
exclude them, Besant predicted Indian women would join political pro- 
tests. This would have serious consequences. Any attempt to suppress 
their agitation would fail because Indian men “would not tolerate 
police interference where women are concerned.” Besant was raising 
the specter of a revolt from within the zenana, a dangerous space 
because it was unexplored and uncolonized. 

When Sarojini Naidu spoke to the Joint Select Committee she said 
she represented all Indian women, even orthodox Hindu and Muslim 
women. Enfranchised women would be a powerful force for progress, 

3 Lam, “Autumn Leaves,” pp. 4-12. ‘4 See correspondence from H. Tata to J. J. Petit. 
15 Joint Select Committee on Government of India Bill, Parliamentary Papers, 1919, vol. 11, 
Minutes of Evidence (Cmd. 203), p. 75. 


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Naidu maintained. She brushed aside all objections about the difficul- 
ties of voting while observing purdah. Only a few “upper-class” 
women veiled, she told the committee, and she had never known 
“purdah to come in the way of anything a woman ever wanted to do,”!® 
Unfortunately the committee did not have enough time to interview 
Herabai Tata and instead asked her to submit a statement. All three 
women, Besant, Naidu, and Tata, argued that recent educational and 
social opportunities had restored Indian women to their former power 
and influence. Indian women, they asserted, are strong and united and 
ready to reform society. 

Most British men were skeptical. They believed the majority of 
Indian women were uneducated and living in seclusion and many of the 
Indians they listened to reinforced their stereotypes. Cornelia Sorabji 
(1866-1954), who studied law at Oxford and returned to India in 1894 
to act as a pleader for women, opposed the work of both male and 
female nationalist reformers. Cornelia’s father, Reverend Sorabji 
Karsedji had converted to Christianity from Zoroastrianism and 
married Francina who was a convert from Hinduism. The family was 
well known in Poona for their dedicated work in the fields of educa- 
tion and social reform. Denied admittance to the British bar,'” the only 
route to practicing law in India, Cornelia represented women under 
sanads (special permission to plead) and later as an official appointed to 
the Court of Wards to deal with the cases of purdahnashin (secluded 
women).'® She had an extraordinary career and became known around 
the world as a professional who broke with all traditions to help 
women. Her rejection of both nationalism and feminism has caused 
historians to neglect the important role she played in giving credibility 
to the British critique of those educated Indian women who were now 
part of the political landscape. 

Miss Sorabji moved in influential circles and had numerous oppor- 
tunities to present her British friends with the “Indian” point of view.!” 

16 Ibid., pp. 131-2. 

7 Cornelia Sorabji finally qualified for the bar in 1919 but until that time all women in Britain 
were barred by statutory law from qualifying. See Antoinette Burton, “Empire, Oxford 
and Imperial] Culture: Cornelia Sorabji at Somerville College, 1889-1892,” At the Heart of 
Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (in progress). 

8 Cornelia Sorabji, “Some Experiences” (March 1, 1931), newspaper clipping, Gham- 
Khwar-i-Hind of Lahore writes (n.d.), CS Papers, Eur. Mss., F/165/5, IOOLC. 

9 Letters from Sir Campbell Rhodes to Lady Malcolm (March 13, 1929) and C. Sorabji to 
Lady Stanfordham (March 13, 1929), Social Service File; Cornelia Sorabji Diaries, CS 
Papers, Eur. Mss., F/165/5, ITOOLC. 


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Indian women, she asserted, fitted into two groups. She called one 
group “the Progressives” and defined them as a small group of educated 
women, perhaps 10 percent of the female population, who were largely 
independent of ancient customs. The other go percent were illiterate 
and lived in seclusion. All the schemes for ameliorating the hardships 
of women had benefited “the progressives” but left the masses of 
women virtually untouched.” Moreover, the progressives made no 
effort to comprehend the facts of existence for the masses of women. 

Ina confidential memorandum to the government regarding the pro- 
posed Montagu—Chelmsford reforms, Cornelia warned that Western 
ideals of government would not fit a fatalistic and superstitious society. 
Parliamentary democracy could only be successful in a country where 
the nuclear family, educational institutions, and government all encour- 
aged social mobility, individual rights, and action. Indian ethics and 
institutions were the exact opposite. Until education had changed 
Indian institutions and attitudes, Western political institutions would 
be useless.”! For the present, the government had a duty to continue its 
protection of the masses. 

On the topic of female franchise, Cornelia wrote, “We (Indian 
women) cannot yet make our demands for equal citizenship and equal 
opportunities — our history forbids this.” Progressive women had 
reached a high state of civilization, but the majority of women were still 
illiterate and ignorant. It would be “dangerous” she argued, to extend 
the vote to these “left-behinds.” Until all women were educated, polit- 
ical reform could not be of “any real and lasting value” to the country.” 

There is no conclusive evidence that Cornelia Sorabji’s advice carried 
any weight, but members of the House of Commons ignored the pro- 
franchise memoranda presented by Indian women’s organizations, the 
Indian National Congress, the Home Rule League, the Muslim League, 
and British women’s organizations. Montagu observed that conserva- 
tive opposition to female franchise was almost a “religious feeling.” 
Because it would be dangerous to provoke religious men, he urged the 
House to pass the India Bill as it existed. A proviso could be added 

2° C. Sorabji, “Note on a Social Settlement for the Service of Women“ (n.d.) and “Note on 
the Possibility Appertaining to a Social Service Institute” (n.d.), CS Papers, Eur. Mss., 
F/165/5, IOOLC. 

21 Confidential memorandum, “The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms,” CS Papers, Eur. Mss., 
F/165/13, IOOLC. 

?? From an Indian correspondent, “The Position of Women IJ,” Common Cause (May 9, 
1919), Pp: 36-7. 


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allowing provincial legislative councils to add women to the list of reg- 
istered voters.” 

Indian women activists felt betrayed. They had not asked for any- 
thing extraordinary — only that the franchise be extended to women 
who met the qualifying standards set for men. Excluding females from 
the India Act seemed to be de facto recognition of male authority over 
women.”4 Their opponents had used purdah as “the chief weapon in the 
armory of opposition against Franchise for Indian women.” 
Obviously, the British promise to safeguard the rights of minorities 
meant only male minorities. In the case of women, the majority were 
denied rights because the minority lived in seclusion. This paradoxical 
situation led Sarojini Naidu to inquire why the British did not extend 
the franchise to women and then make special provisions for the pur- 
dahnashin to protect the rights of this minority.” 


Nationalist leaders also challenged women’s rights activists. In 1920 
Herabai and Mithan, the latter now studying at the London School of 
Economics and registered at the Inns of Court, traveled to Paris and 
met with Madame Cama. Madame Bhikaji Cama (1861-1936) was born 
and educated in Bombay, married in 1885 to a rather conservative 
gentleman, and by the 1920s was living in Europe. She traveled to 
London in 1902 for medical treatment, met a group of expatriate 
revolutionaries, joined their circle, and moved to Paris where she lived 
for thirty years.” When she met Herabai and Mithan she “shook her 
head rather sadly and stated: “Work for Indian’s freedom and 
Independence. When India is independent women will get not only the 
Vote, but all other rights.’”?” Gandhi reacted in much the same way. In 
his first article on women in Young India, Gandhi stated he wanted 
women to take their proper place by the side of men but he would not 
support a “votes for women” campaign. The timing was wrong. 
Indians needed to struggle against the British and the franchise cam- 

2H. Tata to J. J. Petit (December 7, 1919), AIWC Files; Joint Select Committee on 
Government of India Bill, vol. 1, Report and Proceedings of the Committee, Parliamentary 
Papers 1919, vol. 1v, Part 1 of the Preamble (Cmd. 203). 

* Letter from M. Cousins to Mrs. Fawcett (October 30, 1918), box 90, FC. 

25 “Franchise for Indian Women,” MR, 26 (1919), p. 549. 

26 “Madam Bhikaji Cama,” DNB, vol. 1, pp. 240-2. 27 Lam, “Autumn Leaves”, p. 12. 


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paign would waste their energy. Women should use their energies 
“helping their men against the common foe.” Gandhi advised women 
to liberate themselves and their menfolk “from the death-grip of the 
existing government which is the greatest of all social evils with which 
society is cursed.””8 


This advice from nationalist leaders did not prevent pro-franchise 
women from continuing their fight. Bombay and Madras were the first 
provinces to extend the franchise to women in 1921; the United 
Provinces followed in 1923; Punjab and Bengal in 1926; and finally 
Assam, the Central Provinces, and Bihar and Orissa in 1930. 

Detailed accounts of how the vote was won are not available for 
every province. In Bengal, women argued in favor of women’s 
“special” contribution to politics. Men who favored the vote for 
women called this a natural extension of democratic rights while oppo- 
nents talked of women’s inferiority and incompetence in public affairs. 
Others lamented the neglect of husbands and children that was sure to 
follow the vote. One gentleman even argued that political activity ren- 
dered women incapable of breast feeding. The measure passed in 1926, 
not because support for female enfranchisement had increased but 
because the composition of the legislative body had changed when the 
Swaraj Party agreed to re-enter politics and came to dominate the leg- 
islature. This party united Hindus and Muslims to work for immediate 
independence; consequently “the woman suffrage resolution rode to 
victory on a wave of nationalist enthusiasm.”?? 

The number of women qualified to vote was never large enough to 
be a matter of concern. Throughout India the numbers enfranchised 
were small: in Madras women were 8.46 percent of the total voters; 5.03 
percent in Bombay; 3.0 percent in the United Province and Bengal; and 
only 2.5 percent in the Punjab. In the Central Legislative Assembly 
women comprised 4.36 percent of the total electorate.*° It obviously 

28 M. K. Gandhi, “Women and the Vote,” Young India (November 24, 1920), p. 2. In 1921 
Gandhi expressed support for the idea of female suffrage. 

29 Barbara Southard, “Colonial Politics and Women’s Rights: Woman Suffrage Campaigns in 
Bengal, British India in the 1920s,” Modern Asian Studies, 27, no. 2 (1993), Pp. 397-439- 

© “Number of Women Voters in India,” GOI, Public Home Dept., file no. 25/3/1929. 


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was the principle that counted, not the possibility that women could 
dominate the assemblies. Next, women demanded the right to be 
elected to the legislatures. The same arguments for and against their 
participation were repeated until finally all the provinces granted 
women this right. 

The opponents of women’s political participation voiced a number 
of objections. They warned of traditional gender roles breaking down 
and the possibility of role reversal. Not unlike their Victorian counter- 
parts they worried about the adverse effects of this activity on women’s 
mental and physical health. But their main fear was that Indian women 
would imitate Western women whose shameless behavior they 
deplored.*! Voting might well play havoc with women’s natural roles of 
wife and mother, sanctioned by tradition and revered and respected 
throughout time. 

Male supporters of female franchise countered these arguments by 
highlighting women’s special contribution to politics. “What Will 
Indian Women Do with the Vote?” asked the pro-women’s franchise 
Modern Review of Calcutta. They will use the three Ws — Wisdom, 
Wellness and Wealth to destroy India’s three Is — Ignorance, Illness and 
Indigence came the answer.*? Others claimed this as India’s opportu- 
nity to prove it was as advanced as Western nations. Speaking in the 
Legislative Assembly, Mr. N. M. Dumasia, a member from Bombay, 

It is gratifying to find that in a country where men are accused of treating women 
as chattel the political progress of women has been more rapid than in England and 
free from the war of the sexes and the smashing of heads and windows which pre- 
ceded the enfranchisement of women in England.” 

Many women also wrote and spoke about the distinct contribution 
made by women, while others challenged the power structure. V. 
Kamalabai Ammal wrote a petition to the Governor-General pro- 
testing the delay in removing sex disqualification from the statutes of 
Bihar and Orissa. She reminded him that women were “as much chil- 
dren of India as males.” To even allow the legislatures to vote on this 
issue “implies the monopoly of the male sex not only to enjoy the priv- 

>»! For further discussion of these attitudes see Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Difference — 
Deferral of (A) Colonial Modernity: Public Debates on Domesticity in British Bengal,” 
History Workshop Journal, 36 (autumn, 1993), pp. 9-13- 

32 “What Will Women Do with the Vote?” MR, 30 (1921), p. 493- 

3 GOK, Public Home Dept., 1926, file no. 28. 


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ilege but to confer [it] upon others - women — as a matter of charity.”> 
Mrinalini Sen, a Bengali suffragette, complained that the government 
was treating women in an arbitrary fashion. In a polemical article rem- 
iniscent of those written by British suffragists, Mrinalini wrote that 
although women were subject “to all the laws and rules of the land exer- 
cised by the British Government” and had to pay taxes if they owned 
property, they could not vote. It was as if the British were telling 
women not to go to the courts for justice but rather seek it at home.** 
Sen’s comment had a special resonance on the eve of the non-coopera- 
tion movement which would urge women, and men, to no longer “go 
to the courts” but instead join the fight for freedom. 


Muthulakshmi Reddy,” the first woman legislator, was appointed to 
the Madras Legislative Council in 1927. As she remembered, this 
nomination marked the beginning of her life-long effort to “correct the 
balance” for women by removing social abuses and working for equal- 
ity in moral standards.*’ 

Muthulakshmi was born in the princely state of Pudukottah in 1886. 
Her father was S. Narayanasami, a brahmin and the principal of 
Maharaja’s College; her mother was Chandrammal, born to the isai 
velala caste, a caste whose women danced and sang in temples.® S. 
Narayanasami broke with tradition and sent Muthulakshmi to school. 
The child’s enthusiasm for learning was so great that Muthulakshmi’s 
teachers decided to instruct her in subjects beyond those approved by 
her father. At the onset of puberty she was obliged to leave school, but 
tutoring continued at home. Chandrammal wanted to search for a 

34 GOI, Home Dept., file no. 212/1929. 

> Mrinalini Sen, “Indian Reform Bill and Women of India” (first published in Africa and the 
Orient Reviews, 1920), Knocking at the Door (Calcutta, Samir Dutt, 1954), pp. 68-9. 

36 Muthulakshmi has written her name Reddi and Reddy at different times. I have used 
“Reddy” in the text but kept the original spelling on her letters and writings in the foot- 

>? Muthulakshmi Reddi, “Dear Friends” speech (n.d.), file no. 11, DRP; information on 
Muthulakshmi Reddi comes primarily from Autobiography of Dr. (Mrs.) Muthulakshmi 
Reddy (Madras, M. Reddi, 1964) - for quote see p. 18; Dr. (Mrs.) S. Muthulakshmi Reddy, 
My Experiences As a Legislator (Madras, Current Thought Press, 1930); and interview, Dr. 
(Mrs.) Muthulakashami (sic) Reddi, Layman’s Foreign Mission Inquiry, 1928-30, box 28, 

38 C. S. Lakshmi, The Face Behind the Mask: Women in Tamil Literature (Delhi, Vikas 
Publishing House, 1984), pp. 16-17. 


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bridegroom but Muthulakshmi had different aspirations. “I had even 
then set my heart upon something high and I wanted to be a different 
woman from the common lot,” she wrote in her memoirs. She pitied 
women for their subordination to men and inwardly rebelled whenever 
she heard people say that only boys needed education. 

When Muthulakshmi passed the matriculation exam she applied for 
admission to Maharaja’s College but her application was not welcomed 
by the principal at the time or the parents of other students. Her gender 
was a factor but so was her background: the principal thought she 
might “demoralize” the male students. The somewhat enlightened 
Maharaja of Pudukottah ignored these objections, admitted her to the 
college, and gave her a scholarship.*? Her father suggested she become 
a school teacher but she had higher aspirations. Muthulakshmi had 
never met an educated woman in person but she had read in magazines 
about women receiving BAs and MAs. 

When one of her father’s former students suggested she study med- 
icine, Muthulakshmi and her father gave his proposal serious 
consideration. She had always been a sickly child, rarely helped by 
traditional medical practices and herbal remedies, and her mother’s 
bout with typhoid provided personal motivation. Moreover, she 
wanted to leave home to be free of her mother’s obsession with mar- 
riage. She entered Madras Medical College, completed her studies in 
1912, and became house surgeon in the Government Hospital for 
Women and Children in Madras.*° 

During her college years, Muthulakshmi met Sarojini Naidu and 
began to attend women’s meetings. She found women who shared her 
personal concerns and addressed them in terms of women’s rights. 

Muthulakshmi refused to listen to discussions about marriage until 
she graduated. Magazines and newspapers carried articles about her 
awards and degrees and this notoriety brought offers of marriage from 
reform-minded young men. The suitor who attracted her father’s atten- 
tion was Dr. D. T. Sandara Reddy who read about Muthulakshmi in 
one of these magazines. Muthulakshmi reluctantly agreed to consider 
his proposal although she did not want to be “saddled with marriage 
and become subordinate to a man whoever he might be.”"! Finally, after 
checking out Dr. Reddy’s “attainments and conduct” and listening to 
her father’s positive assessment, Muthulakshmi agreed to marry on the 

% Ibid.  * Autobiography, pp.1-17. —*! ‘Ibid, p. 18. 


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condition the proposed bridegroom would promise to “always respect 
me as an equal and never cross my wishes.” In 1914, when she was 
twenty-eight years of age, they married in accordance with the 1872 
Native Marriage Act.” 

As a married woman Muthulakshmi practiced medicine while she 
raised a family. She found it difficult and warned other aspiring 
women doctors: “Medical women, if they really love the profession 
and wish to practice should not think of marriage, because they 
cannot perform two functions at one and the same time.” But she 
somehow managed to juggle her career and marriage, go to England 
for further study, and work with women’s organizations. At this time 
she believed British rule was beneficial to the downtrodden, espe- 
cially women and the depressed classes. She thought women 
belonged in the political arena because of their special interests and 
special abilities. 

Muthulakshmi’s name was on a list of well-known social workers 
submitted to the Legislative Council by the WIA. At first she 
deferred, citing the demands of her medical practice and lack of expe- 
rience. “I was,” she wrote, “neither a politician nor was I interested in 
politics except what directly concerned women’s life.” When nomi- 
nated to the Madras Legislative Council in 1926, Muthulakshmi 
accepted to represent “my sisters’ cause in the Council.” Her col- 
leagues in the Council applauded her medical and educational work 
but opposed her efforts on behalf of devadasis* and untouchables as 
well as her campaigns to obtain legal rights for women.** 
Muthulakshmi took her concerns to the public ~ she wrote pamphlets 
and letters-to-the-editor and called women’s meetings. Disregarding 
personal criticism, she saw it her duty, as an educated woman, to speak 
“on behalf of our sex.” 

“2 The Native Marriage Act III of 1872 was passed on March 19, 1872. It had previously been 
presented as the Civil Marriage Act and the Brahmo Marriage Act. This form of marriage 
was available only to persons who were not Hindus or members of other established relig- 
ions. It set the minimum age for marriage at fourteen for females and eighteen for males, 
made provision for divorce, and abandoned Hindu rituals. This Marriage Act legitimized 
unions between couples from different communities such as Muthulakshmi and Dr. Reddy. 
Autobiography, p. 22. * My Experiences, p. 4. 

Devadasis were women attached to temples where they sang and danced for the gods and 
in return were given the right to land. The British and some reformers regarded them as 
little more than temple prostitutes. Daughters of devadasis were considered devadasis 
whether or not they performed in the temple. 

“© My Experiences, p. 58. 



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The Simon Commission, appointed in 1927, was the first step towards 
the formulation of a new India Act. This initiated the second round in 
the fight for female enfranchisement. The India Act passed in 1935 
increased representation but not to the extent expected by organized 
women. The process of delivering this second franchise decision 
exposed both the limits of collaboration with the British and the prob- 
lems inherent in attaching women’s rights to the nationalist movement. 

When the Simon Commission was first announced, the WIA, then 
the only national women’s organization committed to women’s fran- 
chise, was willing to cooperate and asked that a woman be included. 
However, by the time the “white seven” men who composed the 
Commission arrived in India in February of 1929, the WIA had joined 
the nationalist boycott against them. The AIWC then decided to form 
a franchise sub-committee and by the 1930s concluded that political 
emancipation was the first step towards releasing women from their 
“shackles.”*” They also boycotted the Simon Commission. But there 
were other educated women, acting without the imprimatur of the 
major organizations, who met with the Commission and suggested 
giving the vote to literate women or reserving seats.*® 

At the end of October 1929 the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, announced that 
the British government would call for a Round Table Conference to 
discuss the next step towards dominion status. The WIA immediately 
submitted the names of three women to be included: Sarojini Naidu, 
Muthulakshmi Reddy, and Rameshwari Nehru.*? Because Irwin’s 
declaration read “discuss” not “implement” the Indian National 
Congress decided to boycott the conference. The WIA, solidly behind 
the nationalist agenda, also withdrew their cooperation. This was a dif- 
ficult decision for members of the WIA. They had worked long and 
hard on the franchise issue and now they were walking out on an 
opportunity to influence the next constitutional measure.°° 

The London Conference began its meetings in November of 1930 
and Indian women were represented, but not by women chosen by the 

*” Annual Report, AIWC, Seventh Session, 1933, p. 30. 

‘8 “Indian Statutory Commission,” JAR, 1, nos. 1 and 2 (January—June, 1929), pp. 54-6. 
° Reddi, Mrs. Cousins and her Work in India, p. 79. 

5° WIA Report, 1931-2, pp. 3-4. 


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leading women’s organizations. Begum Jahan Ara Shah Nawaz was 
included because she was attending this conference as her father’s (Sir 
Muhammad Shafi’s) private secretary. Mrs. Radhabai Subbarayan, the 
other representative, had attended Somerville College, Oxford and was 
well known by British women suffragists. Both Begum Shah Nawaz 
and Mrs. Subbarayan were long-standing members of women’s 
organizations but the British had appointed them without consulting 
these organizations. 

At the Round Table Conference Begum Shah Nawaz and Mrs. 
Subbarayan spoke about the “awakening” of women and their leader- 
ship in promoting social change. Noting the British obsession with 
purdah, they claimed this custom would decline if women gained the 
vote. The ideal was adult franchise, but they were willing to accept 
special reservations as an interim measure.>! 

Organized women in India disagreed. Margaret Cousins and 
Muthulakshmi Reddy from the WIA, Mrs. Hamid Ali and Rani 
Rajwade from the AIWC, and Tarabai Premchand from the NCWI, 
together with Sarojini Naidu, issued a joint memorandum in support 
of universal adult franchise. One by one women who had previously 
supported nomination and reserved seats added their voices to the 
demand for “equality and no privileges” and “a fair field and no 
favor.”>? They had not changed their views on the importance of 
women voting, but they had altered their priorities. They decided to 
place the nationalist position — no cooperation without a firm commit- 
ment to ending British rule — above their desire for wider female 

With the Gandhi—Irwin Pact of March 1931, Congress agreed to par- 
ticipate in the second Round Table Conference to draw up a plan for 
federation and responsible government with the reservation of certain 
powers. The women’s organizations followed the Congress lead, 
agreed to participate, and sent Sarojini Naidu as their representative. 

Gandhi was the sole representative of the Indian National Congress, 
>! Mrs. P. Subbarayan, The Political Status of Women Under the New Constitution (Madras, 
n.p., n.d.), pp. 2-3; Indian Round Table Conference, November 12, 1930-January 19, 1931, 
Parliamentary Papers, 1930-1, vol. x11 (Cmd. 3772), pp. 113-16; IRTC (Sub-Committee 
Reports), Parliamentary Papers, 1930-1, vol. x11 (Cmd. 3772), p. 47- 

“Reservations of Seats for Women,” The Hindu (November 17, 1931), p- 5. 

Letters from Mrs. P. N. Sirur to R. Subbarayan (April 22, 1931), R. Subbarayan to E. 
Rathbone (May 1, 1931), folder no. 5, RP; letters from E. Rathbone to M. Reddi (March 
12, 1931), M. Reddi to E. Rathbone (March 9, 1931), E. Rathbone to M. Reddi (May 1, 
1931), M. Reddi to E. Rathbone (May 6, 1931), folder no. 1, RP. 



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and Begum Shah Nawaz and Mrs. Subbarayan were again nominated 
by the British. By this time Begum Shah Nawaz had had a change of 
heart and firmly supported the Congress demand for universal adult 
franchise. But Radhabai Subbarayan withstood pressure from her 
friends in the WIA and continued her support for reserved seats.™4 

At the close of the second RTC a White Paper, recommending an 
increase in enfranchised women, was presented to both houses of parlia- 
ment. Lord Lothian was named to chair the Franchise Committee to 
work out the details. His committee planned to tour India in 1932, collect 
evidence and opinions, and submit concrete proposals for the next India 
Act. Radhabai Subbarayan and the Honorable Mary Ada Pickford, the 
Oxford-educated daughter of Lord Sterndale and MP from Lancashire, 
were the two women appointed to the Lothian Committee. Eleanor 
Rathbone, a member of the House of Commons for the Combined 
English Universities since 1929, had long been interested in women’s 
causes and discovered India when she read Katherine Mayo’s Mother 
India. Her own book, Child Marriage: The Indian Minotaur, exposed 
the Sarda Act as “ornamental legislation” and won the praise of some 
Indian women. Rathbone was miffed when she was not appointed to the 
Lothian Committee. Undaunted by this official slight, she decided to 
tour India and meet with Indian women. Her object was not to elicit their 
opinions but rather to advise them how to fight for the vote.*> 

The Lothian Committee met with very few women in India but 
accepted a 1932 memorandum from the all-India women’s organiza- 
tions. In this document women vented their criticism of all the formu- 
las under consideration: nomination, enfranchising educated women, 
and the franchise for a percentage of urban women.*° This was their 
official stance, though actually there was a great deal of support for 
special electorates and nominated seats. Amrit Kaur, chairperson of the 
AIWC in 1932, had to scold Miss Dass, a member from Bihar and 
Orissa, for organizing women’s support for a separate electorate. 
“Standing Committee members must be loyal,” Kaur admonished.*” 

54 Subbarayan, Political Status, p. 16; letter from M. Reddi to “Dear Madam” (November 16, 
1936), AIWC Files, no. 135. 

55> Barbara N. Ramusack, “Cultural Missionaries, Maternal Imperialists, Feminist Allies: 
British Women Activists in India, 1865-1945,” Western Women and Imperialism: 
Complicity and Resistance, ed. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (Bloomington, 
Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 126-8. 

56 “Memorandum of the All-India Women’s Conference,” 1932, AIWC Files, no. 95. 

5? Letter from Amrit Kaur to Miss Dass (January 23, 1932), AIWC Files, no. 95. 


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While in India Miss Pickford wrote letters to her sister in England 
describing the work of the committee. Pickford had no love for Indian 
women: Radhabai Subbarayan was “dull and unimaginative” and the 
debates of Madras women “cat fights.” Occasionally her committee 
hired cars and visited villages to interview “ordinary people.” As she 
traveled throughout the country Pickford made snap judgments, most 
of them negative, without a trace of self-consciousness about the spec- 
tacle she and other members of the committee created when their ten 
motorcars roared into villages. In the villages the committee’s interpret- 
ers ordered people to appear for questioning. Often the women ran 
away but on one occasion an elderly widow with inherited property 
told them she always asked her son how to vote. This confirmed 
Pickford’s opinion of villagers as backward and “quite unfit for any 
form of direct franchise.”°* In their final report the Lothian Committee 
rejected adult franchise because of the country’s size, large population, 
and high rate of adult illiteracy. They agreed more women should be 
enfranchised, to facilitate social reform, and recommended increasing 
the ratio of female to male voters from 1:20 to 1:5.°? 

Before Indian women could react to these recommendations, they 
were faced with the communal award that confirmed reserved seats for 
Muslims and extended them to the depressed classes. Gandhi main- 
tained that the lower castes, the “untouchables” or “harijans” (children 
of God), were Hindus and should not be treated as a separate group. 
He began a fast in opposition to the award. The Poona Pact of 
September 1932, a compromise measure, granted reserved seats to the 
depressed classes within the total Hindu constituency. When Congress 
leaders, including Gandhi, accepted this agreement it was clear they had 
abandoned universal franchise. But the women’s organizations 
denounced the Poona Pact and other communal awards as divisive for 
women. Begum Shah Nawaz and a number of other Muslim women 
disagreed. Since their menfolk supported this formula, they advised 
women’s organizations to accept this decision because it would 
promote religious harmony.*! 

The White Paper of 1933, recommending the voting strength of 

8 Letters to Dorothy (January 19-April 12, 1932), Pickford Papers, Eur. Mss., D. 1013, 

59 Report of the Indian Franchise Committee, 1932, Parliamentary Papers, 1931-1932, vol. 
vit (1) (Cmd. 4086), pp. 16, 82-7. 6 WIA, 1932; AIWC Files, no. 20. 
61 “Women and the Communal Decision,” JL M, 5 (September—October, 1932), p. 510. 


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women to men be increased to 1:10, was the final blow to the demand 
for universal franchise. Some of the women who had defended uni- 
versal franchise advocated a women’s non-cooperation movement. The 
pragmatists disagreed and urged women to redefine themselves as a 
minority community in order to enter the competition for political 
representation. Muthulakshmi Reddy advised: 

We cannot but accept the qualifications decided on by our men and accepted by 
them. As Gandhiji himself is justifying his cooperation with the government for 
the sake of removing the evil of untouchability, the women social workers and 
educationalists are eager to get the maximum for themselves, and they rightly feel 
that in the present backward condition of the county they cannot think of non- 

Early in 1933 women leaders decided to work for a franchise ratio of 
1:5. British women supported this work and urged them to collect evi- 
dence about the numbers of educated women who wanted the vote. 
Radhabai Subbarayan, Dorothy Jinarajadasa, Begum Shah Nawaz, and 
Sarala Ray asked individuals and organizations to voice their support. 
But there were still women demanding adult franchise® and Muslim 
women who stood behind the communal award. By and large, AIWC 
leaders omitted difference of opinion from their reports.®* After much 
debate the three women’s organizations produced a joint memorandum 
reiterating their demand for adult franchise and objecting to the various 
schemes for separate electorates and reservation of seats. As a tempo- 
rary and short-term measure they agreed to accept the enfranchisement 
of literate women and urban women.® 

Eleanor Rathbone cautioned the women’s organizations that another 
request for adult franchise coupled with refusal of the wifehood qual- 
ification might kill all schemes to increase the ranks of the enfranchised. 
Rathbone and her British friends held two assumptions not shared by 
their Indian counterparts. They believed any plan to increase women’s 
representation was desirable because more women in the legislatures 

6 Letter from Dr. Reddi (February 13, 1933), AIWC Files, no. 95. 

6 Rameshwari Nehru to M. Reddi (March 1933), AIWC Files, no. 95. 

6 Letter from Mrs. Huidekoper to Rani Rajwade (May 20, 1933), AIWC Files, no. 37; letter 
from A. Kemcharar to Hon’ble Organizing Secretary of the AIWC (May 31, 1933), AIWC 
Files, no. 34. 

6 Stri Dharma, 16 ( September 1933) p. 549; “Memorandum II on the Status of Women in 
the Proposed New Constitution of India,” addressed to the members of the Joint Select 
Committee, June 1933, pamphlet, Suffrage, FC; Minutes of Evidence given before the Joint 
Select Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform, 1934, Parliamentary Papers, 1932-3, 
vol. viii (ic), pp. 1617-22. 

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would lead to social reform. Second, they assumed universal adult fran- 
chise was only a few years away.” These British women advised their 
Indian “sisters” to drop the demand for universal franchise and accept 
reservations and other special schemes. 

Muthulakshmi Reddy and her colleagues thought through their 
position very carefully. Muthulakshmi knew adult franchise was 
doomed from the beginning, but she no longer had illusions about the 
benevolence of the British. She based her demand for adult franchise 
not on political expediency but morality; “our cause is righteous,” 
Muthulakshmi wrote, and “in the end it will prevail.”®” She informed 
Rathbone the wifehood vote was not the answer because Indian wives 
were not like English wives. English wives had more education, but 
also, “your marriage laws never allowed polygamy nor gave unlimited 
power to the husband over the body and soul of the wife.” 
Muthulakshmi believed the net effect of enfranchising wives of prop- 
erty owners would be to double the vote of conservative, orthodox 
men “generally opposed to all reforms in society.” She found reserved 
seats equally unattractive as a scheme for bringing women into the 
political picture. At one time Muthulakshmi approved of this idea — 
after all, she was nominated, not elected, to the Madras Council — but 
she was appalled by the appointment of undeserving women. She came 
to the painful conclusion that just having “a woman” in a powerful 
position was not the answer and she would far rather have “one or two 
good women... in each council or assembly to represent women’s 
point of view.” Muthulakshmi concluded: “Women are still new to the 
public work here and unless we have chosen women of character, grit, 
and courage to occupy places of honor and responsibility, women 
cannot help to achieve much.Ӣ In the final analysis, she preferred to 
rely on petition politics and the expression of public opinion rather 
than fight for a few more women legislators. 

When they were in the last stages of preparing the India Act, the 
Linlithgow Committee decided to examine witnesses from Indian 
women’s organizations. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Muthulakshmi Reddy, 

and Begum Hamid Ali spoke for the AIWC, WIA, and NCWI. Mrs. 

6 Press Agency (April 22, 1933), RP, folder 8; British Committee for Indian Women’s 
Franchise Press Correspondence, House of Commons (May 5, 1933), RP, file no. 311; 
Rathbone to Reddi (February 9, 1933), RP, file no. 11. 

6? “Women and Reform,” The Hindu (February 23, 1932), p. 9. 

68 M. Reddi to E. Rathbone (March 31, 1933), RP, file no. r. 


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Sushama Sen and Mrs. L. Mukherjee spoke on behalf of the Calcutta 
Mahila Samiti and presented a memorandum from 450 women 
members of municipalities, District Boards and Taluk Boards in 
Madras (prepared by Radhabai Subbarayan), and another memoran- 
dum from 100 prominent women of Mangalore (prepared by Mrs. N. 
L. Subba Rao, Mrs. Subbarayan’s sister).®? Lady Layton, Sir Philip 
Hartog, and Mrs. O. Strachey presented the position of the British 
Committee for Indian Women’s Franchise. They all insisted on the 
importance of increasing the number of enfranchised women.”° 

The Secretary of State agreed the evidence was compelling. The 
Linlithgow Committee commented: “India cannot reach the position 
to which it aspires in the world until its women play their due part as 
educated citizens.” But they declined, ostensibly for administrative 
reasons, to give women that opportunity. Provincial administrations 
complained that too many voters, particularly women voters, would 
unnecessarily complicate the procedure. Moreover, they labeled the 
schemes to increase the number of women voters cumbersome and dif- 
ficult to implement. The final plan placated the bureaucrats. The com- 
mittee approved of a number of different programs to increase the 
number of women voters: wives could vote in some provinces, literate 
women in others, and the wives of military officers in still others. The 
Act also introduced special electorates for women.”! The India Act of 
1935 fixed the ratio of voters at 1:5 yet there were few women who 
regarded this as a significant victory. 

To many women it seemed as if all their allies had betrayed them. The 
British officials and administrators were interested in managing the 
woman question without challenging the status quo. British women 
tried to be helpful, but they were condescending and convinced of the 
efficacy of British rule. Indian males who led Congress agreed to com- 
promises without consulting the women’s organizations. 


As organized women gained experience in the public arena, they 
became more aware of their dependent status. When they sought leg- 
6° E. Rathbone to R. Subbarayan (May 27, 1933 and June 23, 1933), RP, file no. 5; Mrs. P. K. 

Sen, “Supplementary Memorandum on the Franchise of Women,” pamphlet, Suffrage, FC. 
70 Minutes of Evidence. 

71 Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform (Session 1933-4), vol. 1, Report 1934, 
Parliamentary Papers, 1933-4, vol. v1. 


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islative change, they became conscious of their subject status. They 
were excluded from new representative structures because they did not 
own property or were not married to men with property. Their educa- 
tion, experience with social work, agitation for the franchise, and 
involvement with the struggle for independence gave them a sense of a 
mission and confidence in their abilities. To be denied the same civil 
rights as men because of gender seemed unfair. Even worse, they real- 
ized that without these rights they would find it difficult to secure 
reform measures in the future. In 1934 the AIWC, disappointed with 
the Sarda Act and the proposed India Act, asked the government to 
appoint an all-India commission to consider the legal disabilities of 
women. The issues they specified for study were inheritance, marriage, 
and the guardianship of children. Their ultimate goal was new law.” 
The appeal came from ideas contained in a pamphlet: Legal Disabilities 
of Indian Women: A Plea for a Commission of Enquiry, authored by 
Renuka Ray, legal secretary of the AIWC.” Renuka Ray argued in 
favor of new laws for all women, regardless of community. The legal 
position of Indian women was “one of the most inequitable in the 
world today,” she wrote. Legal change would both alleviate the suffer- 
ing of individual women and allow India to join the modern and pro- 
gressive states of the world. Ray wanted new personal and family law 
that would make women independent and fully equipped to participate 
in public life. The AIWC said boldly: “we want no sex war”; they were 
demanding equality to allow women to play a role in the affairs of the 
country, not equality of the “Western variety.””* 

Assembly bills introduced in the 1930s suggested a piecemeal 
approach to improving women’s status. Among the measures intro- 
duced between 1937 and 1938 were the Hindu Woman’s Right to 
Property Bill, an amendment to the Child Marriage Restraint Act, a bill 
to allow intercaste marriage, the Hindu Woman’s Right to Divorce Act, 
the Muslim Personal Law Bill, the Prevention of Polygamy Bill, and the 
Muslim Women’s Right to Divorce Bill. In the provincial legislatures 
anti-dowry bills, marriage laws, and bills to allow women to inherit 
were introduced. 

The new legislatures formed after the elections of 1937 included a 

72 Annual Report, AIWC Ninth Session, 1934, Karachi, pp. 17-31, 70-1. 

73 Renuka Ray, “Legal Disabilities of Indian Women,” reprint from MR (November 1934); 
“Women’s Movement in India,” Manchester Guardian, (August 15, 1935), AIWC Files, no. 
84. 74 Annual Report, AIWC, Tenth Session, 1935. 


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number of progressive men who recognized women’s contribution to 
the nationalist movement and were aware of women’s issues. At the 
same time India’s visibility in international organizations increased. 
Reformers in the legislatures wanted progress at home, but they were 
equally concerned with India’s image in the League of Nations and 
International Labor Organization. 

When these bills were discussed it became apparent that male 
reformers and the women’s organizations had different concepts of 
women’s legal needs. G. V. Deshmukh introduced the Hindu Woman’s 
Right to Property Bill to remove “the existing disabilities from which 
Hindu women suffer.” Actually, all he proposed was an equal share for 
wives and daughters with male heirs if the head of the family died intes- 
tate.”> Women’s organizations agreed to support this bill despite their 
reservations. Members of the Bhagini Samaj, a Bombay women’s 
organization, wrote a memo to the government suggesting a new law 
of succession “where the female heirs will come as heirs according to 
modern notions.””° Muthulakshmi Reddy commented that a more 
pressing problem than inheritance was intolerance of independent 
women. She advocated a return to the morality of the past where both 
men and women exercised self-control. In her utopia mature females 
lived alone, supported themselves, and made their own decisions about 
marriage.’”” Commenting on a divorce bill, Mrs. Damle of Yeotmal said 
this would not help women. Women did not need divorce, they needed 
economic independence and more power so they could prevent their 
husbands from taking second wives.’® These reform-minded women 
were not satisfied with piecemeal acts; they wanted comprehensive 
legislation accompanied by social and economic change. 

Male opposition to even moderate reform remained strong. Some 
men based their disapproval on the sanctity of religious beliefs and 
practices: customs and behaviors supported by Hindu law were 
unalterable. Others raised the fear that legislation would bring chaos. 
What sensible governing body would want to create “havoc in the 
household,” they asked. Still others focused on women’s nature and 
said Hindu women were not suited for public life. Some men decided 

75 “The Hindu Woman’s Right to Property Act, 1937,” GOI, Home Dept. Judicial 1938, file 
no. 28/25/38. 

7 Letter to Secretary/Govt. of Bombay/Home Dept. from Bhagini Samaj (July 3, 1936), 
Hansa Mehta Papers, folder no. 119, file no. 2, NMML. 

7” M. Reddi, “A Plea for Marriage Reform,” ISR, 46 (August, 1936), p. 790. 

78 GOI, Home Department, Judicial and K.W. 1938, file no. 28/9/38, p. 16. 


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to speak for women, declaring how happy the women they knew were 
with the current situation. 

We do not know what the majority of women wanted and neither the 
reformers nor their opponents tried to find out. Instead, each argument 
was advanced as the view of “thousands,” “the majority of educated 
people,” “the multitude,” or “99 percent of the people.” Government 
files are equally uninformative since they include only solicited opin- 
ions from male-dominated associations and organizations with conser- 
vative social and political agendas. 

Women who advocated equal rights decided to support every law 
that seemed progressive. Gandhi, although he wanted to improve 
women’s status, disagreed with these tactics. Instead of supporting each 
and every measure for reform, Gandhi urged women activists to spend 
their time in the villages learning about local customs. In doing so they 
would understand that legal changes were irrelevant for most rural 

The Indian National Congress proved an equally difficult ally. Only 
a few Congress members agreed that women’s legal rights deserved the 
highest priority. Women reminded their male colleagues they had 
marched, demonstrated and gone to jail for the country. Now, they 
asserted, “It is our birthright to demand equitable adjustment of Hindu 
law regarding women’s rights according to the requirements of present 
conditions of our society.””? Jawaharlal Nehru supported women’s 
participation in public life but privileged agrarian reform over family 
law reform and was completely against collaborating with the British 
to gain women’s rights legislation.8° His comments and those of other 
Congressmen did not deter women; rather women regarded these com- 
ments as evidence that some of their so-called “friends” were intract- 
ably opposed to any changes in women’s status. 

It was in this context that Sri Jinaraja Hedge, a member of the Central 
Assembly, moved the resolution to set up a committee on the legal dis- 
abilities of women. The Muslim League replied they had no objection 
as long as the committee confined its enquiry to Hindu law. Congress 
members approved of a committee but warned against changes that 
might “upset the framework on which the Hindu social system was 
based.” The law member, N. N. Sircar, sensing the mood of the 

79 AIWC Files, no. 64 (215). 
8° Harold Levy, “Indian Modernization by Legislation: The Hindu Code Bill,” Ph.D. thesis, 
University of Chicago (1973) p. 220. 


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Legislature suggested the enquiry be limited to residence and mainte- 
nance.*! The women supporting legal change decided to throw their 
weight behind N. N. Sircar and take what they could get.*? 

Meanwhile, bills introduced earlier were defeated one by one. The 
debates shocked women leaders who were unaware of the opposition’s 
intractability. Begum Hamid Ali deplored the “utterly unsympathetic 
attitude” of the men in the assembly and concluded they were “afraid” 
they might lose half of their land, power, and money. Legal reform 
would not solve all women’s problems, but it would give financial 
security to some women who could live their own lives and care for 
their children.® Increasingly women couched their pleas in terms of 
human rights and spoke less often about the special contribution of 
women to politics. Women, Begum Hamid Ali said, “are asking for 
nothing more than just and humane treatment and to be liberated from 
their disabilities.”** 

The government agreed to appoint a committee of eminent lawyers 
to study Hindu law and make recommendations but the war and polit- 
ical disturbances caused them to delay until 1941. In January Sir B. N. 
Rau was appointed chair of the committee and asked to look carefully 
at the various bills on the Hindu woman’s right to property. When the 
women’s organizations protested, the committee received instructions 
to examine all questions of women’s property rights. But the request to 
add a woman to the committee was ignored.® 

Never before had all the women’s organizations worked so hard to 
support a measure. Other issues, particularly women’s franchise, had 
stimulated debate within the women’s organizations. Now they 
worked cooperatively to gather information for the Rau Committee. 
Questionnaires sent to the women’s organizations by the Rau 
Committee were distributed to their various branches and local leaders 
were asked to return them as quickly as possible.** Their efforts were 
rewarded by members of the Rau Committee who read this evidence 

"1 Annual Report, AIWC, Fourteenth Session, 1940, pp. 106-7; WIA, Twenty-Third Annual 
Report, 1939-49, p. 12, WIA Papers; half-yearly report of the member in charge of legisla- 
tion (February 3, 1939), AIWC Files, no. 214. 

82 Letter from Delhi Women’s League to Mrs. Sukthankar (April 14, 1939), AIWC Files, no. 

8 Begum Hamid Ali, presidential speech, Annual Report, AIWC, Fourteenth Session, 1940, 
pp. 20-1. 84 Annual Report, AIWC, Fourteenth Session, 1940, p. 80. 

8 Annual Report, AIWC, Sixteenth Session, 1942, pp. 36-7. 

8 Ibid.; NCWL, Eighth Biennial Report, 1940-2, Bombay, p. 9. 


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with special care. The final report, submitted in June of 1941, recom- 
mended two substantial innovations: codification of the law and “com- 
prehensive, fundamental and substantial modification” of the law.*” 

By 1941 the Indian National Congress was boycotting the legisla- 
tures. At first only Congress leaders were arrested and sent to jail, but 
by spring thousands were involved in civil disobedience. This pre- 
sented a dilemma for women who were both nationalists and feminists: 
should they cooperate with the Rau Committee to secure rights for 
women or join the Congress boycott? Congress had by this time estab- 
lished a National Planning Committee sub-committee composed of 
women and asked them to submit proposals regarding women’s place 
in a planned economy. And Congress had taken the first steps towards 
setting up a Women’s Department.*® 

One of the women caught in the middle was Radhabai Subbarayan, 
a Congress member, a member of the Central Legislative Assembly, 
and a long-standing feminist. Subbarayan was invited to work with the 
Rau Committee, but Congress asked her to refuse. Gandhi dismissed 
the Rau Committee as a government ploy to divert attention from real 
issues, but he did not ask women to boycott the committee. He sug- 
gested a compromise solution: women who wanted to work with the 
Rau Committee could do so as individuals but not as spokespersons for 
any group.” Mridula Sarabhai disagreed and insisted women put 
nationalist issues first. She admitted this proposed reform was the 
“equivalent to what a Temple Entry Bill would mean to Harijan 
workers” but urged women to stand solidly behind the non-coopera- 
tion movement.” Other Congress stalwarts, notably Sarojini Naidu, 
Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and Amrit Kaur continued to call for legal 
reform. Congress women in the Central Legislative Assembly, Mrs. 
Renuka Ray and Mrs. Radhabai Subbarayan, spoke in favor of the com- 
mittee’s work. 

When the Rau Committee’s report was released in 1941, the AIWC 
sent copies to its branches with instructions to hold meetings and for- 

7 Levy, “Indian Modernization,” p. 20. 

88 National Planning Sub-Committee of Women’s Role in the Planned Economy, All-India 
Congress Committee Files, no. G-23/1640; “Scheme of the Work of the Women’s 
Department,” All-India Congress Committee Files, no. Wd-2, 1940-2; Sucheta Devi, sec- 
retary, Women’s Department, All-India Congress Committee, “The Aims of the Women’s 
Department of the AICC,” All-India Congress Committee Files, no. Wd-9, NMML. 

8 AIWC, 1941, file no. 265. 

% Mridula Sarabhai to S. Kripalani, honorary general secretary, AICC (March 14, 1941), 
AICC Files, no. P-9/1941, NMML. 


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mulate supportive recommendations.” In May of 1942 the government 
published two bills framed by Rau on succession and circulated them 
for opinions. They were referred to the Legislature, considered, mod- 
ified, and again circulated. Two bills emerged in 1943: one on marriage 
and one on succession. Throughout the entire process women who 
were concerned with the issue of women’s rights remained supportive.” 

In January of 1944 a committee was appointed to formulate a code 
of Hindu law. They were to begin work in February and prepare a draft 
code by August of the same year. The Rau Committee was resuscitated 
with the addition of three new members including one woman, Mrs. 
Tarabai Premchand, a long-time member of the Bhagini Samaj and 
officer of the NCWI. Between January and March the committee 
visited eight provinces where they examined 121 individuals and repre- 
sentatives of 102 associations.” 

At the outset the committee said it intended to speak primarily with 
lawyers but would make special efforts to interview women and repre- 
sentatives of orthodox Hinduism. In fact, approximately 25 percent of 
the witnesses were women. But more significant than the number of 
women interviewed was the interpretation placed on their evidence. 
Unlike previous committees that dismissed women’s testimony as 
representative of the educated elite, this committee tended to dismiss 
the views of orthodox Hindus. In Bengal, where they met only women 
who opposed legal reform, they concluded that women favoring 
reform had been prevented from meeting them. Women who opposed 
reform were disregarded as parroting the views of their husbands.” To 
underscore women’s sentiment in favor of reform, the committee 
sprinkled women’s views liberally throughout the report. This created 
the impression that Indian women were well informed about legal 
changes and supportive of them. 

The Rau Committee’s final report masterfully blended two views of 
Hindu society. This document nationalized the women’s rights move- 
ment, claiming that it would be possible to combine the best elements 

| Annual Report, AIWC, Sixteenth Session, 1942, pp. 37-9- 

2 Annual Report, AIWC, Seventeenth Session, 1944; “A Note on the Hindu Law Code,” 
AIWC Files, no. 369; “All-India Women’s Conference Evidence Before the Hindu Law 
Committee,” 1943, AIWC Files, no. 314; NCWI, “A Brief Report on the Law Committee” 
(November 15, 1943), I. Premchand Papers; Mr. D. G. Dalvi, “Note on the Bill for the 
Enactment of the Hindu Code,” pamphlet (n.d.), Hansa Mehta Papers, file no. 32, NMML. 

% Dalvi, “Note.” 

* Report of the Hindu Law Committee, B. N. Rau Papers, file 11, pp. 7-9, NMML. 


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from the ancient Hindu texts with legal principles suitable for contem- 
porary society. In short, the committee was offering to rationalize 
Hindu law without claiming an intention to modernize Hindu 

The report was published in 1946, but not re-introduced for 
consideration until the Constituent Assembly had become the 
Dominion Parliament. Those women who worked to present women’s 
opinions did not regard this as a victory. They had compromised on a 
number of issues and realized they would be asked for more compro- 
mises before the legislation was passed. 


There are some studies that portray the women who fought for civil 
rights as puppets of the nationalist project and others that paint them 
as anglophiles with no understanding of their own society. Did these 
women exercise agency in choosing their issues and tactics? And if so, 
what motivated them? 

These women were educated and mentored by men but there were 
vast differences between the Mahakali Pathshala and Bethune College 
in Calcutta, and Karve’s school and Pandita Ramabai’s in Poona. 
Similarly, the social organizations educated women joined differed in 
ideology and activities. Bombay’s Bhagini Samaj, patronized by 
Gujarati women who spoke Gujarati at their meetings, had a different 
character from the NCW] with its wealthy and titled clientele, con- 
ducting their business in English. And the products of these experi- 
ences differed in temperament and commitment. It takes only a brief 
look at the correspondence of any of the women’s organizations to 
sense the strong personalities of the women leaders. They held their 
opinions firmly and changed them, not out of weakness, but because it 
was strategically necessary. 

In their effort to gain civil rights for women -— the vote and legal 
changes in particular — these women became petitioners to the British 
rulers. The rights they sought could not be granted by their menfolk. 
Nor could British women, only recently enfranchised and inadequately 
represented in parliament, grant them rights. 

British women took up the cause of Indian women as part of their 

° Levy, “Indian Modernization,” pp. 272, 335. 


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own feminist agenda but with a firm belief in the efficacy and value of 
British rule. They too were petitioners on behalf of Indian women. 
They genuinely wanted rights for Indian women but they also wanted 
credit for extending Britain’s civilizing mission. When all was said and 
done, they believed British rule served the interests of Indian women. 

The Indian National Congress was inconsistent in its support for 
women’s political and civil rights. At the time of the first franchise dis- 
cussion, the INC supported women’s demands. When the decision was 
thrown into the provincial legislatures, women continued to enjoy the 
support of Congress. At the time of the second franchise discussion, the 
INC expected women’s organizations to follow their lead. They left 
women out of the major discussions, yet counted on complete solidar- 
ity. When the women’s organizations emerged as a force to be reckoned 
with, the INC took steps to keep them in check. Women complied but 
grumbled behind their public documents. 

These campaigns — for the franchise and for legal rights - show 
women in an activist stance. They may have been misguided, acting out 
of their own narrow caste and class view of the world, but they were 
not puppets. They made choices in the final analysis to support the 
nationalist project, but they were conscious of what they were doing. 
The distinction is important because the historical record illuminates 
the complicated motivations that underlay women’s decisions. 

Experience taught women that the battle for rights would not be 
easy. Time and again they were forced to work for and accept whatever 
modicum of justice they could get. The franchise compromise and the 
Rau Committee’s report did not adequately reflect the views of orga- 
nized women. These women, naively, strove to achieve what they 
regarded as equitable and suitable for Indian society. But women’s 
goals were not salient in this tumultuous political environment. The 
members of the women’s organizations gained less than they had hoped 
for. Increasingly they began to define themselves as a minority com- 
munity with unique problems that could not be addressed through 
political channels alone. 


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Helena Dutt, a Bengali revolutionary, said “[we] were like caged 
tigers” in explaining how she and other girls her age leapt into educa- 
tion and politics.1| Women more conservative than Helena and her 
friends were told “the house is on fire” and they should come out of 
the burning house and help put out the fire.? From liberal homes and 
conservative families, urban centers and rural districts, women — single 
and married, young and old — came forward and joined the struggle 
against colonial rule. Though their total numbers were small, their 
involvement was extremely important. Women’s participation called 
into question the British right to rule, legitimized the Indian nation- 
alist movement and won for activist women, at least for a time, the 
approval of Indian men. 

Politics completely altered the goals and activities of organized 
women. Education, social reform and women’s rights appealed to some 
progressive women, but the movement to rid the country of its foreign 
rulers attracted people from all classes, communities, and ideological 
persuasions. Nationalist leaders deliberately cultivated linkages with 
peasants, workers, and women’s organizations to demonstrate mass 
support for their position. Women were amazed to find political 
participation approved of by men who wanted their wives to behave in 
the home like the perfect wives in religious texts. Manmohini Zutshi 
Sahgal, a freedom fighter jailed in Lahore in 1930, wrote about a woman 
who joined a demonstration and was arrested while her husband was at 
work. He sent word to the jail that she could not return home after her 
release. Manmohini’s mother, Lado Rani Zutshi, intervened on behalf 
of the woman. The husband said it was a great honor to have his wife 
arrested, but she had not asked his permission to leave the house.’ In 
the end, he accepted her back but the lesson was not lost on Congress 

1 Helena Dutt, interview (Calcutta, September 25, 1975). 

2 Latika Ghosh, interview (Calcutta, February 29, 1978). 

> Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, An Indian Freedom Fighter Recalls her Life, ed. Geraldine 
Forbes (New York, M. E. Sharpe, 1994), p. 78. 


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workers: women’s political work had to be conducted without a hint 
of social rebellion. 

The story of women’s role in the nationalist struggle is not simply 
one of marionettes who were told when to march and where to picket. 
First, the numbers of women who played some role in this movement, 
however small, far exceeded expectations. The nature of their work 
influenced how women saw themselves and how others saw their 
potential contribution to national development. At the same time their 
involvement helped to shape women’s view of themselves and of their 


Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya (1838-94) wrote the novel 
Anandamath (published in 1882) that portrayed revolutionaries sacri- 
ficing their lives for the Motherland. Bankim’s emotional hymn, 
“Bande Mataram” (“Hail to the Mother”) became famous throughout 
India. This call to save the Motherland was not a call to women to join 
the political movement but rather a linking of idealized womanhood 
with nationalism. In fact, a new journal for women, begun in 1875, 
stated: “We will not discuss political events and controversies because 
politics would not be interesting or intelligible to women in this 
country at present.”* The situation began to change after a number of 
Bengali women wrote to the Viceroy in support of the Ibert bill that 
would allow Indian judges to try cases involving Europeans. In 1889, 
four years after the Indian National Congress (INC) was founded, ten 
women attended its annual meeting. In 1890, Swarnakumari Ghosal, a 
woman novelist, and Kadambini Ganguly, the first woman in the 
British Empire to receive a BA and one of the India’s first female 
medical doctors, attended as delegates. From this time on, women 
attended every meeting of the INC, sometimes as delegates, but more 
often as observers. Attending with their fathers and husbands, their 
contribution was both decorative and symbolic. A chorus of fifty-six 
girls from all regions of India performed the song “Hindustan” in 1901. 
The next year two Gujarati sisters sang a translation of this song at the 
opening session. These educated and politically knowledgeable girls 

* From Banga Mahila, 1 (May, 1875), quoted in Meredith Borthwick, The Changing Role of 
Women, p. 337- 


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and their mothers informed the world that India was as advanced as any 
Western country in its vision of women’s public roles.> 

In 1905 the British partitioned the province of Bengal. Women joined 
men in protesting this division by boycotting foreign goods and buying 
only swadeshi goods, that is, goods produced in the province of Bengal. 
Nirad Chaudhuri has recalled how his parents decided to put away the 
children’s foreign-made clothes and buy Indian-made outfits. Later, in 
1909, his mother took a sudden and violent dislike to a glass water 
pitcher that survived the swadeshi movement and ordered one of her 
sons to smash it. Other women took a vow to devote themselves to the 
Motherland and observed it by every day setting aside a handful of rice 
for the cause.’ Still other women gave their support to the revolution- 
ary organizations. Nanibala Devi (1888-1967) was married at age 
eleven, widowed at fifteen, received some education at a Christian 
mission, and was finally forced to take shelter with her nephew 
Amarendranath Chattopadhyay. He was the leader of the new Jugantar 
(New Age) Party dedicated to violent defeat of the foreign rulers. 
Nanibala joined the party and acted as their housekeeper, occasionally 
posing as the wife of one of the revolutionaries.’ In this context, where 
public and private roles were sharply divided by both ideology and 
physical arrangements, women’s political acts were hidden from the 
British authorities. Women hid weapons, sheltered fugitives, and 
encouraged the men, their domestic roles providing cover for these 
subversive and revolutionary acts. The activities of these Bengali 
women sympathetic to the swadeshi movement were quite different 
from their representative roles in the INC. There the delegates 
appeared as the equals of men, but their true significance was symbolic. 
They sang in praise of Mother India and posed as regenerated Indian 
womanhood. In the protest movement against the partition of Bengal, 
women did not do the same things as men. Instead, they used their 
traditional roles to mask a range of political activities. While the public 
and the private continued to exist as distinct categories, usual defini- 


Aparna Basu, “The Role of Women in the Indian Struggle for Freedom,” Indian Women: 
From Purdah to Modernity, ed. B. R. Nanda (New Delhi, Vikas, 1976), p. 17; Bimanbehari 
Majumdar and B. P. Majumdar, Congress and Congressmen in the Pre-Gandhian Era, 
1885-1917 (Calcutta, Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1967), pp. 128-9. 

Nirad C. Chaudhuri, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (Berkeley, University of 
California Press, 1968), pp. 224-5. 

J. C. Bagal, Jattiya Bangla Nari (Calcutta, Vishva-Bharati, Bhadra 1361 [1954]), p. T5- 
“Nanibala Devi,” DNB, vol. 1, p. 446. 




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tions of appropriate behavior in each sphere were redefined and given 
political meaning. 


Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) returned to India in 1915 as the hero 
of the South African struggle. Soon after his introduction to Bombay 
society, he met women who belonged to women’s social reform 
organizations. He was invited to talk to one of these groups, composed 
of middle-class women, about the poverty of the masses. He told his 
audience India needed women leaders who were “pure, firm and self- 
controlled” like the ancient heroines: Sita, Damayanti, and Draupadi. 
Sita, the heroine of the great legend the Ramayana, followed her 
husband into exile, suffered abduction, and underwent an ordeal of fire 
to proof her fidelity. Damayanti, the faithful and long-suffering wife of 
Nala, was able to recognize her husband in any guise. Draupadi, wife 
of the five Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata, India’s other great 
legend, was wagered and lost in a dice game. When her new master 
ordered her stripped, the god Krishna recognized her chastity and 
innocence and intervened. These were heroines who had suffered at the 
hands of men but survived with dignity. It was these heroines Gandhi 
recalled when he told women to wake up and recognize their essential 
equality with men. Only when they appreciated the strength of their 
ancestresses, would women comprehend their right to freedom and 

With the end of World War I and renewed demands for self-rule, the 
government passed the Rowlatt Acts at the beginning of 1919 pro- 
hibiting public protest and suspending civil liberties. This was when 
Gandhi began to develop a program for women. On April 6, the day 
marked for a general strike throughout India, he addressed a meeting 
of “ladies of all classes and communities,” and asked them to join the 
satyagraha (peaceful resistance) movement to facilitate the total 
involvement of men.!° Within a week, hundreds of peaceful protesters 
were massacred in a walled garden in the city of Amritsar. Men, women, 
and children were killed in this brutal massacre, unmasking forever 
9 M. K. Gandhi, Women and Social Injustice, 4th edn. (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing 

House, 1954), pp. 45; Jaisree Raiji, interview (Bombay, May 2, 1976). 
10M. K. Gandhi, “Speech at Ladies Protest Meeting,” Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 

go vols. (Delhi, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 
1958~84), vol. xv, p. 89. 


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Britain’s “civilizing mission.” Gandhi called off the campaign but it was 
already clear that women had joined the fight against the British. 
Gandhi urged them to take the swadeshi vow to give up foreign goods 
and spin every day. India’s poverty, he explained, was caused by ignor- 
ing indigenous crafts and purchasing foreign-made goods."! 

Gandhi evoked India’s sacred legends, especially the Ramayana, 
when he asked Hindu women to join the political movement. Ina series 
of articles and speeches on British atrocities in the Punjab, Gandhi 
compared the British rulers to the demon Ravana who abducted Sita, 
wife of the righteous King Ram. Under colonialism the enslaved people 
were losing all sense of dharma (righteousness). Restoration of the rule 
of Ram would come only when women, emulating the faithful and 
brave Sita, united with men against this immoral ruler.’” 

Appearing with the Muslim leader Maulana Shaukat Ali at a meeting 
in Patna, Gandhi modified his message to appeal to Muslim women. 
Gone were references to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; now 
Gandhi asked women to spin and encourage their husbands to join the 
movement.'? On other occasions Gandhi told Muslim women that 
British rule was the rule of Satan and exhorted them to renounce 
foreign cloth to save Islam.'* 

Shrimati Ambujammal, one of Gandhi’s loyal followers from 
Madras, outlined how Gandhi touched the hearts of both Hindu and 
Muslim women. First, he explained to women there was a place for 
them in the movement, then he expressed his faith in their courage. It 
was possible to help the movement without leaving home or neglecting 
the family. “Do what you can,” Gandhi advised women, convincing 
them that every act counted.!> At the same time, he reassured families 
their women would not sacrifice family honor or prestige. Sucheta 
Kripalani credited Gandhi for his special attention to male attitudes: 
“Gandhi’s personality was such that it inspired confidence not only in 
women but in guardians of women, their husbands, fathers and broth- 
ers.” Since his moral stature was high, “when women came out and 

'! Gandhi, “ Speech at Women’s Meeting Bombay,” CWMG, vol. xv, pp. 290-2; “Speech at 
Women’s Meeting, Surat,” CWMG, vol. xv, pp. 322-6; “Speech at Women’s Meeting 
Dohad,” CWMG, vol. xvi, pp. 79-80; “Speech at Women’s Meeting, Godhra,” CWMG, 
vol. xvI, p. 168. 

2 Gandhi, “Duty of Women,” CWMG, vol. xvii, pp. 57-8; “Speech at Women’s Meeting at 
Dakor,” CWMG, vol. xvim pp. 391-5. 

'3 Gandhi, “Speech at Women’s Meeting Patna,” CWMG, vol. x1x, pp. 67-8. 

'* Gandhi, “Speech at Meeting of Muslim Women,” CWMG, vol. xx, p. 397. 

5S. Ambujammal, interview (Madras, January 19, 1976). 


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worked in the political field, their family members knew that they were 
quite secure, they were protected.”' 


The non-cooperation movement began with members of the reformed 
councils withdrawing from these councils. The next step was to 
boycott the law courts and schools. Congress accepted this program at 
a special session held on August 20, 1920. It was a victory for Mohandas 
K. Gandhi and promised a more active role for women than that 
offered by the swadeshi vow. Congress declared April 6-13, 1921 satya- 
graha week, and women interested in politics held meetings to show 
their support. At one of the several meetings which Sarojini Naidu 
addressed, women decided to form their own political organization. 
Rashtriya Stree Sangha (RSS), an independent women’s organization, 
required its members to join the District Congress Committee. 
Speaking to this group in August, Urmila Devi, the widowed sister of 
the Bengali Congress leader C. R. Das, urged women to be ready to 
leave their homes to serve the country. By November, 1,000 Bombay 
women were demonstrating against the Prince of Wales’ visit to India.'” 

In Bengal, events took an even more dramatic turn. C. R. Das, the 
most important Congress leader in eastern India, decided Congress 
volunteers should sell kbaddar (homespun cloth) on the streets of 
Calcutta to test the government’s ban on political demonstrations. The 
first batch of volunteers, including C. R. Das’s son, was arrested. Then 
his wife, Basanti Devi, his sister, Urmila Devi, and his niece, Miss Suniti 
Devi, took to the streets and were arrested. When word of their arrest 
spread, the power of this tactic was clear: a huge crowd of “Marwaris, 
Muslims, Bhattias, Sikhs, coolies, mill-hands and school boys” milled 
around until the police released the women. One man said he felt 
women from his own household had been arrested. The next day, 
December 8, 1921, the whole city was in commotion. As for the women 
from the Das family: 

they resumed picketing cloth shops and selling khaddar joined by numerous lady 

volunteers, especially Sikh ladies. Calcutta students came out in hundreds, joined 

16 Smt. Sucheta Kripalani, Oral History Transcripts, NMML. 

17 Gail O. Pearson, “Women in Public Life in Bombay City with Special Reference to the 
Civil Disobedience Movement,” Ph.D. thesis, Jawaharlal Nehru University (1979), pp. 


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the prohibited volunteer corps and marched out with khaddar on, seeking impris- 

On that day alone, 170 protesters were arrested. 

Gandhi immediately recognized the value of having women form 
picket lines. Writing in Young India he urged women from other parts 
of the country to follow the brave example of Bengali women. The arrest 
of respectable women was viewed as an appropriate tactic to shame men 
into joining the protests. Less predictable, and certainly not an intended 
outcome, was the way these arrests affected other women. At the All- 
Indian Ladies Conference in Ahmedabad, 6,000 women listened to Bi 
Amma, the mother of Shaukat Ali and Muhammad Ali, leaders of the 
All-India Khilafat Committee. These were Gandhi’s allies. Bi Amma 
urged women to enlist as Congress volunteers and, if their menfolk were 
arrested, to join the picket lines and keep “the flag flying.” ” 

Times were changing. Women from all provinces of British India 
stepped forward in response to Gandhi’s call. In East Godavari 
District, Madras, a group of women gathered to meet and listen to 
Gandhi. Smt. Duvvuri Subbamam, a woman attending this assembly, 
“jumped into the freedom struggle” at this time and resolved to form a 
women-only cadre of devasevikas (god-devoted servants).”° 

Gandhi’s appeal went beyond “respectable” women to women 
marginalized by middle-class society. He had a reputation as a political 
leader who believed women counted and had faith in their capacity to 
help the nation and themselves. Learning that he would visit Kakinada, 
also in East Godavari District, in April of 1921, a twelve-year-old girl, 
Durgabai (later Durgabai Deshmukh), wanted local devadasis to meet 
him. Durgabai was an unusually head-strong young woman. Married 
at age eight, she refused to live with her husband when she reached 
maturity. Her father and mother, both dedicated to social reform, sup- 
ported this decision and Durgabai gave her husband permission to 
marry a second wife.’! 

18 TAR, 2 (1922), p. 320. 

19 Gail Minault, “Purdah Politics: The Role of Muslim Women in Indian Nationalism, 
1911-1924,” Separate Worlds, ed. Hannah Papanek and G. Minault (Delhi, Chanakya 
Publications, 1982), pp. 245-61; JAR, 1 (1922), p. 454. 

20K. Sreeranhani Subba Rao, “Women and Indian Nationalism: A Case Study of Prominent 
Women Freedom Fighters of the East Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh,” paper given 
at the Third National Conference of Women’s Studies, Chandigarh (1985), pp. 6-7. 

21 We Greet You Brother, Andhra Mahila Sabha souvenir commemorating the Shasthi Abdi 
Poorthi [Completion of the Sixtieth Year] of Sri V. V. D. Narayana Rao, July 2, 1972 
(Hyderabad, Andhra Mahila Sabha, 1972), p. 3. 


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In preparation for Gandhi’s’ visit, Durgabai visited the devadasis to 
tell them about Gandhi and then asked the organizers if a separate 
meeting could be arranged. Congress officials jokingly replied it could 
be arranged if she raised Rs 5,000 for the Mahatma. The devadasis col- 
lected the money and Durgabai obtained permission to hold the 
meeting in a school compound. When Gandhi arrived, there were at 
least 1,000 women waiting to meet him. He talked to them, with 
Durgabai translating, for over an hour. The women listening took off 
their jewelry and added another Rs 20,000 to the purse. 

“Morally indecent” Bengali women were also touched by Gandhi's 
message. Manada Devi Mukhopadhyay tells in Sikshita Patitat 
Atmarcharit (“Autobiography of an Educated Fallen Woman,” 1929), 
of how she and other prostitutes joined in collecting funds for 
Congress in 1922 and in 1924 participated in C. R. Das’ satyagraha 
against the lascivious and corrupt Mahant of Tarakeswar temple.” 

As Gandhi traveled and spoke, he urged women to boycott foreign 
cloth, spin, and join in public defiance of British laws. At the same time, 
women’s organizations were petitioning the British government for the 
franchise. Gandhi responded that he knew all about the disadvantages 
of Indian women but the problem was not with law or religion but with 
man’s lust. Real change would come when both men and women began 
to view their relationships differently.” He advocated celibacy instead 
of legal change. 

Saraladevi Chaudhurani, Muthulakshmi Reddy, Amrit Kaur, and 
many other women who followed Gandhi did not abandon the fran- 
chise issue. They were impressed with his empathy for women, person- 
ally committed to his vision, but unwilling to give up their work on 
behalf of civil rights. Gandhi was able to live with their ambiguity. He 
wrote lengthy letters to Saraladevi urging her to study Hindi and 
prepare herself for a leadership role.** That she ignored much of his 
advice did not seem to bother Gandhi who found other women willing 
to listen to his lectures. 

Between the suspension of non-cooperation in 1922 and his resump- 
tion of a leadership role in 1928, Gandhi devoted himself to reconstruc- 

22 Sandip Bandhyopadhyay, “The ‘Fallen’ and Non-Cooperation,” Manushi, 53 
(July-August, 1989), pp. 18-21. The author notes controversy surrounding the authorship 
of this book. Some argue Manada Devi was a real person, others believe this was the work 
of a male author. 

23 Gandhi, “The Position of Women,” Young India (July 21, 1921), pp. 228-9. 
4 Letters from Gandhi to Saraladevi, from Deepak Chaudhury, Saraladevi’s son. 


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tion. During these six years he spoke to women’s groups about con- 
structive work, continuously reiterating that Sita was the ideal role 
model and spinning could solve India’s and women’s problems.” One 
of his goals was to persuade well-to-do women to learn about the 
conditions of rural and poor women. But he cautioned them not to 
neglect their own families in the process. 

Women followed Gandhi for different reasons. Rajkumari Amrit 
Kaur (1889-1964), a member of the Ahluwalia royal family of 
Kapurthala state, served as Gandhi’s secretary for sixteen years. She 
admired Gandhi for his fight for justice.7* Sushila Nayar (b. 1914), 
Gandhi’s medical doctor in his later years, said she became a Gandhian in 
1919. Sushila’s mother called him “Mahatma” (Great Soul) and told her 
young children about him. Sushila said, “I learned about Gandhi from 
the time I was a small child. Not having a father, he was something like a 
father to me.””” These were women who had exercised personal choice in 
choosing to follow Gandhi and they accepted his ideas judiciously. 

Other women followed Gandhi because their menfolk accepted his 
leadership. The women from Motilal Nehru’s family fitted this pattern; 
they became supporters of Gandhi when Jawaharlal and his father 
Motilal recognized his leadership. We do not know if Swarup Rani, 
Motilal’s wife, had any interest in politics but she welcomed Gandhi 
into their family and joined public demonstrations. Lado Rani Zutshi, 
the wife of Motilal’s nephew, jumped at the opportunity to play a role 
in Congress activities.”* With so few personal accounts available, it is 
difficult to guess at what motivated all the women who declared them- 
selves Gandhians and stepped forward to play a public role. 


Gandhi returned to politics in 1928 and launched a civil disobedience 
campaign that brought large numbers of women into public life. 
Women’s participation in the civil disobedience movement of 1930-32 
differed qualitatively and quantitatively from the early 1920s and won 
them a place in history. 

25 Gandhi, “Untouchability, Women and Swaraj,” 7SR, 37 (March 26, 1927), p. 465; Gandhi, 
“Speech at Women’s Meeting,” Coimbatore, October 16, 1927, CWMG, vol. xxv, p. 148. 

26 Amrit Kaur in foreword to Gandhi’s Women and Social Injustice, p. iii. 

27 Dr. Sushila Nayar, interview (New Delhi, April 6, 1976). 

8 Sahgal, An Indian Freedom Fighter, p. 15. 


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11 In training to join Gandhi: Bharat scouts, Allahabad, 1929 


Bombay women’s picketing and demonstrations from 1930 to 1932 
received more press attention than women’s activities in any other part of 
the country. The numbers of women marching were inthe thousands and 
their pickets were organized and effective. That Bombay’s women took 
thelead seemed natural giventhecosmopolitannature of thecity, its trans- 
portation system, and the presence of Parsees and Christians, both com- 
munities supportive of female education. The large Gujarati population 
found the message of their fellow Gujarati, Gandhi, especially appealing. 

The women’s political organization, the Rashtriya Stree Sangha, had 
remained under the presidency of Sarojini Naidu with Goshiben 
Naoroji Captain and Avantikabai Gokhale as vice-presidents. It stated 
its goals as swaraj and women’s emancipation. By 1930, the leadership 
and structure of the RSS were sufficiently developed for it to spawn a 
new, smaller organization, the Desh Sevika Sangha (Women Serving 
the County) (DSS) whose members were ready for action.”? 

2° BC (July 23, 1930), p. 4; booklet from Gandhi Seva Sena (Bombay, n.p., n.d.), pp. 1-3. 


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12. Portrait of Sarojini Naidu, c. 1930 


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Gandhi began the civil disobedience campaign in March of 1930 with 
his 240-mile march from Ahmedabad to Dandi to make salt in defiance 
of the British monopoly. The WIA specifically asked him to include 
women but he refused because he feared the British would call Indian 
men cowards who hid behind women.*° Nevertheless, women were very 
much involved and gathered at every stop to hear the Mahatma speak. 
The police reported meetings where there were thousands of women; in 
one case they estimated there were 10,000 women in the crowd. Gandhi 
talked to these village women about their patriotic duties: picketing 
liquor and toddy shops, boycotting taxed salt, and spinning and wearing 
khaddar.*' He noted that women’s patience and antipathy to violence 
made them particularly well suited for constructive work. 

Gandhi was constructing a new ideal for Indian woman that rewrote 
passivity and self-suffering as strength. Gujarati women living in 
Bombay responded to this message by forming an organization to plan 
and direct efforts to close shops selling foreign cloth.*? 

April 6, the anniversary of the Amritsar massacre, was chosen for the 
formal breaking of the salt laws. A front line of seven people, including 
two women, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Avantikabai Gokhale, 
were the first to step onto the beach, light fires, and boil sea water. 
Kamaladevi remembered that day: 

this was their [women’s] first appearance in any modern militant political campaign 
and I could hardly suppress my excitement at the enormity of the occasion and my 
own good fortune to be amongst the first... It seemed such a stupendous moment 
in my life, in the life of the women of my country. 

The crowds that appeared were larger than anyone had expected. 
The Bombay Chronicle reported “thousands of Gujarati women” mar- 
shaled at the Chowpatty Sea Face, collecting sea water in their brass and 
copper jugs.** In the heart of the city, women volunteers picketed toddy 
shops and asked owners to close their doors and patrons to leave the 
premises. Other women sold salt on the streets, while still others went 
house to house urging housewives to buy only swadeshi products.” 

30 BC (March 11, 1930), p. 1; BC (November 31, 1930), p. 15 Vijay Agnew, Elite Women in 
Indian Politics (New Delhi, Vikas, 1979), p. 39. 

31 GOI, Home Dept., Political, file no. 247/II/1930. 

32 “Speech at Gujarat Women’s Conference, Dandi,” CWMG, vol. xii, pp. 251-2; “Special 
‘Task Before Women,” CWMG, vol. xm, pp. 271-5. 

3 Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Inner Recesses/Outer Spaces: Memoirs (New Delhi, Navrang, 
1986), pp. 152-3. 3 BC (April 14, 1930), p. 1. 

35 BC (April 16, 1930), p. 1, (April 17, 1930), p. 1, (April 18, 1930), p. 1, (April 30, 1930), p. I. 


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13, Women brining brine to salt pans in Vile Parle Camp, Bombay during 
civil disobedience movement, 1930 

The DSS had designed and supervised this campaign. In the early 
excitement of activity, women flocked to join this organization that 
soon had 560 members. It was apparent many of these were “orna- 
mental sevikas,” for when pressed into service they lost interest. The 
number of active DSS members dropped to about 300.*° 

“Ornamental sevikas” were a nuisance, but the “wrong kind” of 
woman posed a serious problem. DSS leaders admitted being 
approached by “undesirable women,” but were clear they only wanted 
to recruit from the “good classes.” Goshiben Captain (1884-1970), one 
of the Oxford-educated granddaughters of Dadabhai Naoroji who was 
a founding member and leader of Congress, insisted that members 
should have impeccable credentials. She believed women of high status 
would elicit respect from the public. Goshiben warned women demon- 
strators to only perform actions that preserved their dignity and 
“innate modesty.” This would preclude marching side by side with 
women of “undesirable” character. She also vetoed “leftist” suggestions 

36 BC (July 23, 1930), p. 5; Report of the Desh Sevika Sangha, Bombay, 1930-1, p. 5. This 
report was given to the author by Miss N. J. Dastur, Bombay. 


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that women lie in the doorways of foreign cloth shops to deter custom- 

Goshiben’s concerns were valid; there was a real danger that women 
demonstrators would be equated with women of the streets and 
harassed as they picketed shops. Cornelia Sorabji wrote an article for 
the National Review charging the Indian National Congress with 
turning women out of rescue homes (shelters for women “rescued” 
from brothels) to join the civil disobedience movement. She claimed 
that 90 percent of the women political demonstrators arrested in the 
Punjab were prostitutes.** For women new to political roles performed 
in public spaces, these allegations were threatening. Women joined the 
political movement with the approval of their families, not as an act of 
rebellion against the predominant gender ideology. In the final analy- 
sis most politically active women chose respectability over solidarity 
with their fallen sisters. 

In May, with the sevikas already picketing, Sarojini Naidu was nom- 
inated to lead the raid on the Dharasana salt works. Sarojini directed 
the protest that began on May 15, 1930, was arrested the same day, and 
released. Her presence was symbolic both for Indian nationalists and 
British authorities. Many of her Indian supporters feared for her safety, 
but she told them: “I am here not as a woman but as a General.”*” 
Meanwhile, the local authorities knew everyone regarded her as a 
woman and were in a quandary about how to treat her and other 
women demonstrators.*° On May 21, Sarojini led the second batch of 
raiders, was again arrested, and this time sentenced to a year in prison. 
Her leadership inspired hundreds of women to emulate her bravery by 
marching in the streets. 

Demonstrations and picketing continued in Bombay until 1931 
when Gandhi was released from jail. During this time women proved 
their effectiveness in agitational politics. Merchants, faced with women 
picketing their shops, signed the pledge not to sell foreign cloth until 
an honorable peace had been arranged for the country.*! On the streets 
women joined men for flag-raisings and demonstrations. On June 23, 

>? Appendix 6, The Constitution of the Desh Sevika Sangha as amended May, 1931, AICC 
Files, no. G-8/1929; Goshiben Captain, interview (May 16, 1970), s-22, South Asian 
Archive, Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge. 

38 C, Sorabji, “Prison Detenus and Terrorists in India,” National Review, 102, no 6 (January 
11, 1934), CS Papers, Eur. Mss., F165/11, IOOLC. 3° BC (May 19, 1920), p. 3. 

© Dagmar Engels, “The Limits of Gender Ideology,” WSIQ, 12, no. 4 (1989), pp. 425-37. 

! Report of the Desh Sevika Sangh, 1930-1 (n.d.), p. 7. 


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1930, the police ordered Congress volunteers to leave the Esplanade. 
The volunteers refused. As the police advanced, the women moved 
forward to shield the men and were injured when the police charged 
the crowds. At the center of the demonstration was a seventeen-year- 
old school girl clinging to the national flag. When the police tried to pry 
her away from the flag pole, she shouted “I shall die first.” 

The Desh Sevikas organized a number of demonstrations that 
grabbed headlines and inspired women all over India. Processions of 
one to two thousand women, accompanied by their children, were not 
unusual at this time. Even larger numbers came to listen to speeches 
about swadeshi and freedom. The largest crowd celebrated Gandhi’s 
birthday and the release from prison of three of the most important 
women leaders: Lilavati Munshi, Perin Captain, and Mrs. Lukanji. A 
mile-long chain of women, led by sevikas dressed in orange saris and 
carrying placards, numbered more than 5,000. Crowds of 10,000 
assembled at both ends of this parade.*? These numbers could not be 
matched in other areas of India, but patriotic women everywhere emu- 
lated the spirit. 


Women of Bengal came forward at this time but their demonstrations 
were smaller and their activities more radical than those of Bombay 
women. Calcutta women made and sold salt, picketed cloth and liquor 
shops, preached the value of khaddar, and took processions into the 
streets. The capital city was also the heart of revolutionary struggle and 
women’s colleges became centers for recruiting new members. In dis- 
trict towns and villages women joined processions, wore khaddar, and 
hid fleeing revolutionaries. In this setting Gandhi’s influence was no 
greater than that of prominent local leaders. Bengali nationalism had 
always valorized violence and this ethos profoundly influenced the 
participation of Bengali women in the freedom struggle. 

The Mahila Rashtriya Sangha (MRS), begun in 1928, was the first 
formal organization to mobilize women for political work. Latika 
Ghosh, an Oxford-educated teacher, founded this organization 
because Subhas Chandra Bose had asked her to. Subhas, an extremely 
popular leader, was impressed with Latika’s ability to successfully field 
a women’s demonstration against the Simon Commission and insisted 

* BC (June 23, 1930), p. 1. ® BC (October 4, 1930), p. I. 


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she develop a women’s organization connected with Congress. The 
MRS had goals similar to the RSS in Bombay; they wanted to achieve 
swaraj and improve women’s status. MRS leaders argued that these 
goals were inseparable: until women’s lives improved the nation could 
never be free; and until the nation were free women’s condition would 
not improve. The first step to swaraj was the education of women to 
their double oppression as colonial subjects and inferior sex. 

MRS espoused a radical ideology but followed a mobilization strat- 
egy that constructed women as innately religious. Latika Ghosh wrote 
articles calling on women to wake up and take a good look at their 
country. India had been rich, now it was dominated by a foreign 
country, infamous for its poverty, and led by weaklings. “Recall the 
tales of our grandmothers,” she instructed her readers, and asked them 
to think back to the battles between the devis (goddesses) and asuras 
(demons). They should remember that just as the devis were losing, the 
fearsome goddess Durga appeared as shakti (divine energy) and the 
asuras were defeated. Then there were the examples set by Rajput 
queens who first sent their husbands and sons into battle and then pre- 
pared for their own death. Latika told her readers they were the shaktis 
of the nation and she issued this directive: “Every one of you must be 
like a spark which will burn down all selfishness, all petty dreams — pur- 
ified by fire, only the bright, golden love of the Motherland will 

In 1928 Subhas Bose decided to have uniformed women volunteers 
march with men in the procession to inaugurate the annual Congress 
meetings in Calcutta. He made Latika Ghosh a colonel and charged her 
with recruiting her own company for the parade. Latika enlisted 300 
women: students from Bethune College and Victoria Institution, two 
of the most important institutions of higher education for women, and 
teachers employed by Calcutta Corporation. Their uniforms consisted 
of dark green saris with red borders worn over white blouses — the 
colors of the Congress flag. A number of sensitive issues arose during 
the training period: would women march with men? should the young 
women wear trousers? would they stay in camp at night? Colonel 
Latika argued for the trappings of modesty, saris instead of trousers and 
no females in camp at night, but she stood her ground on the issue of 

4 Latika Bose (following her divorce Latika resumed use of her maiden name Ghosh and she 
preferred to be known as Latika Ghosh), “Mahila Rashtriya Sangha,” Banglar Katha 
(Ashwin, 1335 [1928]), p. 5; Banglar Katha (Jaistha, 1335 [1929]), p. 7- 


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women marching in the regular procession. She confessed she made a 
poor colonel, unable to stay in step or salute properly, but she wanted 
her female volunteers to appear as the equals of men in the struggle for 
freedom. She achieved her goal; observers reported seeing women in 
a new light: 

As the ladies clad in their saris marched past to the sound of the bugle and the 
beating of the drum, there could be traced not a touch of all the frailties that are so 
commonly attributed to them. No faltering, no hesitancy, no softness associated in 
popular minds with the womanhood of Bengal but chivalry written on every face 
and manifest in every movement. 

Calcutta women formed the Nari Satyagraha Samiti (NSS) in 1929 in 
response to the Congress call for women to be ready to serve the 
nation. Urmila Devi, one of the first women arrested for political activ- 
ity, was named president; Jyotimoyee Ganguli vice-president; Santi 
Das and Bimal Protiba Devi joint secretaries. This group had a core of 
fifteen to twenty women who were willing to picket and risk arrest. 
They were all Bengali women belonging to the three highest castes: 
brahmins, kayasthas, and vaidyas. They were educated, from profes- 
sional families, and had all observed some form of purdah. They chose 
white khaddar saris as their uniform.” 

Santi Das was a teacher who had set up her own school and she 
recruited her students and Calcutta Corporation teachers to NSS. 
Usually 15-20 women took part in NSS activities although occasion- 
ally 200-300 women marched in a procession. These numbers are not 
a good indicator of the impact of women’s political activities. Middle- 
class women, rarely seen outside their own homes, astounded and 
thrilled the general public when they appeared as satyagrahis. When 
twenty-two women were arrested for picketing in July of 1930, 
Burrabazar shopkeepers immediately closed their doors in fear of 
crowd violence. A few days later four women sat on bales of foreign 
cloth and prevented coolies from moving the merchandise. Had the 
police dared touch these women, the watching crowds would have 
exploded in violence. Instead, the police responded with gentlemanly 
tactics such as cutting off the water supply to the picket lines.*® 

At the same time as these women were picketing and joining pro- 

* L. Ghosh, interview (Calcutta, February 29, 1976). 

‘© “Rally of Lady Volunteers,” Forward (December 20, 1928), p. 7. 
47 Santi Das Kabir, interview (New Delhi, March 25, 1976). 

*8 ABP (July 24, 1930), p. 3, (July 26, 1930), p. 5. 


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cessions, other women were recruited by revolutionary organiza- 
tions. In some cases women, initially attracted to Gandhi, joined the 
revolutionaries because they craved action or were appalled by 
police violence. Kamala Das Gupta (b. 1907) wanted to join 
Gandhi’s ashram in 1929 but he told her she must first obtain her 
parents’ permission. Her parents would not allow her to go. By her 
account, she became depressed and in this mood read Sarat Chandra 
Chatterjee’s novel Pather Dabi (“The Right of the Way”). 
Attracted by his world of romance and heroism, Kamala spoke to 
her Jathi-fighting instructor,° Dinesh Mazumdar, who was a 
member of the revolutionary group Jugantar. She met his senior 
colleague and was given books to read. At last Kamala found what 
she had been yearning for, a way to sacrifice herself for India. She 
joined Jugantar.* 

Most of the women who became involved with revolutionary groups 
at this time were students. Revolutionary ideals have a natural appeal 
to the young but these young women had very little physical autonomy 
and were socialized to behave modestly. It is important to note that 
revolutionary activity was seldom their first political experience. Most 
of them joined secret societies after they had worked with women’s 
organizations and with Congress. 

Bina Das, the young college student who fired a pistol at Governor 
Jackson, is the most famous of the revolutionary women. Bina, her 
elder sister Kalyani, Surama Mitra, and Kamala Das Gupta first decided 
to form a student organization for the discussion of political matters.*? 
The Chattri Sangha (Association for Female Students) organized study 
classes, athletic centers, swimming clubs, cooperative stores, libraries, 
and a youth hostel. Because these girls were already accustomed to 
public life, Congress looked to the Chattri Sangha for recruits. 

When Gandhi called for civil disobedience in 1930, Kalyani led the 
Chattri Sangha girls in a demonstration outside Bethune College. When 
Nehru was arrested, these young women demanded the college be 
closed. Mrs. Das, the principal, ignored their demands so they went on 

© Pather Dabi, published serially between 1923 and 1926, was the first popular novel in 
Bengali on revolutionary activities. 

5° A lathi is a staff, often tipped with metal, used as a weapon. 

>»! Transcript of interview with Kamala Das Gupta, Oral History Project, NMML; Kamala 
Das Gupta, interview (Calcutta, July 12, 1973). 

°? Kamala Das Gupta, Swadinata Sangrame Banglar Nari (“Bengali Women in the Freedom 
Movement”], (Calcutta, Basudhara Prakashani, 1970), pp. 36-44. 


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strike.*? She summoned the police but they only ordered the young 
women to disperse. Later, at Presidency College, the police decided to 
teach these young women a lesson. Female students who threw them- 
selves in front of their male colleagues during a police charge were put in 
prison vans, taken to distant suburbs, and abandoned. The long walk 
home was meant to cool their fondness for demonstrations but private 
motor cars and taxis followed the police vans and brought the abducted 
girls back to Calcutta.** Finally, the British Commissioner, fed up with 
police ineptitude, ordered the imprisonment of women leading these 

“The time was ripe for the movement,” Kalyani wrote about the 
appeal of revolutionary ideology for women. At this time, older 
revolutionary leaders were losing control of their organizations. 
Formerly a few top leaders made all the decisions and members took 
vows of obedience and celibacy. Now younger members were unwill- 
ing to wait for orders from above; they formed new organizations, 
recruited women, and planned daring attacks.°° 

On April 18, 1930, the Indian Republican Army, a revolutionary 
organization led by SuryaSen, attacked the city of Chittagong. The police 
successfully counter-attacked within afew hours but this daring strike, as 
the Intelligence Bureau noted, had an electric effect on young people: 
Recruits poured into the various groups ina steady stream, and the romantic appeal 
of the raid attracted into the fold of the terrorist party women and young girls, who 

from this time onwards are found assisting the terrorists as housekeepers, messen- 
gers, custodians of arms and sometimes as comrades.*” 

In October of 1930 the British decided to apply special ordinances 
allowing them to search and detain individuals without proving rea- 
sonable suspicion. Rigorous application of these ordinances made it 
dangerous to join even peaceful demonstrations. In September of 1931 
the police fired on unarmed detainees held at Hijli detention center in 
Midnapur. Kalyani personally experienced police brutality when 

55 Kalyani Das Bhattacharjee, “A Short Life Sketch of Kalyani Bhattacharjee,” unpublished; 
ABP (April 17, 1930), p. 6. 

** K. Bhattacharjee, “A Short Life Sketch,”; Kalyani Bhattacharjee, interview (Calcutta, 
March 14, 1976); Smt. Kalyani Bhattacharjee, transcript of taped interview, from K. 
Bhattacharjee; ABP (July 17, 1930), p. 3, July 19, 1930), p. 3, July 23, 1930), p. 3. 

55 Engels, “The Limits of Gender Ideology,” pp. 433-5. 

6 Ishanee Mukherjee, “Women and Armed Revolution in Late Colonial Bengal,” National 
Conference of Women’s Studies, Chandigarh (1985), p. 8. 

5? Terrorism in India, 1917-1936, compiled in the Intelligence Bureau (GOI, Home Dept., 
1936, reprinted Delhi, 1974), p. 34. 


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arrested for addressing a meeting in Hazra Park. She was “locked in an 
underground cell without saris, bedding, or a mosquito net, and given 
only three mugs of water per week.”*® These experiences underscored 
the futility of non-violent protest. 

Whereas previously women had supported revolutionaries by 
keeping house for them, spreading propaganda, collecting funds, 
hiding and transporting weapons, and even making explosives, now 
they were directly involved in revolutionary acts. Santi and Suniti, two 
schoolgirls from Comilla, shot Magistrate Stevens to death on 
December 14, 1931. They had presented him with a petition to allow a 
swimming competition and when he went to sign it, they both pulled 
revolvers from beneath their shawls and fired directly into his body.°? 
Stevens died on the spot and Santi and Suniti were taken to Comilla 
District jail where they signed a statement admitting their guilt. Santi 
and Suniti wanted to become the first women martyrs and were angry 
to hear they would not be hanged but would instead go to prison. 

In February of the next year, Bina Das attempted to shoot the 
Governor of Bengal at the Calcutta University Convocation cere- 
monies. This well-educated Brahmo girl from a respectable middle- 
class family seemed an unlikely recruit to revolutionary operations.*! 
She also read Pather Dabiand admired Doctor Babu, the character who 
never lost his faith in revolution and insisted the old order must go even 
though pain and suffering would accompany its demise. In 1928, while 
marching with Latika Ghosh’s volunteers, Bina was approached by 
members of a secret society. She decided to join them and immediately 
began recruiting students for the movement. She decided to shoot 
Governor Jackson after a number of her colleagues were arrested. At 
her trial Bina spoke of the depressing effect of the accounts of murder 
and indiscriminate beatings in Chittagong, Midnapur, and Hijli deten- 
tion center. “I felt,” she said in court, “I would go mad if I could not 
find relief in death. I only sought the way to death by offering myself 
at the feet of the country.” 

In September Pritilata Waddedar, a Chittagong school teacher, led 

8 Bhattacharjee, “A Short Life Sketch.” 

59 Akhil Chandra Nandy, “Girls in India’s Freedom Struggle,” The Patrika Sunday Magazine 
(Calcutta, September 2, 1973), pp- 1-2. 

6° Santi Das Ghosh, interview (Calcutta, February 24, 1976); Tirtha Mandal, Women 
Revolutionaries of Bengal, 1905-1939 (Calcutta, Minerva, 1991). 

61 “The Case of Bina Das,” JSR, 42 (February 20, 1932), p. 387. 

62 Bina Das, “Confession,” in the possession of the author. 


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fifteen men in a raid on the Chittagong Club. The revolutionaries 
entered the club and began shooting, injuring ten or twelve persons and 
killing one elderly European woman. When the lights went out, the 
attackers fled. During the escape Pritilata swallowed poison and died 
about 100 yards from the club.® She left a testament: 

I wonder why there should be any distinction between males and females in a fight 
for the cause of the country’s freedom? If our brothers can join a fight for the cause 
of the motherland why can’t the sisters? Instances are not rare that the Rajput ladies 
of hallowed memory fought bravely in the battlefields and did not hesitate to kill 
their country’s enemies. The pages of history are replete with high admiration for 
the historic exploits of these distinguished ladies. Then why should we, the modern 
Indian women, be deprived of joining this noble fight to redeem our country from 
foreign domination? If sisters can stand side by side with the brothers in a 
Satyagraha movement, why are they not so entitled in a revolutionary movement?“ 

By 1933 most of the women revolutionaries were in prison. There 
had been between sixty and seventy women who had aided the revolu- 
tionary groups, and of those approximately forty were imprisoned.© 
They were patriotic young women and their aim had been to arouse the 
masses to action. Educated, knowledgeable about political issues, they 
also wanted to prove that women could be as brave as men.® In the 
rural districts of Midnapur, 24-Parganas, Khulna, Bakhergunge, 
Noakhali, and Chittagong women responded to the call to break the 
salt laws. There are many accounts of their bravery. Jyotimoyee 
Ganguli, a Congress organizer, traveled to the village of Narghat near 
Tamluk, and found about 300 women and 700 men waiting to hear a 
woman preach about “the great Ahimsa [non-violent] war waged by 
their Gandhiji against the Government.” The police warned her against 
speaking, but she turned to the audience and asked them what she 
should do. They asked her to stay and the police turned on the crowd. 
The women, who had been sitting on a bank behind the men, rushed 
forward in an attempt to shield the men. These men and women 
managed to hold the police away from Jyotimoyee who delivered her 

® Terrorism in India, 1917-1936, p. 50; Kali Charan Ghosh, The Roll of Honour, Anecdotes 
of Indian Martyrs (Calcutta, Vidya Bharati, 1965), pp. 483-4. 

6 Quoted in Mandal, Women Revolutionaries, p. 4. 

65 The numbers are not precise because of the secret nature of their activities. Some revolu- 
tionaries have never been identified as such. 

6° Geraldine H. Forbes, “Goddesses or Rebels? The Women Revolutionaries of Bengal,” The 
Oracle, 2, no. 2 (April 1980), pp. I-15. 

67 Miss J. Ganguli, “The Day of Crucifixion,” MR, 47 (May, 1930), pp. 621-2. 


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If the police hesitated to manhandle the students at Bethune College, 
they made up for their restraint when they faced rural women. Police 
violence against demonstrating women in Contai was so severe that 
Congress called for an enquiry. The findings were serious enough to 
merit special government instructions to the Bengal police to deal 
gently with women protesters. But police “gentleness” was usually 
reserved for middle-class women and tales of rape and mistreatment of 
lower-class women continued to pour in. The police were particularly 
vicious in Chittagong where the armory raid and the proclamation of 
a Free India by Surya Sen’s group had posed a clear threat. Because 
village people aided the fleeing revolutionaries, all villagers were 
regarded as potential enemies. According to one non-official report, 
Gurkha guards searched the home of Bipen Behari Sen after midnight, 
arrested his two sons and took them away for questioning, and then 
returned to gang-rape his daughter.” 

In this tumultuous environment, it was difficult to generate interest 
in women’s rights. Just as Congress had expected rewards for their 
loyal service during the First World War, women activists expected 
their male colleagues to turn their attention to women’s issues. When it 
became apparent that Bengal Congress was not particularly interested 
in these topics, women leaders called for a meeting to form a separate 
women’s Congress. In the first week of May 1931, Santi Das wrote 
letters to women members of District Congresses asking each to elect 
ten delegates. These women organized meetings, elected their dele- 
gates, and held discussions about social reform issues.”° 

When they arrived at the conference headquarters in Calcutta, the 
delegates were met by young volunteers wearing crimson khaddar 
saris, ushered to their seats, and treated to a speech by the grandmother 
of politics and feminism, Saraladevi Chaudhurani. In comparison with 
the district speeches, full of platitudes about Indian womanhood and 
their awakening during the civil disobedience movement, Saraladevi’s 
speech hit hard. 

Saraladevi explained why they needed a separate Congress for 
women. Women were treated, from their earliest childhood, as separ- 
ate and inferior. As girls they were denied sweets while their brothers 
ate their fill; as adults they were exploited by men for their own pur- 

® Engels, “The Limits of Gender Ideology, p. 434. 
6 Legislative Assembly Debates, vol. v1 (GOI, 1932), p. 3107. 
70 “Future of Indian Womanhood,” ABP (April 29, 1931), p. 6. 


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poses. Women’s needs, feelings, and point of view had never been iden- 
tical to men’s but men had shown no interest in understanding women. 
Now was the time to speak publicly about their status and join the 
world-wide women’s movement.”! 

Saraladevi acknowledged men’s role in bringing women into the 
freedom movement, but she doubted they really cared about improv- 
ing the lives of women. Women were rewarded with flowery speeches 
but not appointed to sub-committees and councils. Summing up 
women’s experiences with politics she said Congress “assigned to 
women the position of law-breakers only and not law-makers.” 
Women must demand equal treatment and equal status. United they 
would impress Congress leaders and perhaps even Jawaharlal Nehru 
would be moved to give the same attention to “teeming womenfolk” 
he accorded the “teeming masses.” Saraladevi asked why Congress had 
never conceived of an anti-brothel campaign, since prostitution was as 
harmful to women as alcoholism was to men. She concluded what was 
certainly the most forceful feminist speech of the 1930s with a call for 
legal, economic, social, and educational equality. She spoke to an audi- 
ence more conservative than herself and in their final session they 
reiterated the usual demands, rejected resolutions favoring birth 
control and equal treatment for women, and decided not to form a 
separate women’s Congress.” 


Women’s political demonstrations in Madras were less dramatic than 
those in either Bombay or Bengal. Women picketed and marched in 
processions but it was always difficult to mobilize large numbers of 
women for action. Support for the swadeshi pledge and for spinning, 
wearing, and selling khaddar could be mustered, but there were no dra- 
matic demonstrations of the kind found in Calcutta and Bombay. 
Madras women never joined the revolutionary movement, nor were 
they subjects of extreme police violence. 

The explanation for this rests with the nature of politics in Madras as 
well as the tactics of the nationalist movement in this province. First, 
there had been considerable debate within the Madras Congress as to 
whether or not to accept Gandhi’s leadership. There were many leaders 

71 “Srimati Saraladevi Chaudhurani’s Speech at the Bengal Women’s Congress,” Stri Dharma, 
14, (August 1931), pp. 506-10; “Women’s Congress,” ABP (May 3, 1931), p. 7: 
72 “Bengal Women’s Conference,” The Hindu (May 3, 1931), p. 9- 


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who did not support his plan. Second, Congress was seen as a party of 
the brahmin elite. Third, in other parts of the country women were 
especially successful in enforcing the boycott of foreign-made cloth. In 
Madras, C. Rajagopalachariar, a leading member of Congress, was 
more concerned with prohibition than with foreign cloth. Secretary of 
the Prohibition League of India and member in charge of the anti-drink 
campaign of the Indian National Congress, he regarded this as an issue 
that transcended caste and community and had the potential to unite 
people in a struggle against the government. Unfortunately, picketing 
liquor shops was one of the most dangerous forms of protest in Madras 
and deemed inappropriate for women. 

Smt. S. Ambujammal (b. 1899) was the only daughter of S. Srinivasa 
Iyengar, a brilliant lawyer and Congress leader. She was raised on 
stories about Gandhi in South Africa. Because S. S. Iyengar held tradi- 
tional views on sex segregation, Ambujammal met Gandhi’s wife, 
Kasturbai, but not Gandhi when this famous couple came to stay in 
their house. She joined the non-cooperation movement in 1920, began 
to wear khaddar and spin, but rarely left the house. Ambujammal’s 
dedication to the freedom movement was fueled more by personal 
issues than political interests. She was married as a child to a man who, 
by her own account, “had something wrong with him.” Ambujammal 
never went to her father-in-law’s home; instead, her husband came to 
live in her father’s home where he was supported and cared for by her 
parents. She dated her real entry into the movement from 1928 when 
she decided to form the Women’s Swadeshi League.” 

Members of the League took the swadeshi vow, spun a certain 
amount of thread each month, and spread the word about the value of 
homespun cloth. Ambujammal became president of this organization 
with Mrs. Jamammal (S. S. Iyengar’s widowed sister) as treasurer. 
Krishnabai Rau organized the Desh Sevikas (Women Serving the 
Country), women willing to picket, and Indirabai Rau (Krishnabai’s 
sister) took over propaganda. In the beginning this organization con- 
sisted of the officers and a few other women who met daily to spin and 
discuss the progress of the protest movement. When the call came for 
women to join the movement they went door to door preaching the 
value of swadeshi, organized swadeshi exhibitions, sold khaddar in the 

? Transcript of interview with Mrs. $. Ambujammal, Oral History Project, NMML; Smt. S. 
Ambujammal, interviews (Madras, January 19, 1976, January 25, 1976); S. Ambujammal, 
“Face to Face,” lecture delivered at Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras (January 22, 1976). 


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streets, and joined men in picketing.”* Women especially enjoyed 
joining prabhat pheries or morning walks when they sang freedom 
songs. In the early morning hours women, sometimes numbering in the 
hundreds, would walk through the streets singing songs of swadeshi 
and swaraj. 

Krishnabai Rau (b. 1906), a loyal Gandhian since childhood, 
responded to Gandhi's call for civil disobedience by resigning her posi- 
tion as lecturer in Crosthwaite Girls’ College, Allahabad, and return- 
ing to Madras. Well known for her leadership skills and ability to speak 
publicly (as a student Krishnabai had organized the Madras Youth 
League and given evidence before the Joshi Commission), she orga- 
nized the Desh Sevika Sangha under the aegis of the Swadeshi League. 
Dressed in orange saris and blouses, DSS women picketed foreign cloth 
shops with men volunteers. Standing at the entrance of shops, they 
stopped customers and pleaded with them: “India is already down- 
trodden. Please do not help in its further degradation by buying foreign 
made goods.””° 

When the police first moved against the demonstrators, they 
attacked the men but not the women. This only strengthened women’s 
resolve to join the movement against the British. A woman magistrate 

I thought to myself ‘What kind of justice . . . could I render if the cases were 
brought to me by the police who themselves were so cruel and corrupt?’ My mind 
began to revolt and so I resigned my honorary assignment . . . and joined the Desh 
Sevikas in the service of my motherland.” 

It was not long before the police began to treat women protesters the 
same as men. Madras women were among the first arrested in the 
country. Rukmani Lakshmipathy (1891-1951), accompanying C. 
Rajagopalachariar in his march to Vedaranyam to break the salt laws in 
1931, was arrested and became the first female political prisoner in 
Vellore women’s jail.”” At first no salt satyagraha had been planned for 
Madras but Durgabai saw this as essential for arousing support for the 
civil disobedience movement. She first wrote to Gandhi and then per- 
suaded Shri T. Prakasam to lead the volunteers. Knowing he would be 

74 “Independence Day,” The Hindu (January 27, 1931), p. 

> Smrutika: The Story of My Mother as Told By Herself, foie story of Shrimati Kamala Bai L. 
Rau, trans. from Tamil by Indirabai Rau (Pune, Dr. Krishnabai Nimbkar, 1988), p. 47. 

£9 Sravatiba, p- 48. 7 “Rukmini Ammal Lakshmipathi,” DNB, vol. u, p. 401. 


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arrested, T. Prakasam designated Durgabai “dictator” of the move- 
ment. Then it was her turn to be arrested.” 

At a meeting held to protest the brutal treatment of the satyagrahis, 
5,000 mill-hands began to stone the watching police. The police retali- 
ated by lJathi-charging the group, killing three people and wounding 
five.”? This event frightened both Congress leaders and women satya- 
grahis neither of whom wished to incite mob violence and/or provoke 
police retaliation. It had the effect of dampening the enthusiasm of 
women for mass demonstrations. 

North India 

In North India women from Allahabad, Lucknow, Delhi, and 
Lahore joined public demonstrations and shocked a public unused to 
seeing respectable women in the streets without veils. In these north- 
ern cities demonstrations occasionally attracted as many as 1,000 
women, but most of them were much smaller. They were dramatic 
events because of their unusual quality rather than their size. 
Leadership came from a few families, for example the Nehrus and 
the Zutshis, and most demonstrators came from schools and colleges. 
Unlike other parts of the country, women’s organizations were 
neither the training ground nor recruiting stations for politically 
active women. 

In Allahabad women from the Nehru family were important leaders. 
They made public speeches and went door to door urging women to 
join the movement. Swarup Rani Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru’s old and 
frail mother, emerged from a lifetime in the zenana to walk through the 
streets in khaddar. Her messages to women were simple and clear: if 
you love the Motherland, you will join; if you love my son Jawaharlal, 
you will join. One of the popular songs of the time for women was enti- 
tled: “Song of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Mother Calling for Participation in 
the Holy War.” Kamala, Jawaharlal’s wife, was constantly on the move 
at this time, demonstrating in Allahabad, speaking in Lucknow, travel- 
ing to Bombay, and taking a more active role than her health had pre- 
viously allowed. Her message was also direct: all must join, take the 

78 Durgabai Deshmukh, Chintaman and I (New Delhi, Allied, 1980), p. 10; “Lady 
Satyagrahis Welcomed,” The Hindu (March 11, 1931), p. 5; “Ladies Conference,” The 
Hindu (June 9, 1931), p. 9; transcript of an interview with Smt. Durgabai Deshmukh, Oral 
History Project, NMML. 

7? David Arnold, The Congress in Tamilnadu (New Delhi, Manohar, 1977), p. 125. 


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vow of swadeshi, and wear khaddar. If women united, the rebellion 
could never be crushed.*° 

In Lahore demonstrations against the Simon Commission were 
marked by violence. The police /athi-charged the demonstrators and 
struck Lal Lajpat Rai, the great patriot of the Punjab, who died a few 
months later from his injuries. When Congress met in Lahore in 1929, 
Sardar Bhagat Singh (later hanged for revolutionary activities) orga- 
nized the Lahore Students’ Union. 

Lado Rani Zutshi, the wife of Motilal Nehru’s nephew, and three of 
her daughters, Manmohini, Shyama, and Janak, led the movement in 
Lahore. Manmohini (b. 1909) was raised on politics. In 1929, as a 
student at Government College (for men), Manmohini chaired the 
student reception committee welcoming Subhas Bose to preside over 
the second All-Punjab Student Conference. The same year she became 
the first woman president of the Lahore Student Union and served as a 
volunteer at the Lahore Congress.*! 

The atmosphere was already charged with patriotic fervor when the 
announcement of civil disobedience gave these young people a focus. 
Speaking to students Jawaharlal suggested they go to the banks of the 
Ravi river and symbolically “make salt” and then concentrate on pick- 
eting foreign cloth and liquor shops. Bimla Luthra recalled her reaction 
and that of her friends when they listened to Jawaharlal: 

We girls were completely bowled over by him, not only because he was so hand- 
some, but also because he appeared to us to symbolize the spirit of rebellion against 
foreign domination at the political level and .. . the stifling conservatism and ortho- 
doxy which made us feel continually that we were an inferior class of people, good 
only for the home and kitchen." 

When Bhagat Singh and his comrades were sentenced to death, 
Manmohini decided to post women pickets at three colleges in Lahore: 
Government College, Law College, and Forman Christian College. It 
was a wildly successful demonstration as men students absented them- 
selves from classes to cheer the young women. As the excitement 
mounted, so did police tempers. By 2.30 in the afternoon sixteen 

8° Geeta Anand, “Appeal of the Indian Nationalist Movement to Women,” senior thesis, 
Dartmouth College (1989); ABP (April 20, 1930), p. 6, (November 7, 1930), p. 4, 
(November 23, 1930), p. 5; BC (July 14, 1930), p. 4, (November 7, 1930), p. 1, (December 
1, 1930), p. 1, January 3, 1931), p. 1; The Tribune (August 7, 1930), p. 9. 

81 Sahgal, An Indian Freedom Fighter, ch. 5. 

82 Bimla Luthra, “Nehru’s Vision of Indian Society and the Place of Women in it,” unpub- 
lished paper (n.d.), NMML. 


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women and thirty-five men were arrested. Manmohini wrote of her 

We were excited and enthusiastic about being taken to prison. We felt as if a great 
honor had been conferred on us. We shouted slogans and sang national songs while 
waiting for the formalities to be completed. In fact, the three of us, my sisters and 
I, dearly hoped to be imprisoned three times so we would be termed “habitual 

She was sentenced to six months imprisonment and served the first of 
her three incarcerations. 

In Delhi, Satyavati Devi, the granddaughter of Swami 
Shraddhanand, became one of the leaders. The Swami, or Munshi Ram 
as he was known in his earlier years, was deeply influenced by Swami 
Dayananda, converted to the Arya Samaj, and worked with his 
brother-in-law Lala Devraj of Jullundar to promote female education. 
It was after he moved to Delhi in 1918 that he joined the political move- 
ment and won fame for his leadership of non-violent demonstrations.** 
When Satyavati Devi spoke to women, she reminded them of her 
lineage and urged them to join her in making personal sacrifices for the 
nation. She explained her commitment: 

I am Swami Shardhanand’s [sic] granddaughter and Dhani Ram advocate’s daugh- 
ter and I have two little children. Ordinarily my place was in my home. But at a 
time when my motherland is passing through [a] life and death struggle, I am one 
of millions of India’s women and only one of thousands of Delhi’s women who 
have left their hearth and home and their traditional seclusion [to] muster under 
Mahatma Gandhi’s standard to fight. 

Take to the field, Satyavati Devi told women, because foreign domina- 
tion is unbearable. Judging her impassioned speeches inflammatory, the 
authorities moved quickly: they arrested and imprisoned Satyavati 
Devi, released her, re-arrested her, and finally sentenced her to two 
years imprisonment in 1932. From prison came songs such as 
“Satyavati’s Message from Jail” urging women forward: 

Jump into the burning fire, 

And stand firm in the holy war, 

Do not retreat from the battle, 

So says Sister Satyavatiji. 
In the battle you must die before men 

83 Sahgal, An Indian Freedom Fighter, ch. 6, p. 73. 
84 “Munshi Ram Shraddhanand,” DNB, vol. rv, pp. 185-7. 
8 BC (May 28, 1930), p. 7. 


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Don’t be afraid of bullets or sticks, 
Move your head forward first 
So says sister Satyavatiji.% 

In prison she contracted pleurisy and then tuberculosis but continued 
to work with Congress throughout the 1930s.°” 

Women’s demonstrations in Delhi had a great impact on the men 
who witnessed them. The government’s confidential records include 
detailed reports of how women’s activities brought men into the move- 
ment. On one occasion Delhi women, dressed in red saris, blocked 
access to the courts. They were surrounded by male supporters who 
acted as a protective shield. On another occasion a crowd of Sikhs gath- 
ered at a Gurudwara in Delhi to watch a women’s protest. When news 
spread that one of the women had been killed by a policeman, the 
people rioted.®* 

The women were steadfast in the face of police attacks and astounded 
everyone with their bravery. Issues of women’s rights received little 
attention even though many of their leaders were committed to femi- 
nist issues. Kamala Nehru wrote and spoke about the “degraded plight 
of women,” and women’s rights; Vijayalakshmi Pandit worked for 
many years with women’s organizations; and the female students were 
inspired by an ideal of male-female equality. But these feminist ideas 
only permeated elite circles and when these leaders began organizing 
women’s processions, they became acutely aware of the strength of 
conservative attitudes. 

In the north, the political movement engaged elite women and 
women without any education. They belonged to two different worlds 
but they shared the burden of social norms that inhibited their auton- 
omy. Women leaders wanted to mobilize their less sophisticated sisters 
for political action and they knew this would be impossible without the 
permission of husbands and fathers. Therefore, it was expedient to con- 
centrate on nationalist issues and leave feminist issues out of their 
speeches. In prison, the practice of separating women depending on 
class background, and placing them in different sections of the prison 
with different food and amenities, mitigated against uneducated lower- 
and middle-class women learning the ideology of the elites. 

86 Anand, “Appeal of the Indian Nationalist Movement,” p. 41. 

87 M. Kaur, The Role of Women in the Freedom Movement (1857-1947), (New Delhi, 
Sterling, 1968), p. 196. 

88 “Civil Disobedience in Delhi,” GOI, Home Dept. Political, file no. 256/I/1930. 


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The role of women in the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s and 
the civil disobedience movement of the 1930s called into question 
Britain’s civilizing mission in India. Beginning in the nineteenth 
century, British rulers justified their rule by calling attention to the 
degraded status of India’s women. They regarded their efforts to 
provide education and medical care and pass laws to protect women as 
proof of their moral purpose. The involvement of women in the nation- 
alist struggle severely challenged the notion that the British were the 
legitimate rulers of India, and at the same time lent full support to the 
Congress as the rightful heirs to political power. 

The construction of the British as moral rulers was called into ques- 
tion by widely publicized accounts of their violent attacks on peaceful 
demonstrators. British mistreatment of women clashed with prevailing 
gender ideology and seriously undermined their self-proclaimed role 
of protector. The scriptures of both Hinduism and Islam praise modest 
and chaste women. The ideal woman, valorized in law, legend, and 
folklore, was faithful to her husband and untouched, sometimes 
unseen, by other men. Men who protected women were honorable. 

When Gandhi asked women to take part in the political movement, 
he instructed them to be like Sita. The British were the equivalent of 
Ravana (the demon abductor of Sita) and the world would not be set 
right until the moral rule of Ram (Sita’s husband) was re-established. 
These ideas resonated with his female audience for whom Sita was a 
living legend. Although not many girls went to school they were taught 
these legends in the home and even low-caste people learned them 
through folk theater and stories.*? 

From the earliest days of women’s protests the British were charged 
with brutal treatment of women demonstrators. In 1920 Sarojini Naidu 
accused the Martial Law Administration in the Punjab of grossly mis- 
treating women. The British expressed shock; the Secretary of State for 
India Edwin Montagu had his secretary reply: “Mr. Montagu finds it 
difficult to believe that anybody could for one moment have thought 
that such occurrences were possible.” In reply, Mrs. Naidu quoted 
details from the Report of the Enquiry Committee of the Indian 

8° Ambujammal, interview (Madras, January 19, 1976). 


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National Congress. She reminded Montagu’s secretary that “pardah 
[sec] is as sacred to the Indian women as is her veil to the Catholic Nun 
and forcibly to unveil an Indian woman constitutes in itself a gross 

During the civil disobedience movement accounts of police brutal- 
ity against women were epidemic. In Bardoli District, Gujarat, the 
peasants of the village of Badmani stopped paying taxes. The police, in 
their efforts to intimidate the villagers, beat many people. They locked 
one elderly woman in a house without food or water.?! In Bombay, 
three young women complained that the officer arresting them, 
Sergeant Mackenzie, and another police constable visited their cells 
after midnight and made indecent gestures.” Lilavati Munshi, a leader 
of the Desh Sevikas, made this incident the subject of a rousing speech 
she delivered to a crowd collected to congratulate Jawaharlal on his jail 
sentence. Lilavati challenged the assumption that Indian women had 
ever been the objects of British chivalry. They protect their own 
women, Lilavati reminded her audience, referring to a recent case 
where the government had spent several thousands of rupees rescuing 
a woman abducted by Pathans. But Indian women were not safe in 
their own country. This was not an issue for Indian men, Lilavati con- 
tinued, it was a women’s issue, and when Indian women joined the fight 
for freedom, they must always remember they were fighting a govern- 
ment that accorded them no respect.”? 

A huge rally was held in Bombay to protest the police decision to 
pick up women demonstrators, transport them out of the city, and 
abandon them in a jungle at night. Lady Jagmohandas called this action 
tantamount to rape: “No system of Government that insulted the 
womanhood of the country had ever succeeded and no people however 
meek and down-trodden would tolerate [it] for a long time.” Mrs. 
Annapurnabai G. V. Deshmukh spoke about Sita and Draupadi and the 
“religious belief of the Hindus that whenever a Hindu woman was 
harassed or insulted, the Lord came to her rescue and saved her honor.” 
Even the gods would recognize the moral bankruptcy of this govern- 

The heavy hand of the police was felt in the rural areas. Newspaper 
accounts and Congress reports seldom mentioned these women by 

°° M. Kaur, The Role of Women, Appendix G, pp. 259-62. 
1 BC (October 29, 1930), p. I. *% BC (October 30, 1930), p. 7- 
% BC (October 31, 1930), p. 1. %* BC (November 4, 1930), p. 4. 


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name, but reported their mistreatment as symbolic of British disregard 
for Mother India and Indian womanhood. For example, it was reported 
that in January of 1931 the police beat “women of Borsad” unconscious 
when they participated in demonstrations. Kasturbai Gandhi commu- 
nicated she had seen police grab women by the hair, hit their breasts, 
and utter indecent insults.°° The British authorities denied these 
charges, but occasionally the assaulted women pressed charges and the 
courts heard their cases. Following their arrest and detention for pick- 
eting a cloth shop in Benares, a group of women complained they had 
been stripped and beaten. The police denied the allegations and claimed 
this was a Congress plot; the judge agreed it was a phony charge. 
During the course of the trial, each woman who presented evidence was 
discredited in moral terms. Kulda Devi was revealed as an “unattached” 
woman, a maidservant by trade, and the “kept woman” of a Bengali. 
She was also characterized as a professional Congress volunteer. 
Munni, a widow, was described by the police as a woman who lived 
from the proceeds of a brothel. Charubala had left her husband and was 
living with Umesh Chandra; in the police records she was “a woman of 
loose character.” Khanto was a widow who lived in a house of women, 
Manorama was a widow, Shybolini was a widow, Gauri was a child 
widow who had drifted to Benares, and Bagola Devi did not have any 
fixed address. Dismissing the charges, the judge declared that these 
were the “flotsam thrown up on the streets, hardly the respectable 
women of India.”** Moral character, as defined by the British, was the 
touch-stone for judging the truth or falsity of the accusations. The 
British, like many of their Indian subjects, did not regard Indian 
women without male guardians worthy of protection from physical 
and sexual harassment. 

A more sensational event, although it involved only one woman, 
became known as the “thali-snatching case.” The thali, a gold chain 
worn around the neck, indicates that a South Indian woman is married. 
It is removed only after the death of her husband. Mrs. L. S. Prabhu was 
arrested for picketing in Tellicherry and sentenced to six months 
imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1,000. She refused to pay the fine so the 
sub-divisional magistrate, Mr. Dodwell, ordered her to hand over her 

% BC (January 26, 1931), p. 7, (February 3, 1931), p. 7- 

% “Allegations that the police at Andra, Madras stripped and flogged women arrestees. 
Enquires into ill-treatment of women volunteers by the police of Dasaswamedh [sic], 
Benares,” GOI, Home Dept., Political, file no. [V/1932. 


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jewelry. She refused and Dodwell, even though he had been warned the 
thali was sacred to a married woman, ordered a policeman to remove it 
from her neck. Mrs. Prabhu could not possibly allow a strange man to 
touch her so she asked her female co-defendants to remove it. The 
“thali-snatching” incident caused such a commotion that British offi- 
cials had to admit their blunder and restore Mrs. Prabhu’s thali.*” 
Official documents instructing police and magistrates how to deal with 
women had warned against the use of force and improper behavior. The 
chief commissioner of Delhi, John Thompson, acknowledged “an 
Indian government would be much better qualified to deal with it {a 
women’s demonstration] than we are, as they would be free from the 
odium which attaches to a ‘foreign government’ when it employs what 
is called repression.” 

In 1932 the Indian National Congress invited the India League of 
London to investigate charges of police brutality. The League accepted 
and their delegation, composed of two British women, one British man, 
and one Indian man, traveled to India to see conditions first-hand. In 
India they requested permission to see the jails and speak with political 
prisoners. Eager to discredit this delegation before its work began, 
British officials charged that it was dominated by “suffragettes” and 
denied it interviews with political prisoners. The delegation found sub- 
stantial evidence of violence, both in the enforcement of ordinances and 
in lock-ups. After citing reliable information that women had been sex- 
ually threatened, sexually abused, beaten, and raped, the delegation, ina 
masterful example of understatement, concluded: “Nor has woman- 
hood been respected as it ought to have been by the agents of a so-called 
civilized Government.”” The report of this delegation made it clear, to 
the British public as well as Indians, that the British rulers were not pro- 
tectors of women but rather perpetrators of violence against women. 


By 1934 the civil disobedience movement that began with the salt 
march was over. Women’s participation in agitational politics must be 
viewed, first, in terms of what it meant for the nationalist movement 
and, second, how these actions shaped the women’s movement. 

9% “Thali Snatching in Court,” JSR, 42 (February 6, 1932), p. 363. 
*® GOI, Home Dept., Political, file no. 14/4/1932. 
*° GOI, Home Dept., Political, file no. 40/XII, 1932. 


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The participation of women legitimized the Indian National 
Congress. Women’s activities validated Indian unity and satyagraha. 
The techniques of satyagrahis were designed to wrest moral authority 
from the Raj and return it to the unarmed, non-violent subjects. Even 
the British understood that this method had a special appeal for 
women. One official wrote: 

there is no doubt that but for them [women] the movement would never have 
gained the force it has had. It is due to them that the sympathy of many not other- 
wise likely to have been in sympathy has been evoked.!° 

The participation of women in the freedom movement also shaped 
the movement for women’s rights. Most important, it legitimized their 
claim to a place in the governance of India. Saraladevi Chaudhurani 
posed the question: “How can we attain rights?” and answered: “By the 
strength of our agitation. We must force menfolk to concede to our 
demands and at the same time carry on propaganda among our- 

Women won great respect for their political work and social benefits 
followed. In the years following the civil disobedience movement more 
and more women entered the professions, and some men learned to 
work side by side with them as colleagues. The legal structure for 
family law was reviewed, and efforts to modify it were undertaken. 

And there were psychological gains. The stories of what participa- 
tion meant can best be told by individuals. Ambabai, a woman of 
Karnataka had been married at age twelve. Widowed at age sixteen, 
Ambabai joined in picketing foreign cloth and toddy shops in Udipi. 
She was arrested and sentenced to four months in prison, released, and 
re-arrested. Between these prison terms, she made speeches, taught 
spinning, and organized prabhat pheries. Ambabai regards these as the 
happiest days of her life.!°* Although British officials dismissed the 
protests of widows, Ambabai’s story points out how the Congress 
program transformed her life from one of purposelessness and 
boredom to one of vital engagement and commitment. 

At the same time, the participation of women had some clear draw- 
backs. Those demonstrating claimed to represent all Indian women, 
but the number of groups involved, other than upper- and middle-class 
Hindu women, was never large. A few Muslim women were steadfast 

100 GOI, Home Dept., Political, file no. 25 3/30/1930. 
101 Tamil Nad Women’s Conference, Erode, Stri Dharma, 14, no. 12 (October 1931), p. 563. 
102 A mbabai, interview (Udipi, May 24, 1976). 


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followers of Gandhi; many more either found it difficult to accept the 
overtly Hindu ideological basis of his ideas or were neglected by the 
Congress organizers. 

There were distinct regional differences in the number of women 
who joined, in their relationship with Congress leaders, and the extent 
to which they synthesized women’s interests with nationalist issues. 
Bombay women were the best organized, the most independent, and 
fielded the largest demonstrations. Most of their leaders also belonged 
to women’s organizations and they articulated a clearly “feminist 
nationalism.” In Bengal women attracted a great deal of attention 
because of their militancy. Marching alongside men in the Congress 
parade and later joining the revolutionary parties, they became the sub- 
jects of folksongs and legends. Their peaceful demonstrations were 
fewer but they too attracted a great deal of attention in a society where 
purdah was widely practiced. These women espoused a feminist ideol- 
ogy but time and again put it aside in favor of the broader struggle. In 
Madras, where leaders were unwilling to use women’s talents, fewer 
women joined the movement. In North India, the Nehru and the 
Zutshi families provided strong women leaders who put the national- 
ist agenda first. One cannot doubt their grasp of the importance of fem- 
inist issues but their immediate concern was mobilizing women for 
political demonstrations. They did not think it possible to raise 
women’s consciousness about both politics and women’s rights at the 
same time. 

Most women leaders were unable to get beyond their own sense of 
respectability when they sought recruits. An exception to this of course 
were the women who joined the revolutionary movement. They 
worked closely with men, wore disguises, traveled alone or in the 
company of strangers, and learned how to shoot, drive cars, and make 
bombs. Even though they were valorized they were not regarded by all 
as “respectable” women. Gandhi called them “unsexed” and 
Rabindranath Tagore wrote a novel in which the sexual allure of the 
revolutionary heroine was used to recruit young men to the cause.’ 
The revolutionary women have described themselves as sacrificing all 
the things a woman wants — marriage, children, a home — for the 
country. No one, including the revolutionary women themselves, con- 
sidered revolutionaries representative of Indian womanhood. 

103 Rabindranath Tagore, Four Chapters, translation of Char Adhyaya (1934) by 
Surendranath Tagore (Calcutta, Visva-Bharati, 1950), p. 13. 


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The demonstrations organized by the women in cities did little to 
generate a feminist consciousness. They marched and picketed in sex- 
segregated groups, usually wearing distinctive orange or white saris to 
emphasize their purity and sacrifice. Their directives came from the 
Congress Committees. Rural women, unless they were widows, pro- 
tested with their families. Male guardianship prevailed even though the 
Indian freedom movement was not characterized by “patriarchal 
nationalism.” Women could “come out” because the house was on fire. 
The expectation was that once the fire was out, women would go back 
inside the house. 


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Dr. Haimabati Sen, a medical doctor in charge of the women’s hospital 
in Chinsurah, described her daily routine in 1895: 

I would get up every day at four in the morning, prepare a breakfast for my 
husband and the children, and go downstairs with hot water and edibles for the 
patients. I would first help the patients wash... I would finish this chore of helping 
them wash and give them a piece of batasa or candied sugar as their snack... Where 
there were children staying with the mother I would make some halua [semolina 
sweet] and give them small quantities of it. It would take me a little over an hour 
to attend to the patients and come back. I would go back home, have a wash, wake 
up the children, dress them, give them breakfast, arrange for my husband’s meal, 
get dressed, have something to eat and then go back to the hospital. This was my 
daily routine.! 

The labor of women like Dr. Haimabati Sen, as a medical professional 
and wife and mother, has largely been hidden from history. Memoirs 
rarely offer such rich detail about women’s work. Unfortunately, our 
sources on women’s work in the nineteenth and even much of the 
twentieth century are vague and unanalytical. The dearth of reliable 
data presents a serious challenge for historians attempting to probe the 
consequences of colonial rule for laboring women. 

In 1921, the year the non-cooperation movement began, over thirty- 
nine million women or one-third of the female population were in the 
workforce. Very few of these were professionals: there were 68,000 
medical professionals, 30,000 women employed in educational and sci- 
entific fields, and 6,000 women in law and business. By far the largest 
employer of women was the manufacturing sector, both in established 
mills and factories and in minor manufacturing such as vegetable oil 
production and tailoring. Domestic workers numbered 737,000.” In 
1928 about 250,000 women worked in factories, about 58,000 of them 

! “The Memoirs of Dr. Haimavati Sen,” trans. Tapan Raychaudhuri, ed. Geraldine Forbes 
and Tapan Raychaudhuri, unpublished ms., p. 220. 

2 Jaipal P. Ambannavar, “Changes in Economic Activity of Males and Females in India: 
1911-1961”, Demography India, 4, no. 2 (1975), pp. 362-4. There are small differences in 
other sources which also claim to use the Indian census. { assume the differences are a result 
of giving approximate figures. 


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in cotton mills and 55,000 in jute mills. Another 250,000 women 
worked in tea gardens, where they were 27 percent of the workforce. 
Seventy-eight thousand women worked in the mines.? The number of 
women employed in sex work must be have been significant if we 
accept the estimate of Bombay city’s prostitutes as between 30,000 and 
40,000 in 1921. The women who worked in agriculture and domestic 
production outnumbered all these categories but their labor was not 
recorded in the census. 

Significant numbers of women were in the workforce by the 1920s 
but work did not become a women’s issue until the 1930s. In 1929 
Women in Modern India, edited by Evelyn C. Gedge and Mithan 
Choksi, was published with a foreword by the doyen of women’s 
organizations and the nationalist movement, Sarojini Naidu. 

Sarojini Naidu called this book the “authentic voice of modern 
Indian womanhood.” It included fifteen articles, three on medical 
work, one on social work and one on women and the law. There were 
no articles on the conditions or demands of women working in the fac- 
tories, mines, or plantations. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, in the intro- 
ductory chapter on “The Status of Women in India,” wrote: 

Man has not questioned the woman’s right to enter any field of activity or any pro- 
fession although he held complete sway everywhere for many years now, keeping 

the women out and restricting their influence and scope of work by rigid rules and 

Time and again, women leaders commented favorably on the absence 
of economic competition between men and women. Sarojini Naidu 
expressed this in her “I am not a feminist” speech as president of the 
AIWC in 1930. A feminist, she declared, is one who admits “her infe- 
riority and there has been no need for such a thing in India as the 
women have always been by the side of men both in councils and the 
fields of battle.” Women’s work, Sarojini told her audience, is spiritual 
reform of the world.”? She wanted women to be politically active 
because they were psychologically and spiritually different from men. 
While Sarojini Naidu denied she was a feminist, I would call her ideol- 
ogy social feminism. By linking social feminism with nationalism, she 


A.R. Caton, ed., The Key of Progress (London, Humphrey Milford, 1930), pp. 155-7. 
“Bombay Prostitution Committee’s Report,” /SR (August 27, 1922), p. 2. 

> Evelyn C. Gedge and Mithan Choksi, eds., Women in Modern India (Bombay, D. B. 
Taraporewala Sons and Co., 1929), foreword. 

Gedge and Choksi, Women In Modern India, p. 4. 

AIWC, Fourth Session, Bombay, 1930, p. 21. 



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and her colleagues hindered the development of a radical feminist cri- 
tique of women’s work. 


Women’s new professional opportunities as well as their employment 
in urban brothels were a consequence of British domination. Colonial 
rule transformed the traditional economic system and in the process 
fundamentally dislocated the non-agricultural, village-based economy. 
The decline of the local economy and with it the demise of local small- 
scale services and industries left many women unemployed. Women 
had formerly participated in a wide range of small-scale enterprises; 
they processed food grains and oil seeds, made bread, shoes, pottery, 
nets, and ropes, raised cattle, and repaired various things. All these 
activities declined. In Bengal the female-dominated household indus- 
try of rice-husking was replaced by mechanized threshing machines 
placed in mills. When machines were introduced, men replaced women 
as rice-huskers. The new mills allocated menial jobs to women but 
norms of female seclusion precluded Bengali Hindu and Muslim 
women from accepting this employment.® 

The modern sector — the economic sector that emerged with colonial 
rule — provided women with new opportunities for employment. For 
example, the professions of teaching and medicine were now open to a 
few women. Factories, mines, and plantations employed significant 
numbers of women but under such harsh conditions it is difficult to 
view this employment in a positive light. 

Poor women often found employment in exploitative industries. 
Women leaders ignored this reality, focusing instead on education, the 
franchise, and legal rights. They regarded women from the higher 
castes who sought employment as victims of unfortunate circum- 
stances. The work of lower-caste women was taken for granted. 
Women leaders could afford their excursions into social work and pol- 
itics because they had supportive fathers and/or husbands. But they 
lacked the economic wherewithal to make independent decisions and 
were locked, often unconsciously, in behaviors and attitudes that main- 
tained class status. 

§ Mukul Mukherjee, “Impact of Modernization on Women’s Occupations,” IESHR, 20, 1 
(1983), Pp. 27-45. 


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14 Women weavers in Assam, c. 1900 

The members of the women’s organizations wrote and spoke of 
women’s and men’s roles as complementary. Gandhi’s references to Sita 
and Draupadi linked living legends with the social feminism of the 
women’s organizations. He did not want women to “go against their 
natures,” Ambujammal said, nor did he want them to blindly follow 
bad husbands. Gandhi urged women to emulate ancient heroines in 
their work for the country’s freedom. Satyagraha could also be utilized 
to reform bad husbands.’ Neither Gandhi nor women leaders envi- 
sioned women as productive, salaried workers. 

There is another side to this story. Conditions of female employment 
were of special interest to international organizations at this time. The 
League of Nations and the International Labour Organization sought 
to create standards that all modern, progressive nations would accept. 
Indian women, long affiliated with organizations such as the 
International Council of Women and the International Women’s 
Suffrage Alliance, were eager to play a role in these particular interna- 
tional bodies. 

° Ambujammal, interview (Madras, January 19, 1976). 


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The women’s organizations claimed they represented all Indian 
women; consequently they received requests from these international 
bodies for data about working women. To reply, they set up commit- 
tees to study the conditions of employment for women in factories, 
mines, and prisons. At the same time they were developing programs 
and institutions to improve the lives of working women. Inexperienced 
in this world of work, they taught crafts to destitute women and lec- 
tured laboring women on the importance of housework and family 
relations. India’s “new” women were learning about the plight of 
working-class women, trying to ameliorate their situation, vying for 
acceptance from international organizations, entering the professions, 
and establishing themselves as patriotic citizens all at the same time. 
Successfully balancing this agenda proved impossible within the frame- 
work of social feminism. 


In the 1920s and 1930s women’s organizations demanded educational 
and medical services for females. Separate institutions were required to 
deliver these services because sex-segregation norms prevented women 
from using institutions designed for men. Women leaders insisted new 
institutions be staffed by female professionals. The jobs created were 
for women much like themselves: educated, able to move about freely, 
and comfortable interacting with both men and women. 

Medicine was one of the new careers opened to Indian women in the 
Jate nineteenth century. Western medical training had long been avail- 
able to Indian males but it was not until 1885 that Lady Dufferin, wife 
of the Viceroy, established the National Association for Supplying 
Female Medical Aid to the Women of India or the Dufferin Fund. This 
association provided financial assistance to women willing to be trained 
as doctors, hospital assistants, nurses, and midwives; aided in estab- 
lishing medical training programs for women; and encouraged 
construction of hospitals and dispensaries. Wealthy Indians — mahara- 
jas, landowners, and industrialists — contributed to this fund and were 
rewarded with titles and special honors. By 1888 the government of 
India was supervising the work of the association and providing 
employment for women graduates. 

Kadambini Basu, one of India’s first women doctors and a beneft- 
ciary of this scheme, graduated from Bethune College in 1883 and 


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entered Medical College the same year. Shortly after entering medical 
school, Kadambini married her long-time mentor and friend, 
Dwarkanath Ganguly. Dwarkanath was a staunch member of the 
Sadharan Brahmo Samaj and an advocate of male-female equality. 
When the government announced a scholarship of Rs 20 per month for 
women medical students, Kadambini applied and was granted the 
award. In 1886 she was awarded the GBMC (Graduate of Bengal 
Medical College), instead of the more prestigious MB (Bachelor of 
Medicine) degree, because she had failed one part of her final practical 
exams. She established a thriving private practice and in 1888 was 
appointed to the Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital with a salary of Rs 
300/month.!° Later she went to Edinburgh and Glasgow for additional 

Kadambini was a successful doctor and a good wife and mother. 
There are accounts that attest to her personal supervision of the house- 
hold and devoted attention to her five children. Her interest in political 
affairs was such that she served as one of the first women delegates to 
the Indian National Congress. Despite these accomplishments the 
orthodox magazine Bangabasi indirectly called her a whore.!! 
Kadambini won a libel case against them but this attack was illustrative 
of the widespread antagonism towards new professional women. 

Anandibai Joshi’? (1865-87), a Marathi woman, also received her 
medical degree in 1886. She graduated from the Women’s Medical 
College in Philadelphia as their first Indian student and the first Hindu 
woman to study medicine abroad. Anandibai was married at age nine 
to Gopalrao Vinyak Joshi, a man determined to educate his wife. 
Accounts differ regarding Anandibai’s desire to study and all we know 
is that she advanced rapidly under her husband’s tutelage. She bore and 
lost a son at age thirteen and within a year decided to study medicine." 

In 1880 Gopal wrote to an American philanthropist in India asking 
him to provide for Anandibai’s education. This letter was forwarded to 
the United States and published in the Missionary Review. Almost 

'0 Malavika Karlekar, “Kadambini and the Bhadralok,” EPW, 21, no. 19 (April 26, 1986), pp. 
ws25—ws31; Karlekar, Voices from Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali Women 
(Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1991) pp. 175-82. 

" David Kopf, The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, 
N_J., Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 124-6; Karlekar, “Kadambini,” p. ws27. 

12 Her name is spelled Anandabai and Anandibai and Joshi and Joshee in different accounts. 

13 Mrs. Caroline Healey Doll, The Life of Anandabai Joshee [sic] (Boston, Roberts Brothers, 
1888). There is a fictionalized account of Anandibai’s life by S. J. Joshi, Anandi Gopal, 
translated by Asha Damle (Calcutta, Stree, 1992). 


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immediately, Anandibai was invited to study in America and offered 
full financial support. Before anything was decided Gopal, a postal 
employee, was transferred to Calcutta. Anandibai accompanied her 
husband to this “foreign” province where she was harassed for not 
observing purdah. In Calcutta she realized she had no choice: if she 
wanted to pursue her studies, she would have to go abroad. Anandibai 
explained her decision to a mixed audience at the Baptist College Hall 
in Serampore, February 24, 1883, at what must have been one of the 
earliest public speeches made by an Indian woman. It might have been 
easier for her to get an education, she explained, if she were a Christian 
or amember of the Brahmo Samaj, but because she was Hindu she had 
been verbally and physically threatened when she ventured out of her 
house alone. She told her audience she realized she could not pursue 
her ambition in India." 

Anandibai Joshi sailed from Calcutta on April 7, 1883, arrived in 
New York, and was taken by her sponsors to enroll in the Women’s 
Medical College in Pennsylvania. The climate, poor food and lodgings, 
and demands of her course left her ill and exhausted. At her graduation 
Anandibai told her cousin Pandita Ramabai that she would remain in 
Boston for a year to gain experience. Within six months she was seri- 
ously ill, had canceled her plans, and set sail for India. Anandibai had 
been appointed resident physician of the women’s ward of Albert 
Edward Hospital at Kohlapur but never took charge of her post. She 
died soon after reaching India."° 

Christian women were always more numerous in the medical pro- 
fession than women from other communities. Hilda Lazarus, born in 
Vizagapatnam (now in Andhra Pradesh) in 1890, was one of the most 
successful Indian Christian doctors. Her grandparents, both from 
high-ranking brahmin families, had converted to Christianity long 
before Hilda was born. 

Hilda studied first in her father’s school; then at a local college for 
her FA (First Arts); Presidency College, Madras for her BA; and finally 
Medical College, Madras for her MB and BS (Bachelor of Surgery). 
Following graduation she was appointed assistant to the obstetrician 

| The Life of Anandabai Joshee, pp. 85-6. 

') The Letters and Correspondence of Pandita Ramabai, compiled by Sister Geraldine, ed. A. 
B. Shah (Bombay, Maharashtra State Board of Literature and Culture, 1977) pp. 171-53 
“Dr. Anandibai Joshee,” JLM, 7 (January 1934), pp. 315-16; Maud Diver, The 
Englishwoman in India (Edinburgh and London, William Blackwood and Sons, 1909), pp. 


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and gynecologist at Lady Hardinge Medical College Hospital in Delhi. 
This was 1917 and Hilda Lazarus became the first Indian woman 
appointed to the Women’s Medical Service (WMS). Dr. Lazarus spent 
thirty years in the WMS, retiring in 1947 as its chief medical officer. 
During her career, she presided over a number of hospitals and set up 
several programs to train female doctors, nurses, and midwives.'® 

Discussing her early life and career, Dr. Lazarus remembered her 
mother and father as deeply committed to female education. From 
childhood she wanted to be a doctor. Any plans she had to marry ended 
with the death of her fiancé in 1913. A member of the WMS, Dr. 
Lazarus served in a number of different hospitals. Quick to pick up 
new languages, she made a point of learning the regional language with 
each new posting. Dr. Lazarus wore khaddar saris to advertise her 
admiration for Gandhi and sympathy for nationalist aspirations. Her 
main goal was to increase the number of Indian women professionals, 
knowing full well that European and Eurasian women had the advan- 
tage in obtaining scholarships and employment. Dr. Lazarus was 
extremely critical of the insensitive and inefficient schemes supported 
by the British medical establishment. Although she was Christian, she 
did not identify with the British.’” 

In the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth 
century, demand for women medical professionals grew. The demand 
came from: middle-class Indian women who regarded Western medi- 
cine as modern and scientific; the manufacturing sector mandated to 
provide medical services for their employees; and the government who 
demonstrated their “civilizing mission” by establishing clinics, hospi- 
tals, and dispensaries. Except in the most anglicized families, upper- 
class and middle-class women avoided male doctors and sought the 
services of women. For the very poor, medical care of any type was a 
luxury; but for women working in the organized sector — factories, 
mines, and plantations — laws mandated the provision of medical ser- 
vices. The supply of trained medical women never equaled the demand. 

Education for girls was respectable, but few parents wanted their 
daughters to go beyond primary school and only an infinitesimal 
number encouraged their daughters to become doctors. Moreover, 
most girls’ schools omitted science courses as too rigorous for female 

16 Autobiography of Hilda Lazarus (Vizagapatnam, SFS Printing, n.d.), pp. 1-5. 
7 Hilda Lazarus, “Sphere of Indian Women in Medical Work,” Women in Modern India; 
Hilda Lazarus, interview (Vizagapatnam, January 30, 1976). 


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minds. Miss Janau, the principal of Bethune College, observed that 
college girls became physically weaker with every year of study. 
Agreeing with her, another teacher characterized these students as 
inadequately prepared for their subjects. Consequently, they exhausted 
themselves trying to pass their exams. 

Once they had passed the necessary subjects, women had to find 
medical colleges willing to admit them. The Lady Hardinge Medical 
College for women opened in Delhi in 1916.'8 After World War I, in 
direct response to the demand for women doctors, scientific subjects 
were added to the curricula in women’s colleges and more medical col- 
leges accepted women candidates. By 1929 nineteen men’s medical col- 
leges and schools admitted women, and there was one medical college 
and four medical schools for women only.'? 

Attending a men’s medical college presented a distinct set of chal- 
lenges. All the female boarders stayed together, making it impossible to 
observe caste rules. Even young women who considered themselves 
radical freethinkers had to consider the grave consequences of break- 
ing these rules. With their degrees they might become successful pro- 
fessionals, but their brothers, sisters, and cousins could suffer the 
consequences of their acts. If they chose to live in private homes, they 
had to endure public taunts as they traveled to and from classes. 

These young women students had to guard their reputations. This 
meant avoiding unnecessary travel and missing the dramas, clubs, and 
other entertainments available to their male colleagues. Attending 
classes presented yet other hurdles. Muthulakshmi Reddy, like other 
women of her generation, was either the lone female in her classes or in 
the company of one or two others. Professors usually placed women at 
the front of the room, off to one side, or in some other way separated 
them from the male students. There were a few professors who did not 
allow female students in their classes and assigned junior assistants to 
lecture them.”° 

It is no wonder so many women failed to complete medical school. 
Muthulakshmi Reddy’s account of her years in medical college includes 
references to colleagues who failed their exams or dropped out. The 

8 Calcutta. University Commission, 1917-1919, Women’s Education (Calcutta, 
Superintendent Government Printing, 1919), p. 28. 

9 Dr. Hilda Lazarus, “Sphere of Indian Women in Medical Work,” Women in Modern India, 
p. 51. Medical colleges were able to issue university degrees. Medical schools, often 
attached to hospitals, were regarded as training schools and could only issue certificates. 

2° Autobiography of Dr. (Mrs.) S. Muthulakshmi Reddy (Madras, M. Reddi, 1964), pp. 12-18. 


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few survivors graduated into a world that held them in high esteem and 
offered positions with high salaries. Although the path had been 
treacherous, the professional rewards were significant. 

These women doctors faced a number of challenges as they 
embarked on their careers. First, it was difficult to combine family life 
with professional demands, yet society had little tolerance for single 
women. Second, they had to contend with sexual harassment. In 
Ahmedabad in the early 1930s the case of Dr. (Miss) Ahalyabai Samant, 
the director of the municipal dispensary of Nadiad, was reported in the 
newspapers. Dr. Balabahi Harishankar Bhatt, the municipal councilor, 
abducted and assaulted Dr. Samant. The district and sessions judge sen- 
tenced Bhatt to one year in prison hoping this would make it clear that 
women doctors were to be treated with respect. The chief justice of the 
High Court overturned this decision and simply fined Bhatt. 
According to the chief justice: 

If women engaged in professional work come out into the open world they must 
adopt the standards of the ordinary men and women of the world. They cannot 

expect to retain the hyper-sensitive notions of modesty which their ancestors in 
purdah may have possessed.7! 

Third, these women worked in a profession dominated by European 
and Anglo-Indian women. They received less pay and had to contend 
with racial prejudice. Gender discrimination was evident in salaries 
paid to Dufferin Fund doctors who earned less than one-third the 
salary of British or Indian men in the Indian Medical Service. But there 
was also a disparity between the salaries of British women and Indian 
women. Theoretically, salary depended on credentials but it was 
extremely difficult for Indian women to obtain the same degrees as 
their British colleagues. In Bengal, Indian women could earn the VLMS 
(the Vernacular Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery), a certificate 
obtainable without knowledge of English, but it doomed them to a 
salary less than one-tenth that earned by a woman holding an MB or 
MD degree. 

In 1907 British women doctors practicing in India formed the 
Association of Medical Women in India and proposed the formation of 
a Women’s Indian Medical Service modeled on the IMS. They stressed 
Britain’s “civilizing mission” in India, contending that Indian women, 
the forgotten citizens of the British Empire, wanted and needed 

21 “Professional Women and Professional Standards,” ISR, 41 (August 1, 1931), p. 761. 


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Western medical care. Since there would never be enough Indian 
women to meet the demand, it was essential to improve the conditions 
of employment to attract well-trained foreign women. In 1914 the 
Women’s Medical Service (WMS) became a reality. The WMS professed 
concern for Indian women professionals and offered to integrate them 
through a two-tier system of superior and inferior grades, but it was 
British women doctors who gained the most from this measure.” It was 
not until 1947 that an Indian woman, Dr. Lazarus, held the position of 
chief medical officer. 

Womenentering the professions of teaching and law faced similar prob- 
lems to those of medical women. Obtaining requisite training was often 
difficult as was the problem of certification. Many women studied pri- 
vately for exams. They were less likely to hold the degrees and certificates 
necessary for employment in formal institutions. Women like Cornelia 
Sorabji had attended the proper institutions and passed the required 
exams but could not practice law because of gender discrimination. 

Women professionals faced a range of problems. Those who worked 
in institutions for women and children were sheltered by the workplace; 
employment in institutions serving both sexes was more problematic. 
Women generally found marital status afforded a degree of protection 
yet they had to balance household demands with those of their profes- 
sion. Unmarried women, including widows, found it difficult to find a 
place to live and a way to protect themselves from sexual harassment. 
The higher their salaries and the more supportive their families, the 
easier these problems were to resolve. As a consequence, the accounts of 
women professionals vary markedly: some women were accorded a 
great deal of respect and met with few problems pursuing their profes- 
sions, others complained bitterly about the hardships they endured. 


The first cotton and jute mills, established in the 1850s, employed 
women, but accurate records are available only after 1911. It is esti- 

22 David Arnold, Colonizing the Body (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993), pp. 
265-6; Dagmar Engels, * “The Politics of Child Birth: British and Bengali Women in 
Contest, 1890-1930,” Society and Ideology: Essays in South Asian History Presented to 
Professor Kenneth Ballhatchet, ed. P. Robb (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 
222-46; “Rules for the Women’s Medical Service for India,” Thirty-third Annual Report of 
the National Association for Supplying Medical Aid to the Women of India for the Year 
1917, appendix III, IOOLC. 


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mated that approximately 100,000 workers were employed in Bombay 
textile factories in the 1890s. Twenty to twenty-five percent were 
women, three-quarters of whom worked full-time with the remainder 
employed seasonally or whenever production accelerated. Women 
worked cleaning cotton and winding and reeling thread but never as 
weavers.”’ There were about 14,000 women working in the jute mills of 
Bengal at this time. They too performed unskilled tasks and were 
subject to seasonal unemployment. 

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century factory legislation, 
designed to improve working conditions for women, received attention 
from many quarters. About the same time as Lord Shaftesbury was 
drawing attention to factory conditions in England, Major Moore 
wrote a report on the administration of the Bombay Cotton 
Department and Mr. J. A. Ballard, the Mint Master of Bombay, 
reported on the hardships of women and children in Indian factories. 
A seven-member government-appointed committee (all were men — 
three Englishmen and four Indians) reviewed the situation and by 
majority vote declared legislation unnecessary. When two of the 
English appointees voted in favor of regulatory reform, they were 
called “ignorant English philanthropists and grasping English 
manufacturers” and accused of trying to raise the cost of labor and 
thereby make Indian goods less competitive.** Despite local hostility to 
legislation, India had its first Factory Act by 1881. An 1891 amendment 
limited women to an eleven-hour day, and a 1911 Act prohibited 
women from working at night. The impetus for these changes came 
from England; within India there was no demand for change from phil- 
anthropists, reformers, factory owners, or workers.”° 

A series of international conferences, in Berlin in 1890, Paris in 1900, 
and Berne in 1905, all tried to define minimum working conditions 
suitable for all countries. The 1905 conference produced the first inter- 
national convention and the 1919 International Labour Conference in 
Washington, D.C. stimulated further conventions. The International 
Labour Organization (ILO), composed of the eight most important 
industrial states in the world, was established at this meeting. Indian 

23 Report of the Textile Factories Labour Committee (Bombay 1907), v/26/670/4, IOOLC. 

74 Janet Harvey Kelman, Labour in India (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1923), pp. 

2 J.C. Kydd, A History of Factory Legislation in India (Calcutta, University of Calcutta, 
1920), pp. 35-64. 


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leaders promptly complained about India’s exclusion from the newly 
formed League of Nations. In 1922, following a re-examination of the 
criteria for membership, India was granted the right to be represented 
at the ILO.” During the next decade the ILO recommended that India 
institute certain legislation to be eligible for a seat on the governing 
board. It was in line with these recommendations that Indian factory 
legislation was reformed. 

By 1920, women’s employment in Bombay cotton mills had declined 
from an earlier high of about 25 percent in 1911 to 20 percent. This 
decline parallels legislation to protect women and can be read as an 
employer decision to avoid costly medical benefits and restrictive regu- 
lations. There may also have been production changes that made the 
specific work done by women redundant. Retrenched women fought 
their employers with protests and strikes, but to no avail. Faced with a 
desperate situation some women offered to work fewer hours for lower 
wages so more women could keep their jobs. The trade unions vetoed 
this suggestion and women laborers found themselves replaced by male 

In Calcutta the jute mills in the 1920s employed approximately 
66,000 women, about 20 percent of the total number of workers. 
Women spun and carded jute and finished the jute sacks but they did 
not work on the jute presses. Hindu and Muslim Bengali women, their 
work performance hindered by purdah restrictions, accounted for only 
10 percent of the female jute workers. Almost 80 percent of these 
women were classified as “dependants,” that is, part-time workers. 
Ninety percent of the female workforce were migrant women from 
Bihar, the Central Provinces, Madras, and the United Provinces. They 
toiled in the mills for three times the wages of the Bengali women who 
did piecework within their homes.”* The decline of female employment 
in the jute mills, related to increased mechanization and the imposition 
of labor legislation, was discernible from 1930.7? 

26 Kelman, Labour in India, pp. 54, 222- 

77 Morris D. Morris, The Emergence oF ‘An Industrial Labour Force in India (Berkeley, 
University of California Press, 1965), pp. 53-68; Radha Kumar, “Family and Factory: 
Women in the Bombay Cotton Textile Industry, 1919-1939,” JESHR, 20, no. 1 (983), pp. 

28 Dr. A. C. Roy Choudhury, Report on an Enquiry into the Standard of Living of Jute Mill 
Workers in Bengal (Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Books Depot, 1930), pp. 6-7. 

29 Dagmar Engels, “The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, c. 1890-c. 1930, with Special 
Reference to British and Bengali Discourse on Gender,” Ph.D. dissertation, SOAS, 
University of London (1987), ch. 6; Kelman, Labour in India, pp. 80-9. 


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Women factory workers earned the best wages in the mills of 
Bombay, Ahmedabad, and Calcutta. In the 1920s full-time workers 
earned between Rs 9 and Rs 30 per month in Calcutta, and slightly 
higher wages, Rs 12 to Rs 34 per month, in Ahmedabad and Bombay. 
These were substantial wages. The lady doctor’s salary at the Women’s 
Hospital in Chinsurah was only Rs 50/month at this time. But these 
wages do not indicate well-being. Housing conditions, water supplies, 
and sanitation were notoriously poor in urban areas. On the job, the 
naikins (female overseers) supervised their work and acted as procur- 
esses for their bosses. Most of the women workers had migrated to 
Calcutta as single women and the combination of sexual harassment 
and low wages forced many of them into liaisons with men or outright 

Inquiries into working conditions and their concluding reports 
include only a few interviews with female laborers. One exception was 
the Royal Commission on Labour in India or the Whitley Commission 
(June 1931) that interviewed a few women working in factories, mines, 
and plantations. Fifty-two of their 837 witnesses (0.06 percent) were 
women identified only by name and place. For example, at Jalgoan they 
interviewed Saini, Jangli, Pathani and Italabai; at Nagpur, Radhabai 
Nimbalker and Bhukabai Kapuskar; in Calcutta, Halub and Tulsi’s 
wife; and at Guhati, Sapti and Parabti. The report contains no other 
details about these women. The little evidence there is of these inter- 
views does not suggest agreement on issues such as hours of work or 
protective legislation. Nevertheless, writers of the report concluded 
that women workers wanted female inspectors and medical profession- 

Detailed studies of the standard of living provide a glimpse into the 
private lives of the women working in Calcutta’s jute mills. One report 
claimed workers spent approximately two-thirds of their earnings on 
food and one-seventh, the next largest category, on miscellaneous 
items, including amusements, intoxicants, medical care, religious 
expenses, and beautification. It was in these two categories — food and 
miscellaneous — that workers often spent more when they earned more. 
Staples accounted for about 50 percent of the food expenditure but new 

© Kelman, Labour in India, p. 110; B. Joardar, Prostitution in Nineteenth and Early 
Twentieth Century Calcutta (New Delhi, Inter-India Publications, 1985), p. 21. 

31-J.H. Whitley, chair, Report of the Royal Commission on Labour in India (Whitley Report), 
Parliamentary Papers, 1930-1, vol. x1 (Cmd. 3883). 


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workers exchanged the villager’s simple diet of coarse grain or rice for 
an “urban diet” that included milled rice or grain, lentils, fish and meat, 
milk, ghee and oil, vegetables, refined sugar, tea, snacks, and sweets. 
The shift to a greater variety of foods, from the unrefined to the refined, 
and to the consumption of snack food, helps explain the heavy expen- 
diture on non-staple food. Women’s clothes changed only slightly in 
this setting. All women, except those from Madras, adopted the blouse 
or jacket and sari for work in the factory but continued to go without 
shoes. In contrast, men adopted leather footwear, shed their “up- 
country” headgear in favor of caps, and carried umbrellas. Only the 
men frequented tea-shops. All workers included the barber’s and wash- 
erman’s fees, soap, hair-oil, tobacco, toddy, betel-leaves, and religious 
activities among their miscellaneous expenses. There were always new 
amusements and new fashions beckoning these workers. Consequently 
almost all of them were in debt for about three months’ income at exor- 
bitant interest rates.°? 


Women’s organizations developed their interest in women factory 
workers in response to the Royal Commission inquiries and ILO ini- 
tiatives. Until they were stimulated by an external force, these women 
focused attention on issues significant to them, namely civil rights, 
education, and the social environment. They argued that these concerns 
were shared by all Indian women because they assumed that women, 
except for the most unfortunate, were economic dependants. Most 
women belonging to women’s organizations seemed unaware that a 
significant percentage of women supported themselves and their fami- 
lies. Indeed, they had no direct experience with salaried work; less than 
2 percent of middle-class women and virtually no aristocratic women 
were wage earners. 

The Whitley Committee, touring India in 1929, asked women’s 
organizations to prepare memoranda describing their activities among 
workers. The All-India Women’s Conference was a new organization 
and had nothing to report. The Bombay Provincial Women’s Council 

32 Kelman, Labour in India, p. 136; Roy Choudhury, Report on an Enquiry, pp. 7-22. 
33 Miss G. Pimpalkchare, research worker with industrial department, government of 
Bombay, interview (n.d.), RWC, box 28. 


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had been interested in the welfare of women workers for some time, so 
they complied with the request. Preparing these reports stimulated 
their interest and enthusiasm for a discussion of the economic and 
social conditions of working women.** 

Following publication of the Whitley Committee’s report, the 
National Council of Women in India formed a study committee on 
labor and the Bombay Council scheduled a three-day conference on 
women and labor. In the meantime the AIWC decided to broaden its 
mission to include social issues and appointed a number of sub-com- 
mittees. “Indigenous industries” was added in 1930. By 1931 the 
AIWC had instituted a sub-committee on labor, begun visiting mills, 
and sent out questionnaires to gather data on conditions in the facto- 
ries. Both the Bombay Council and the AIWC approved of the Whitley 
Report’s recommendations for reduced hours of work, women inspec- 
tors and medical practitioners, maternity benefits, and prohibition of 
women working below ground in the mines. 

The women’s organizations called on government to pass legislation 
and made efforts to “get in touch with women and child labourers.” In 
Bombay, the Council’s three-day conference was designed to enlighten 
their members about the labor issues and bridge the gap between them- 
selves and women laborers. On the first day, with only middle-class 
women in attendance, there were lectures on the employer-employee 
relationship by Lady Nilkanth, on labor legislation by Mr. Deshpande, 
and on health services for women laborers by Dr. N. H. Vakil. 
Deshpande talked specifically about the Royal Commission and urged 
his audience to lobby legislators. On the second day, a Sunday, women 
workers were invited to attend lectures delivered in the vernacular. The 
first presentation, “Things for Women Workers to Learn,” focused on 
nutrition, cleanliness, and education. The second lecture, on “Women 
Workers in America,” informed the audience about health care in 
American factories. The third day of the conference was devoted to 
consciousness-raising and planning for the future. Middle-class women 
visited the worker’s lines and learned about living conditions. At the 
end of the conference the attendees decided to form study circles and 
make efforts to improve the day-to-day lives of women laborers.*° 

The AIWC concentrated on legislation. They asked the government 
to appoint a female representative to the ILO and by 1935 were offi- 

4 BPWC, Fifteenth Report, 1933, p. 26. > Ibid., pp. 26-9. 


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cially reporting to this body. ILO interests became their interests and 
ILO measures galvanized their attention, making them oblivious to the 
real issues and concerns of women laborers.** The importance of the 
international connection becomes evident in A[WC demands for social 
insurance, maternity benefits, and other measures to improve working 
conditions. By and large they ignored Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s warning 
that special legislation had already caused employers to lay off women 
and hire men.’” 

The Bombay Council’s programs touched the lives of real working 
women. They set up regional centers offering medical services, sewing 
lessons, and literacy classes. They also arranged for piecework for the 
wives and children of laborers. Lectures and entertainment, sometimes 
for audiences of 800 women, were arranged at the mills. Bombay mill 
owners appreciated their work, contributing 40 percent of the 
Council’s annual budget by 1939.78 Factory women showed up in large 
numbers to consult with medical personnel, listen to lectures, and 
attend literacy classes — adequate proof that they valued these services. 
On one occasion, when the Council ran short of money, the women 
workers collected money and paid the teacher.*? 

It is unclear what course of action would have benefited women 
employed in factories. Working women were not asked to define their 
needs and they have left neither diaries nor memoirs for posterity. The 
legislation introduced set maximum hours of work, prohibited 
women from working nights, disallowed child labor, and mandated 
maternity benefits. These regulations were rarely followed, but when 
mandated they led to the firing of women and the hiring of men in 
their place. Many of the women factory workers found these regula- 
tions unsuitable and developed strategies that subverted the original 
intention. For example, hours of work were limited to give workers 
adequate rest. For women struggling to survive, fewer hours meant 
less pay and led them to go in search of part-time employment in 
other factories. Maternity leave, designed to benefit the health of the 
mother and child, was a burden for women who needed to work. At 
the very same time as legislation made employment of women more 
cumbersome, factory owners had the option of becoming more mech- 
anized or hiring from a large pool of male labor. Women in the jute 

36 ATWC, Ninth Session, Karachi, 1934, p. 31. 
3%” ATWC, Eleventh Session, Ahmedabad, 1936, pp. 74-8. 
38 BPWC, Twenty-second Report, 1940, p.36. °° Ibid., p. 39. 


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mills, Dagmar Engels wrote, “were trapped between two worlds and 
got the worst of both.”*° 

Most historians of the labor movement in India, faithful to what 
appears in documents and records, have ignored the role of women in 
labor unions. Nevertheless, women’s presence in strikes and labor dis- 
turbances, as strike breakers and as labor leaders, was noted from the 
1920s. Prominent women such as Maniben Kara, Ushabai Dange, and 
Parvati Bhore in Bombay and Santosh Kumari Devi and Prabhabati 
Debi in Calcutta, became leaders of trade unions and represented both 
women and men to management. Other accounts have noted women’s 
presence at the head of demonstrations in the 1928-9 Bombay textile 
strike and commented on their militancy.*! These topics have been sen- 
sitively and creatively explored in Samita Sen’s dissertation, “Women 
Workers in the Bengal Jute Industry, 1890-1940: Migration, 
Motherhood and Militancy.” Sen acknowledges the dedication of 
women leaders, characterized as “mothers” or sometimes “sisters,” but 
notes that their presence had little impact on the recruitment of women 
to the jute mills. She accounts for both the marginalization of women 
workers and of issues salient to them as due to: 

the assumption of different and complementary roles of men and women in the 
family [which] also laid the basis for a material division of labour by sex, and 
thereby defined the constraints on women’s participation in wage-labour and the 
organized politics of the working class. 

The women’s organizations ignored empirical evidence that new 
regulations were not improving the conditions of work for women and 
continued to support the ILO demand that international standards be 
extended to Indian women. If they were criticized, it was by Indian 
women who came to accept the ideas of Open Door International led by 
Mrs. Winifred Le Sveur. Open Door insisted on absolute equality between 
women and men workers. They opposed special regulations, for example, 
limitations on loads carried, as unnecessary restrictions that would lead to 
retrenchment. Ammu Swaminathan* defended the [LO and AIWC 
position against this line of debate. Their ideology came from Europe 
and India was not Europe, she argued. Indian women needed patrons: 

‘0 Engels, “Changing Role,” p. 241. 
“1 Radha Kumar, The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s 

Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990 (New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1993), p. 69. 

#2 Samita Sen, “Women Workers in the Bengal Jute Industry, 1890-1940: Migration, 

Motherhood and Militancy,” Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity College, Cambridge (1992), p. 
218. #3 Sometimes spelled Swaminadhan. 


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Our working women are neither educated nor organized enough to speak for 
themselves and it is this helplessness due to illiteracy and harmful social customs, 
such as child marriage, etc. that alone makes us ask for a certain amount of protec- 
tion for them. 

There were a few middle-class women who attempted to learn about 
the conditions of factory women. Maniben Kara tried to do social work 
among these women and concluded that her efforts were futile. She 
joined the labor unions but since only 1 percent of their membership 
was female, her work was with men. Godavari Gokhale (later 
Parulekar) found her consciousness raised when she worked with the 
employees of the Bombay mills. Godavari and her friend, Miss 
Bhalerao, formed the Women’s Fellowship of Service as a women’s 
wing of the Servants of India Society. From 1936 to 1939 they worked 
at projects approved by the Servants. Godavari focused on labor: teach- 
ing sewing, promoting labor unions, organizing domestic workers, and 
developing adult literacy programs. By her own account she was radi- 
calized by the conditions she encountered and was driven toward a 
greater appreciation of the Communist Party. She had a special interest 
in women as industrial workers and believed their concerns could be 
integrated into organized labor’s demands for justice. 

Legislation framed by the ILO was adopted in India during the lean 
years of the world-wide depression. Protective legislation cannot be 
blamed for increased unemployment among women factory workers 
because much of it was never implemented. Women as a percentage of 
all factory employees, not just textile factories and jute mills, had hit a 
high of 16.5 percent in 1927 and slipped to 15 percent in 1932.* 
Employers may have predicted women workers would be more expen- 
sive and less flexible in the long run and consciously reduced their 
numbers. But this is only a hypothesis; decreased demand and 
technological innovations are sufficient explanations for the decline in 
female employment. If the women’s organizations and others who 
fought for this legislation can be faulted, it is for their failure to come 
to know and understand the problems of the constituency they claimed 
to represent. Ammu Swaminathan was quite right in arguing that the 
Indian situation differed from the European. However, neither she nor 

“* Letter from A. Swaminathan to Mrs. Winifred Le Sveur (April 1, 1936), AIWC Files, no. 
10. #8 Godavari Parulekar, interview (Bombay, February 24, 1980). 

6 Shyam Kumari Nehru, ed., Our Cause: A Symposium of Indian Women (Allahabad, 
Kitabistan, 1938), p. 138. 


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her co-workers took the next step of ascertaining what Indian women 
workers wanted. Instead, middle-class women accepted prima facie 
that legislation designed in Western countries would benefit Indian 


By the mid-1920s more than one-third (approximately 80,000) of all 
mine workers were women working above and below ground. In the 
Central Provinces women were 56.6 percent of all mine workers and 47 
percent of those working underground. In Bengal 35 percent of all 
mine workers and 34 percent of all underground workers were women. 
In Bihar and Orissa women were only 30.9 percent of the total mine 
workforce but 39 percent of the underground workers. Although the 
total numbers of women employed was low in other provinces, women 
were a significant presence in the workforce and at least one-third of 
them worked underground.‘ 

Despite these numbers, little was known about the conditions of 
women working in mines. Middle-class women in women’s organiza- 
tions took no notice of this work until the mid-1930s, more than ten 
years after the legislatures took up these questions. The explanation for 
this is twofold. Not only were the mines located in areas remote from 
the urban sites of these organizations, but they employed populations 
(often termed “tribals”) marginal to both the traditional rural Hindu 
and Muslim culture and to the progressive society of the cities. Mine 
women were totally beyond the social purview of the modernizing 

The number of women employed in mines was high because of the 
recruiting methods used. It was difficult to procure labor so mine 
owners hired contractors to sign up “labor gangs” that included whole 
families. In eastern India the most effective way of obtaining steady 
labor was to purchase zamindari properties,*® distribute land to 
tenants, and require those tenants to work in the mines in lieu of rent. 
About 50 percent of the labor force was recruited in this way.*? 

7 “<Tistribution of Labour in Mines 1922” (September 10, 1928), WBA, file no. 1-M-26. 

48 Zamindari refers to the land under the control of a zamindar. Zamindars did not actually 
own the land but had the proprietary rights secured by the Permanent Settlement of 1793. 
They had the right to collect rent from the people settled on their zamindari and they, in 
turn, submitted revenue to the government. Engels, “Changing Role,” pp. 211-40. 


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Regularization of mine conditions began at the turn of the century, 
but it was not until the 1920s that questions were raised about the 
employment of women below ground. When framing what was to 
become the 1923 Mines Act, the government asked the Mining Boards, 
the Mining Federation, and local governments to give their opinions on 
this issue. Most of the respondents opposed restrictions arguing that 
tribals preferred to work as families. Men cut the coal; their wives and 
children carried it away and loaded it. These informants agreed: “men 
cannot carry coal,” and families needed the earnings of both men and 
women to survive. After making a compelling argument for family 
solidarity in the workplace, Mr. Swan, chairman of the Mining Board 
of Bengal, admitted that if only men (i.e. no women) worked under- 
ground, coal prices would be higher.>° Other memos supporting the 
status quo had similar wording. The secretary of the Mining Federation 
used child-bearing as proof that work underground was not harmful to 
women. The problem, he noted, was international organizations that 
wanted India to fit a particular standard. Like Swan, he concluded with 
a warning that if only men were employed underground the price of 
coal would rise from 8 annas to 12 annas per ton, the demand for coal 
would decrease, and the laboring class would suffer.*! 

While mining officials opposed this legislation, public opinion rallied 
in favor of it. “The principle that women should not be allowed to work 
underground in mines has long been accepted in nearly all civilized 
countries,” read a draft memo from the government of Bengal’s com- 
merce department, “and there are no sufficient reasons for continuing 
in India a practice generally abandoned elsewhere.”** Once again, it 
appears that international standards were setting the tone for what it 
meant to be a modern nation. 

The regulations of 1929 excluded women from working under- 
ground except in exempted areas including Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, 
Central Provinces, and the salt mines of the Punjab. In those areas the 
number of women underground would be gradually reduced over a 
ten-year period. By 1939 there were to be no women working under- 

In 1933 the AIWC appointed a committee of three women to visit 

Commerce, Government of Bengal, no. 15 (July 30, 1927), WBA, file no. 1-R-5(3). 
Commerce, Government of Bengal, no. 14 (July 28, 1927), WBA, file no. 1-R-5(3). 
Commerce, Government of Bengal, no. 13 (May 20, 1927), WBA, file no. 1-R-5(r1). 
Whitley Report, p. 127. 


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mines in Bengal and Bihar and suggest how to implement the Whitley 
Report recommendation to totally abolish female labor in mines.™ In 
1934 Mrs. A. Chatterjee, Mrs. Renuka Ray, and Miss Iris Wingate 
toured seven mines in Ranganj and Jharia. In their report to the AIWC, 
they argued forcefully for termination of underground work for 

These women were neither naive nor insensitive. Mrs. Chatterjee 
had studied at Oxford, Renuka Ray was a graduate of the London 
School of Economics, and Iris Wingate worked with the YWCA in 
India. They observed women in poor health, worn out by double 
work, and relying on opium to keep their children quiet. Women 
worked in the mines because they needed money and preferred 
working with their husbands to being left behind in their villages. 
Chatterjee, Ray, and Wingate understood that these women would 
not appreciate their interference. They warned the AIWC that if they 
achieved their goal, that is, prohibition of women’s work under- 
ground, they would bear the responsibility for finding alternative 

Finding alternative work for women miners was not easy. When 
Chatterjee, Ray and Wingate studied the rural economy, they 
applauded the work of Amrit Kaur and other Gandhians on the Rural 
Reconstruction Committee. This Committee focused on the inter- 
relatedness of health, education, and production. Emulating their 
work, the AIWC instructed its branches to adopt a village and concen- 
trate on its uplift.> 

In 1939, just after women’s work underground ended, the govern- 
ment used the war as an excuse to lift the ban on their employment. 
Women willingly returned to underground work. The women’s 
organizations began their protest anew but looked foolish protesting 
on behalf of women miners who wanted the work. Renuka Ray was 
well aware of the irony. The problem was really one of wages, she 
wrote. Men were underpaid so women had to work. She dressed her 
plea in the cloth of social feminism, explaining the motivations of 
mining women in terms her middle-class readers would understand: 

>* Aparna Basu and Bharati Ray, Women’s Struggle: A History of the All-India Women’s 
Conference 1927-1990 (New Delhi, Manohar, 1990), pp. 58-62. 

> ATWC, Ninth Session, Karachi, 1934. 

56 AIWC, Eleventh Session, pp. 50, 74-8; AIWC, Twelfth Session, Nagpur, 1937, p. 140; 
AIWC, Thirteenth Session, Delhi, 1938, p. 71; letter from legal convenor, Delhi (April 21, 
1936), AIWC Files, no. 139. 


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When driven by economic necessity there is no question of any choice. During the 
last famine in Bengal, respectable women brought up in middle-class homes were 
sometimes forced to sell their bodies so that they could feed their starving children. 
These women told us they would have infinitely preferred death but had to choose 
a life of shame for the sake of their children. Does this mean they preferred a life 
which they considered worse than living hell? Is it to be wondered that women 
readily go down into the mines when the ban has been withdrawn?*” 

Her co-workers agreed. Unfortunately, there are no accounts of 
interviews with the women miners. Renuka Ray was right when she 
focused on wages, but she constructed mining women as dependants, 
assuming that if their husbands received higher wages, the wives would 
receive their due. There is some indication that these women wanted to 
work next to their husbands so that they would be on the spot when 
their husbands were paid. After the war men replaced women in the 
mines and the women were neither retrained nor re-employed. 


The dominant gender ideology constructed women as dependent 
housewives; the reality was that thousands of women worked to 
survive. Urban areas acted as magnets, not just for men seeking jobs, 
but for women without guardians. Poor and uneducated, they found 
work as maid servants, coolies, and prostitutes. These unregulated 
occupations flourished in the modernizing urban sectors. No legisla- 
tion limited their hours of work or improved their working conditions. 
Only prostitutes were discussed. Voluntary social workers labeled 
them a social problem and tried to rescue them from their work. 
Godavari Gokhale’s effort to organize domestic workers stands out 
as a singular event. Household servants were numerous. The 1911 
census reported that domestic workers were 39 percent of all working 
women in Calcutta, a figure compatible with accounts from other 
cities, but apparently not visible.** Maid servants were employed in 
every middle-class home, yet their employers seldom thought of them 
as workers. Perhaps this was because the distinction between depen- 
dent relative and domestic servant was often slight. One of the 

57 Renuka Ray, Women in Mines, tract no. 2, AIWC (Arunch, India, AIWC, 1945), p. 17. 

58 The first systematic study of this topic is now being conducted by Swapna Banerjee, 
Temple University, Philadelphia: “Middle Class Bengal Women and Female Domestic 
Workers in Calcutta, 1900-1947.” 


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eRe ae +e) 

15 Washermen and washerwomen, c. 1900 

criticisms of Indian families was that they made drudges out of 
widowed female relatives. Anandibai Karve, widowed at age twelve, 
described her work in her deceased husband’s home as taking care of 
the cattle, milking the cows and buffaloes, feeding the bullocks, 
cooking breakfast for the farm hands, getting grass for the calves, 
washing the clothes, and cleaning the kitchen utensils.*? 

From the employer’s viewpoint it was a benevolent system. Shudha 
Mazumdar has warmly described the role of family servantsin socializing 
the next generation.® It was not unusual for middle-class families to 
include photographs of their favorite servants in family albums. Whether 
the servants felt as integrated into the families as some of the accounts 
suggest cannot be ascertained. Despite the large numbers of women who 
have been employed in domestic work over the years, it is only very 
recently that they have added their voices to the historical record.®! 

59 1D. D. Karve, ed. and trans. The New Brahmins: Five Maharashtrian Families, with edito- 
rial assistance from Ellen E. McDonald (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1963), p. 

6° Shudha Mazumdar, Memoirs of an Indian Woman, ed. Geraldine Forbes (New York, M. 
E. Sharpe, 1989), pp. 32-6, 81. 

6! See Malavika Karlekar, Poverty and Women’s Work: A Study of Sweeper Women in Dethi 
(New Delhi, Vikas Publishing, 1982). 


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In contrast, there is a considerable literature on women who sup- 
ported themselves and their families through prostitution. By the 
middle of the nineteenth century there were over 12,000 prostitutes in 
Calcutta (out of a total population of 400,000), approximately 90 
percent of them widows.® In the adjacent district of the 24-Parganas, 
there were probably an additional 15,000 women who earned a living 
through prostitution. In 1911 this occupation employed about 25 
percent of Calcutta’s working women. At the same time the prostitute 
population had grown to between 30,000 and 40,000 in Bombay. 
These figures are less than precise but they take on significance when 
compared to other areas of work for women. Prostitution supported 
more women than the new professions of teaching and medicine. 

Who were the women included in the category “prostitute”? First, 
there were women who were born into castes that traditionally made 
their living by dancing and singing. They, in turn, passed on their art to 
their daughters. Those who did not bear daughters often purchased or 
adopted female children. Veena Oldenburg has argued that these 
women, technically entertainers, were able to exercise agency in selling 
their services and thereby subvert the patriarchal paradigm.™ 

Women belonging to the baishnava (devoted to the god Vishnu) sect 
were often called prostitutes. Having left their homes and families to 
“seek god within,” they lived in groups and were labeled deviants for 
their unsanctioned relationships with men. In the best of circum- 
stances, their sexual liaisons liberated them from earthly attachments; 
in the worst of circumstances, pimps masqueraded as holy men and 
treated these women like ordinary prostitutes. 

Devadasis, dancers who served the gods of Hindu temples, attracted 
the attention of reformers starting in the 1870s. Rituals “marked and 
confirmed . . . [their] incorporation into temple service,” committed 
them to training in classical dance, and advertised their availability for 
sexual liaisons with appropriate patrons. Devadasis were given land 
grants to meet their expenses and treated with respect in the region 

6 Dr. (Mrs.) Usha Chrakraborty, Condition of Bengali Women around the Second Half of 
the Nineteenth Century (Calcutta, Usha Chakraborty, 1963), pp. 25-7; Sumanta Banerjee, 
“Marginalization of Women’s Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Recasting 
Women, p. 143. 

© “Bombay Prostitutes Committee’s Report,” JSR (August 27, 1922), p. 2; B. Joardar, 
Prostitution, p. 21. 

6 Veena Talwar Oldenburg, “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of 
Lucknow,” Contesting Power, ed. Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash (Delhi, Oxford 
University Press, 1991), pp. 23-61. 


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served by their temple.® By the second decade of the twentieth century, 
many reformers styled them “temple prostitutes” and maintained that 
ordinary pimps and madams were now calling their women “devada- 
sis.” Many of the devadasis, along with entertainers, religious women, 
and courtesans, refused to be labeled prostitutes and resisted the 
reformers’ overtures. 

The question of agency for these women is an interesting one. 
Female ascetics may have taken a step towards independence by leaving 
their families to seek god, but in their new religious families they were 
subordinate to men. Oldenburg contends that courtesans accepted the 
dominance of patriarchy but only “as a necessary compromise to 
escape from its stifling power.”*? Devadasis may well have protested 
legislation designed to ban their way of life, but they were not free 
agents. The ceremony dedicating them to the temple both advertised 
their availability for a sexual relationship with a patron of the temple 
and denied them to men of their own community for either marriage 
or sexual intimacy. The temple authorities dictated acceptable partners 
- the eldest sons of wealthy landed or business families —- and gave 
mothers and grandmothers veto rights. Amrit Srinivasan makes it clear 
this was not a dismal life: “The economic and professional benefits 
were considerable and most importantly, not lacking in social 
honour.”® Reformers were offended by the apparent independence 
and success of these women. These would-be saviors called devadasis 
“prostitutes” and attempted to “normalize” them by depriving them of 
their lands and profession. 

There were large numbers of women, with no connection to religion 
or the arts, who were prostitutes in the conventional sense, that is, 
selling sexual favors for money. Most accounts agree that there were 
large numbers of widows among the prostitutes, which suggests that 
brothels were havens for women with nowhere else to go. Girls were 
also seduced or stolen from their homes and forced into this business. 
Among the ranks of prostitutes were married women who found their 
lives intolerable and escaped from one kind of oppression to another. 
Some working women turned to prostitution to make ends meet; 

6 Amrit Srinivasan, “Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance,” EPW, 20, no. 44 
(November 2, 1985), p. 1869. 

% Ibid., pp. 1869-75; B. Kesavanarayana, Political and Social Factors in Andhra, 1900-1952 
(Vijayawada, Narodaya Publishers, 1976), p. 226. 

6? Oldenburg, “Lifestyle as Resistance,” p. 48. 

68 Srinivasan, “Reform and Revival,” pp. 1869-70. 


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others had drifted to the cities in times of economic hardship and were 
unable to find employment of any other kind. Some women provided 
sexual favors in exchange for protection. 

Several of these women have been able to tell their stories. In 1874 
the Great National Theater of Calcutta, offering Western-inspired 
theater, staged Benisanhar by Haralal Roy. Generally male actors 
played female roles, but in this case Binodini, a daughter of a prostitute, 
played the female lead. The play became an acclaimed hit and Binodini 
a star; she acted in over fifty plays during the next fourteen years. In 
1913, her letters to her mentor, Girish Chandra Ghosh, were published 
as Amar Katha (“My Story”). In this presentation, Binodini expressed 
no love for her former profession, but rather stated her desire to be a 

We [Binodini refers to “our type”] too desire a husband’s love, but where do we 
find it?... There is no shortage of men who come to us in lust, and charm us with 

their talk of romance; but which of them would give his heart to test whether we 
have hearts too?® 

Accounts of prostitutes are also found in the records of the vigilance 
societies. European men and women founded these vigilance societies; 
Indians joined in the 1920s. As Dr. Jerbanoo E. Mistri put it, finally 
Indian women who had remained “silent and distant spectators” began 
to see that their “self-interest, self-respect, and honour” were con- 
nected with the practice of prostitution.”? By the 1930s both the presi- 
dent and vice-president of the National Vigilance Association were 
Indians and Indians dominated the provincial branches. 

Among the Vigilance Association’s records are short sketches, letters, 
and translated statements about and from the women in rescue homes. 
These records must be used with caution for they were kept by people 
who denounced prostitution and represented women who had left this 
way of life. The prostitutes all told similar stories. The unmarried 
women reported they were seduced, abducted, or kidnapped (not 
always separate and distinct categories) when they were away from their 
traditional guardians. Young girls traveling or visiting relatives in distant 
places were vulnerable and gullible. Either they innocently followed an 

6? “Binodini Dasi,” Women Writing in India, 600 BC to the Present, vol. 1, 600 BC to the Early 
Twentieth Century, ed. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (New York, The Feminist Press, 1991), 

. 292. 
70 Dr. (Miss) Jerbanoo E. Mistri, “Economic and Basic Course of Prostitution,” Bombay Social 
Service Conference (Second Session) Papers (Bombay, 1928), JBC, Box-Bombay, FL. 


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“uncle” or “friend of the family” or fell in love with a casual acquain- 
tance. These young women were “ruined” by the men who abducted 
them and then sold them into brothels. Young girls and women, forced 
by modesty to seek medical personnel and institutions designed for 
women only, were deceived by procuresses disguised as women doctors 
or trapped when they entered brothels masquerading as hospitals for 
women. Many of the women, especially widows and orphans, reported 
they had nowhere to go and sought refuge in brothels. 

In addition to abducted and seduced women and those who needed 
shelter, there was a third group whose mothers, brothers, husbands, 
and other relatives forced them into prostitution. A fourth group of 
women left abusive husbands and sought the protection of the 

The first reform legislation affecting prostitutes was the 1923 
Prostitution Act which made it illegal for a male, but not a female, to 
manage a brothel. Concern with public health and morality, combined 
with an international interest in the traffic in women and girls led to 
further amendments of this Act, in 1926 and 1927. 

The Vigilance Association wanted brothels abolished but wherever 
this happened, prostitutes began soliciting on the streets. Recognizing 
a need, women’s organizations set up rescue homes to train prostitutes 
to earn their livelihood in some other way. The rescue homes also tried 
to reunite these women with their families and caste people.” 

Regulationists or segregationists, a group dominated by government 
officials and the police, worried about the “disposal of the women” 
once the brothels were closed.” They argued that prostitution could 
not be outlawed and even if it were, there would never be enough 
rescue homes for all these women. Regulationists wanted brothels and 
prostitutes contained in designated areas to facilitate “administrative 
supervision, the maintenance of order, sanitation and medical supervi- 
sion.””* A number of influential educationalists and medical men sup- 
ported this position, often eclipsing abolitionist aims. 

Women’s organizations transformed these issues to incorporate the 
rhetoric of “Indian womanhood” and nationalist aspirations. When the 

71 SPL, First Annual Report (Bombay, 1929), pp. 3-8; SPL, Second Annual Report (Bombay, 
1930), pp. 9-12; BVA, Annual Report, 1930, pp. 11-13; “Cases of Prostitution in Bombay,” 
BVA (August 9, 1926), JBC, Box-Bombay, FL. 

” Letter from Miss Dickenson to Miss Neilans, BVA (August, 9, 1928), JBC, Box-Bombay, 
FL. ® Ibid. 7 Supplement, JSR (August 22, 1922), n.p. 


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Bengal Legislature discussed the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Act in 
1931, Mr. S. M. Bose called attention to the women’s petition with 
16,000 signatures. “The women of Bengal are no longer asleep,” he said, 
and they are “keenly aware of the danger that threatens their woman- 
hood.”’> Muthulakshmi Reddy tied the devadasi issue to the national 
project, warning: 

even we women have come to realize that a foreign government has no sympathy 
with the legitimate aspirations of the people, and can never actively help in mending 

our defective social system. Unless and until full provincial autonomy and 
Dominion status is granted, there can be no real social and moral progress.” 

The League of Nations took up the question of traffic in women and 
girls and this spurred reformers and government officials in India to 
take a second look at the devadasi practice of adopting girl children. 
Devadasis responded by forming organizations to institute reform 
from within and protect their way of life. They fought a losing battle. 
Now the stakes were high: both public morality and India’s prestige in 
the international community were at risk as devadasis became the focus 
of discussion. Those agitating for abolition called this system masked 
prostitution even though they were fully aware of the difference 
between professional dancers attached to the temples and ordinary 
prostitutes. The 1947 Devadasi Act abolished dedication of girls to 
temple service, barred temple dancing, and declared that any bogam, 
kalavanthulu, sani, nagavasulu, devadasi, or kurmapuvalu woman” 
who danced was a prostitute.” 

During these years India accepted the various measures suggested by 
the League of Nations to suppress immoral traffic and prevent people 
from living on the earnings of prostitutes. The women’s organizations 
became more involved with the abolition of devadasis than with aboli- 
tion of prostitution. There was a general acceptance of prostitution as 
a necessary evil, and many of those women who fought for abolition, 
for example, Charulata Mukherjee and Romola Sinha in Bengal, 
devoted their energies to rescue homes. Whatever reformers wanted to 
do - abolish or contain prostitution or ameliorate the hardships of 
endangered women — they continued to regard men as providers and 

7 GOI, Home Dept., file no. 24/XII/31. 

76 M. Reddi to E. Rathbone (February 2, 1929), RP, folder no. 1. 

77 These are all names of the different castes from which devadasis come. Devadasi refers to 
both a role (temple dancer) and a caste. 

78 Kesavanarayana, Political and Social Factors, p. 229. 


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women as dependants. Few of the women interested in this topic were 
capable of approaching prostitution as sex work and trying to deter- 
mine what would be the best course of action. Instead, they “rescued” 
these women and provided them with an alternative shelter. 


The lives of India’s working women deteriorated under colonial rule. 
Jobs in the modern sector did not offset the decline of traditional indus- 
tries for either men or women, but women suffered the greatest loss. 
Because labor was plentiful, women continued to work in the 
unskilled, unmechanized sector where they were poorly paid and 
unlikely to advance to better positions.” 

The new professions open to women - teaching, law, and medicine - 
required education and family support. Even Kadambini Ganguly was 
called a whore; unmarried woman without impeccable credentials and 
respectable families were even more vulnerable to verbal and sexual 
harassment. Nevertheless, there were professional women who gained 
respect, independence, and personal satisfaction. Especially significant 
for the history of women in India is the fact that most of these new pro- 
fessional women worked with women and contributed to the develop- 
ment of new educational and medical institutions. These institutions 
have, in turn, made it possible for middle-class females to attend 
schools and colleges and enter a wide range of professions in contem- 
porary India. 

Entry into jobs associated with the regulated modern sector of the 
economy -— factories, mines, and plantations - did not bring long-term 
positive gains. Women’s work in factories was always limited to the 
most unskilled jobs and just as benefits were being mandated, women 
were replaced with machines and/or male workers. The statistical evi- 
dence points to a downward trend in women’s employment in the 
industrial sector. This is a reflection both of the decline of small-scale 
industries that employed women and their redundancy in larger facto- 
ries. Unfortunately, women never established a foothold in the orga- 
nized labor movement. 

Women easily found employment in the unregulated sector whether 
it was commercialized agriculture in rural areas or prostitution and 

7° TD. R. Gadgil, Women in the Working Force in India (Bombay, Asia Publishing House, 
1965), p. 27. 


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domestic work in urban areas. These were unrecognized areas of work 
without regular hours, fixed wages, and benefits. Most of the women 
forced into these areas of employment lived with physical and sexual 
violence. The radical humanist M. N. Roy observed that laboring 
women were not emancipated by employment but rather became 
“beasts of burden.”*®° 

Few middle-class women sought employment, but those who 
belonged to progressive society worked as volunteers in women’s 
organizations. They wanted women professionals — to staff the new 
schools and medical centers for women and of course, to minister to 
their needs — but they remained ambivalent about employment outside 
the home. Even the concerns of women professionals received scant 
attention in the deliberations of these women’s organizations. 

Leaders of women’s organizations were eager to join the modern 
world of international agencies. It was the universal codes of the inter- 
national organizations that informed their view of India’s working 
women. Even while these elite women joined the nationalist movement 
and rejected Britain’s “civilizing mission,” they embraced international 
bodies and their dictates. 

They agitated for protective legislation knowing full well that 
women working in mines and factories could not afford to be without 
jobs. The alternative employment they offered was in the declining 
handicraft industry. There is no doubt they knew a great deal about the 
lives of laboring women but they regarded employment for women as 
unnatural. Consequently, they focused their attention on normalizing 
conditions for these women — teaching hygiene and nutrition, setting 
up créches, working for legislation to restrict the work day. Godavari 
Gokhale and Maniben Kara stand out for their concern with improv- 
ing laboring women’s status through labor unions. 

Civic-minded women wanted to close brothels and suppress temple 
dancing. Both efforts would force women out of employment consid- 
ered morally decadent and degrading by the middle class. They made it 
their mission to rescue these women, provide them with some kind of 
shelter and training, and fight a double standard that sanctioned sexual 
experimentation by men and demanded purity from women.*! 

8° M.N. Roy, “The Ideal of Indian Womanhood,” Fragments of a Prisoner’s Diary, 2 vols. 
(Calcutta, Renaissance Publishers Private Ltd., 1957), vol. 1, pp. 168-71. 

81 “Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children and Bengal Discussions,” Stri Dharma, 
15, no. 12 (October 1932), p. 662. 


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It would be unfair to ignore the writings of women who understood 
the relationship between these social issues and the economic status of 
women. Many women, attracted by Marxism and the Communist 
Party, took a different approach to women’s work. Lakshmi Menon, a 
teacher who worked diligently to improve the status of women and 
later represented India at the UN, went to the heart of the matter when 
she discussed the problem of traffic in women and children. Much of 
the prostitution throughout the world could be traced to poverty and 
lack of alternatives for women but in India particular customs — child 
marriage, the inauspiciousness of widowhood, arranged marriages, and 
“our general attitude towards girls” — made the situation worse. When 
laboring women turned to prostitution it was to supplement their inad- 
equate wages, she said. In this context Menon criticized the Madras 
Regional Conference on Social Hygiene for its 1935 program of rescue 
work, propaganda, and VD clinics. They were ignoring issues of 
employment and wages for women, facilities for girls’ education, and 
the “unjust laws and horrible social customs” which deprived women 
of options.® Menon admired the Soviet code which she believed struck 
at the root of women’s inequality. Guaranteed employment, training 
programs, protective policies, and “a new sex code” which abolished 
the double standard seemed to be the answer.*? Menon argued that 
women’s labor could not be separated from social norms and institu- 
tions and advocated radical restructuring following the Soviet model. 
But this was not a widely share view. Employment for women in India 
continued to be viewed as an unfortunate state needing welfarist solu- 
tions rather than measures designed to give women equal education, 
opportunities, and wages. 

82 Lakshmi N. Menon, “Traffic in Women and Children,” Our Cause, p. 191. 
8 Tbid., pp. 197-8. 


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By the mid-1940s the all-India women’s organizations had lost their 
hegemony. For almost two decades the women’s organizations spoke for 
all Indian women. They demanded the trappings of “modern life”: 
education, health care, protective legislation, and civil and political 
rights within the framework of a social feminist ideology that con- 
structed women as socially and psychologically different from men. 
They acknowledged India’s special problems, especially child marriage, 
purdah, and the oppression of widows, and agreed that these practices 
made reform doubly hard. But in their view two things gave reform its 
impetus. First, these customs had not existed in India’s “golden age.” 
Second, as Indian women, they were blessed with a legacy of goddesses 
and heroines who willingly sacrificed themselves for husbands and fam- 
ilies. This habit of sacrifice was now valorized as worthy of extension to 
civil society and the nation. These organizations had been nurtured by 
two opposing forces: nationalist aspirations and colonial domination. 
Their vision of modernized women threatened neither the patriarchy of 
the British rulers nor the patriarchy of Indian nationalists. 

The ideology of the women’s organizations was too Hindu, too 
middle-class, and too urban to appeal to or adequately represent all 
Indian women. An informal survey completed in 1932 estimated that 
go percent of Indian women were wage-earners and only “married 
women among the well-to-do families and those of higher social stand- 
ing do not work for wages.”! Muslim women, unless they could agree 
to a secular—Hindu national project, were not adequately represented. 
Urban and rural working women took part in patriotic demonstrations 
but they were never fully integrated into the women’s organizations. In 
fact, well-educated women like Latika Ghosh modified their vision of 
civil society to appeal to their more traditional sisters. Though it was 
evident women’s organizations did not speak for all women, their 
memorials and petitions claiming this constituency went virtually 
unchallenged until the late 1930s. 

1 Survey of Women’s Interests and Distinctive Activities, 1930-2, RWC, box 33. 


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Over the next two decades women became active in a variety of social 
and political movements undermining the hegemonic claims of the 
major women’s organizations. New ideologies significantly altered the 
discussion of what women needed. Women jailed for their revolution- 
ary activities read socialist literature in prison and joined Marxism’s 
first converts. They gained a new vision of women’s place in society and 
after being released worked side by side with men spreading the 
message of socialist revolution. They also formed their own women’s 
organizations to work specifically on women’s issues and to give public 
voice to their interpretation of women’s demands. 

There were other women whose rebellion against social feminism 
took place outside of Marxism. Violent revolution fascinated some 
women, while others were attracted by radical feminism, and still 
others were engaged in social rebellion against familial patriarchy. They 
joined political parties, worked with small revolutionary cells, and 
sometimes acted independently. It was no longer possible to field hun- 
dreds of disciplined orange-sari-clad sevikas to demonstrate Indian 
womanhood’s opposition to foreign rule. This was a troubled time for 
India and both domestic and world-wide events demanded a new ideal- 
ism and pragmatism from politically active women. 


In accordance with the India Act of 1935, one-sixth of India’s adult 
population voted in the elections held in 1936 and 1937. The provinces 
gained responsible government while dyarchy remained the mode of 
operation for the central government. Congress swept the provincial 
elections and in 1937 was able to form governments in seven of eleven 

In 1939 the British declared Indians at war without first consulting 
these newly constituted bodies. In response, Congress ministries 
resigned, and Gandhi called for individual satyagraha. Germany broke 
the non-aggression pact in 1941 and invaded the USSR. With the USSR 
now Britain’s ally, members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) 
were released from prison and supported the British war effort. Later 
the same year the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and their menacing 
of the Southeast Asian region made India even more central to the war 
effort. Gandhi asked Congress members in 1942 to join the Quit India 
movement and opposition to British rule took a new turn. Some 


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Indians supported Gandhi’s non-violent protest, others joined the 
underground against the British, while still others strove to mount an 
effective war effort. By 1943 one of the worst famines of modern times 
spread across Bengal. 

These were years of growing communalism. The India Act of 1935 
decreed that religious identity and political power would be irrevoca- 
bly intertwined. Consequently, events leading up to the end of colonial 
domination in 1947 were fraught with religious antagonism. British 
India was partitioned to create India and Pakistan and the princely 
states were incorporated into one or the other of these new countries. 
In those provinces which felt the partition most drastically — Bengal 
and Punjab — the problems of the refugees and their resettlement pre- 
sented extraordinary challenges. India had seen war, famine, partition, 
and the establishment of two new states in less than a decade. In this 
turbulent climate, radical movements fueled by Communist ideology 
began to challenge long-tolerated forms of exploitation. 

From the end of the 1930s to the early 1950s women participated in 
a wide range of social and political movements. The process by which 
the hegemonic discourse of women’s organizations was replaced by a 
number of competing discourses can be charted by looking at women’s 
role in the elections of 1937; the development of communalism and the 
pro-Pakistan movement; the Quit India movement of 1942 and the 
anti-British movement during the war years; and the radical move- 
ments for socio-economic justice. What changed significantly was the 
presence of women in all major events of the times. Their involvement 
helped shatter the essentialist construction of the “Indian woman” that 
helped some women but hindered others in their quest for equality. 


The Government of India Act of 1935 granted the vote to women over 
twenty-one years of age who qualified because they owned property or 
had attained a certain level of education. Now six million Indian 
women could vote and stand either for election to general seats or seats 
reserved for women only. Earlier, Indian women’s associations asked 
for “a fair field and no favor.” This was an idealistic position. Faced 
with the reality of financing campaigns and establishing connections 
with powerful groups, many of these women now wanted “safe” seats. 

Congress was reluctant to back aspiring women politicians as candi- 


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dates. With the 1935 Act in place, Congress began its transition from 
an anti-imperialist movement to a political party. In doing so it showed 
a “clear preference for propertied men.” Sumit Sarkar has commented: 
Despite its national and multi-class ideals, the Congress as a ruling party found it 
almost impossible to go on pleasing Hindus and Muslims, landlords and peasants, 
or businessmen and workers at the same time. A steady shift to the Right, occasion- 
ally veiled by ‘Left’ rhetoric increasingly characterized the functioning of the 
Congress ministries as well as of the party High Command between 1937 and 

“Women’s organizations” should be added to the list of groups 
Congress could not go on pleasing with its shift to the right, for it made 
no special effort to enlist and support women candidates for the 1937 

Even Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, great supporters of 
women’s political activism, were lukewarm in their support of women’s 
involvement in political affairs. Before the election Ammu 
Swaminathan wrote Nehru about issues raised by members of the 
AIWC. She included a copy of the AIWC manifesto to “Candidates for 
the Coming Election,” issued from Vizagapatnam on July 26, 1936. 
Women make a special contribution to the general welfare and progress 
of the country, the document declared. It outlined the social and educa- 
tional reforms needed: equal opportunity for women and untouch- 
ables; free and compulsory education; rural reconstruction; an end to 
purdah, child marriage, and immoral traffic in women; communal 
unity; social insurance and public health clinics; measures to help the 
unemployed; and protection of civil liberties.> The AIWC asked for a 
list of INC candidates and wanted to know who among them accepted 
the terms of the manifesto. They lamented the absence of women on 
the Congress Working Committee and asked Nehru to appoint a 
woman. Ammu Swaminathan concluded: “we want the premier 
national organization of the country to be in full sympathy with the 
viewpoint of women and all that connotes.”* 

Nehru replied that Congress planned to set up women candidates for 
reserved seats in the provincial legislatures. The issue of women in 
general seats was in the hands of the All-India Parliamentary Board and 

2 Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, 1885-1947 (New Delhi, Macmillan India, 1983), pp. 350-1. 

> Manifesto issued on behalf of the AIWC to “Candidates for the Coming Election” (Waltair 
[Vizagapatnam], July 26, 1936), JN, file no. G48, 1936. 

4 A. Swaminadhan to J. Nehru (August 22, 1936), AIWC Files, no. 130. 


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the provincial boards. As for the manifesto, Congress was in total 
agreement with its principles. He scolded her and her AIWC colleagues 
for ignoring the role of political freedom in achieving social trans- 
formation. Finally, he faulted their ideology: 

many items in your programme are, if I may say so, superficial in the same sense 
that they do not enquire into the root causes of the evils which we want to get rid 

of. Partly no doubt these evils are due to our own customs but largely they are the 
result of political subjection and a thoroughly bad economic system.> 

The Working Committee was another issue. Prior to this formal 
complaint from the AIWC, old friends and supporters approached 
Nehru about the omission of a woman from this important body. He 
responded by publicly chiding women for their meek protest: “Women 
of India have not yet learned to demand their rights boldly.” Nehru 
urged women to organize, vocalize their demands, and prepare to fight 
reactionary forces. The private letters exchanged between Gandhi and 
Nehru on this subject sheds light on their attitudes towards women’s 
role in the party. At first Gandhi did not take women’s reproach seri- 
ously. When he learned some people were blaming him, he reminded 
Nehru that it was Nehru who wanted Sarojini Naidu off the Working 
Committee. No one else objected to having a woman on the commit- 
tee but, Gandhi recalled, “You even went so far as to say that you did 
not believe in the tradition or convention of always having a woman 
and a certain number of Mussalmans in the cabinet.”® Nehru claimed 
he was the injured one. He wanted more women in positions of power 
but had to contend with men more traditional than himself. His advice 
to women was patronizing. Nehru told women they had a duty to help 
“men in the struggle for political freedom,” but the fight for women’s 
emancipation was their own. They would have to force men to grant 
their demands.’ It was clear that the promises of the civil disobedience 
campaign had been set aside in favor of realpolitik. 

As Nehru had promised, the Congress Party supported women 
running for reserved seats. Seasoned women’s rights advocates like Dr. 
Muthulakshmi Reddy questioned separate seats for women,® but few 
women relished the idea of a political campaign. Most women inter- 

> J. Nehru to A. Swaminadhan (September 2, 1936), JN, G 48, 1936. 

6 M. K. Gandhi to J. Nehru (May 29, 1936), JN, G 48, 1936. 

7 J. Nehru, “Women and the Freedom Movement,” The Hindu (October 6, 1936), Selected 
Works, 15 vols. (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1972-82), vol. vu, pp. 482-3. 

8 “Against Separate Electorates,” speech by M. Reddy, DRP, file no. 11. 


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ested in politics hoped for an uncontested seat. Begum Shah Nawaz 
wrote that Muslim women in Lahore were trying to guard against more 
than one woman candidate standing for each seat. They hoped to save 
women from the odious task of campaigning and, at the same time, “set 
an example of unity and agreement before the men.”? 

Radhabai Subbarayan, one of the few women who stepped forward 
to run for a general seat in Madras, felt betrayed by Congress. The 
chairman of the Madras Provincial Congress Reception Committee 
offered her Congress support until a man decided to run for the same 
seat. Almost immediately, Congress deserted her to support her rival. 
Mrs. Subbarayan asked C. Rajagopalachariar for an explanation and he 
told her it was because she refused to sign the Congress pledge. The 
male candidate was a party man so the issue was not gender discrimina- 
tion but party solidarity. Rajagopalachariar told her Congress could 
not relinquish a seat “merely because it was a woman candidate that 
was seeking to be elected.” He concluded, “I do not believe that [the] 
advanced type of women politicians want political favors because they 
are women.” Radhabai Subbarayan withdrew but not without some 
parting shots at Congress. Recalling Gandhi’s comments at the Round 
Table Conference, she pointed out the absence of women candidates in 
Madras and other provinces. The Madras Mail commented that this 

demonstrates the insincerity of much of Congress sympathy with the aspirations 
of women, and proves that the Congress party is no better than others in its treat- 
ment of women candidates. Women are useful to head disobedience processions 
but scarcely good enough to sit with the Party in the Assembly.!° 

Apparently all parties behaved the same way because the percentage 
of women candidates never exceeded the percentage of seats reserved 
for women. In Bihar and the Central Provinces even though 3 percent 
of the total seats were reserved for women, women comprised only 1 
percent of the total candidates.!! 

Many women were uncomfortable with election politics and argued 
for a political role outside the legislatures. Petition politics was a 
comfortable realm and there was much to be done. The AIWC asked 
° “Moslem Women’s League,” clipping from Shah Nawaz (June 19, 1936), RP, file no. ro. 
10 “Congress and its Sense of Chivalry,” Justice (October 19, 1934); “Mr. Rajagopalachariar 

Explains,” Justice (October 19, 1934); “Mrs. Subbarayan’s Reply to Mr. C. R. Chariar,” The 

Hindx (n.d.); “Why She Withdrew,” Justice (n.d.); “Mrs. Subbarayan Withdraws,” Madras 

Mail (n.d.), RP, file no. 5. 
"| Jana M. Everett, Women and Social Change in India (New Delhi, Heritage, 1979), p. 136. 


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educated women to present women’s demands to candidates, enroll 
women voters, disseminate information about the candidates, and 
prepare lists of potential women candidates for the political parties.’ 
When they realized that no one was listening and no one cared, these 
women concluded they too were the victims of broken promises.'? 

The same women who were annoyed with the political parties during 
the campaigns were pleased with the final results. The total number of 
seats in all the provincial legislatures was approximately 1,500 and 56 
were now held by women. Forty-one were returned from reserved 
constituencies, ten from general constituencies, and five were nomi- 
nated to provincial legislative councils. The majority of these women, 
thirty-six, were Congress candidates, eleven were independents, three 
belonged to the Muslim League and one was an Unionist.'* An addi- 
tional thirty women were elected to the Central Assembly. Radhabai 
Subbarayan was nominated to this Assembly. Their numbers were 
small but women were finally visible in positions of power and author- 
ity: Vijayalakshmi Pandit (Nehru’s sister) was appointed to the United 
Provinces’ cabinet as Minister for Local Self-Government and Public 
Health; Anasuyabai Kale, of Central Provinces, Sippi Milani of Sind, 
and Qudsia Aizaz Rasul of United Provinces became deputy speakers; 
and Hansa Mehta, Bombay, and Begum Shah Nawaz, Punjab, became 
parliamentary secretaries. Hailing this as a victory for women’s cause, 
the women’s organizations urged the nomination of women to 
commissions, boards, and councils. Women, they argued, were the only 
ones qualified to solve the many problems that affected women and 

Nationalist politics had been feminized but election politics 
remained male-dominated. Women had hoped their consistent support 
of Congress in the non-cooperation movement of 1920-1 and the civil 

12 “Report of the Franchise Sub-Committee for the Period Ending July, 1936,” ATWC Files, 
no. 118; M. Kamalamma to secretary, Madras Parliamentary Committee (September 14, 
1936), AIWC Files, no. 130; M. Reddi to Mrs. Y. Hasan, Mrs. P. Iyer, and Mrs. Chabra, 
AIWC Files. no. 135; “An Appeal to Women who are Qualified to Vote” (WIA flier), 
AIWC Files, no. 135. 

3M. Reddi to “Dear Friend” (n.d.) and M. Reddi, “Women and Congress” (n.d.), RP, file 

no. 11; M. Kamadami to Mrs. S. C. Mukherjee (n.d.), AIWC, Files, no. 119;S. M. Reddi to 

Madam (November 16, 1936), AIWC Files, no. 135. 

Everett, Women and Social Change, p. 138. 

WIA Report, 1936-8, p. 27; “Women’s Franchise in the New Constitution,” JSR, 47 (April 

24, 1937), p. §29; Kaur, The Role of Women in the Freedom Movement (1857-1947), (New 

Delhi, Sterling, 1968), pp. 204-5. 


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disobedience movement of 1930-2 would earn them political rewards. 
This did not happen but women with political aspirations continued to 
believe in their male colleagues. They accepted their small victory and 
listened to the men they trusted most, Nehru and Gandhi, and resolved 
to work even harder to achieve their goals. 


This environment was particularly challenging for Muslim women. 
Activists who belonged to the A[WC and other women’s organizations 
lent credence to an ideology that claimed women were united despite 
class, caste, and religious differences. In the new world of communal 
politics, even the semblance of unity was difficult to maintain. 

The AIWC characterized itself as apolitical even though its leading 
members belonged to Congress, passed resolutions to support 
Gandhi’s constructive program, and frequently praised Gandhi and 
Nehru for supporting women’s issues. When Muslim members tried to 
influence the wording and substance of memorials and petitions they 
were ignored and treated, according to their accounts, like younger 
sisters. Nevertheless, there were a number of prominent and capable 
Muslim women, notably Hajrah Ahmed, Sharifah Hamid Ali, and 
Kulsum Sayani, whose commitment to nationalism and feminism kept 
them connected with the women’s organizations and supportive of 
secular policies. 

Jahan Ara Shah Nawaz wrote to Eleanor Rathbone about the diffi- 
culties she faced at this time. As early as 1934 she was approached 
regarding the Assembly seat for Lahore—Amritsar. A member of both 
the All-Parties Muslim Conference and the All-India Muslim League, 
Begum Shah Nawaz knew she would be a strong candidate, but 
declined to run. Muslim leaders in the Punjab were already angry that 
of the few seats for Muslims, one was reserved for a woman. She did 
not want to incur their wrath. 

When these same leaders accepted reserved seats for women as a fact 
of life, they asked Begum Shah Nawaz to organize a communal 
women’s organization. Some of her friends and associates, Mrs. 
Mukherjee, Mrs. Rustamji, Rani Raywade, and Mrs. Hamid Ali, warned 
her this would hurt the work of the AIWC. They told her that by mobi- 
lizing Muslim women she was abandoning her former assertion that 
women were the champions of unity. But if she supported the AIWC 


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position against reserved seats for women, she would gain enemies 
within her own community. There were rivals as well as friends within 
the AIWC who, Begum Shah Nawaz believed, were eagerly waiting for 
an opportunity to denounce her. Under pressure from both sides, she 
decided her principal loyalty was to her fellow Muslims. Begum Shah 
Nawaz argued that support for the Muslim men’s political aspirations 
was the only road to harmonious relations between Hindus and 

As identity became a key element in power politics, mobilizing 
women became crucial to the Muslim League. For many years Begum 
Shah Nawaz had worked closely with the A[WC and she and her col- 
leagues had reached a consensus about key issues. Now communal pol- 
itics forced them into new antagonistic relationships. Writing about the 
further alienation of Muslim women from the major women’s 
organizations following the victory of the Hindu Code Bill, the author 
Shahida Lateef says: 

the Indian women’s movement lost its momentum and leadership. This affected 
Muslim women adversely since the feminist platform had groomed their leadership 
and provided an ideology which could unite all women. And worse, the memory 
of the solidarity forged and nurtured by the women’s movement was forgotten.!” 

Begum Shah Nawaz agreed to organize a separate political league for 
Muslim women and by June of 1936 a meeting of the General Council 
of the Punjab Provincial Moslem Women’s League was announced in a 
newspaper as meeting in her home.'* The newspaper article invited 
Muslim women to establish an All-India Moslem Women’s League. 
Once organized, the League became a sub-committee of the All-India 
Muslim League with Begum Modh Alias president and Begum Hafiz- 
ud-din as secretary. The League’s declared goal was to stimulate the 
political consciousness of Muslim women.'? Muhammad Ali Jinnah, 
the leader of the Muslim League, had not wanted a separate organiza- 
tion for women but the League Council and Begum Shah Nawaz con- 

'6 Shah Nawaz to E. Rathbone (September 17, 1934), RP, folder no. 10. 

 Shahida Lateef, Muslim Women in India: Political and Private Realities, 1890-19805 
(London, Zed Books, 1990), p. 94. 

18 Begum Shah Nawaz, “Women’s Movement in India,” Indian paper no. 5 at the Eighth 
Conference of Pacific Relations (New York, International Secretariat, Institute of Pacific 
Relations, 1942), pp. 1-12; Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, Father and Daughter: A Political 
Autobiography (Lahore, Nigarishat, 1971), p. 94. 

'9 Shah Nawaz, “Women’s Movement,” p. 6; “Punjab Assembly Electoral Machinery” (June 

19, 1936), “Moslem Women’s League” (June 19, 1936), clippings sent to E. Rathbone, RP, 
folder no. 10. 


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vinced him purdah restrictions and the habit of sex segregation made 
this necessary.” In the 1937 election Begum Shah Nawaz won a seat in 
the Punjab as a Unionist. 

Jahan Ara Shah Nawaz’s move in the direction of the Muslim League 
strained her relationships with her old AIWC colleagues. When they 
opposed separate electorates, she scolded them for their political 
naiveté. She ignored Begum Hamid Ali, her Muslim colleague who was 
totally committed to joint electorates, and argued that Muslim women 
wanted separate seats. When partition became an issue she joined 
demonstrations, faced tear gas and Jathi attacks, and was eventually 
imprisoned.”! Following partition she became a member of the 
Pakistani Constituent Assembly in Karachi and was elected vice-pres- 

Begum Qudsia Aizaz Rasul, the daughter of Sir Zulfigar Ali Khan, 
descendant of the ruling family of the tiny state of Malerktola in the 
Punjab, became an outspoken opponent of communal politics. Her 
father ignored the advice of his contemporaries and sent her to Jesus 
and Mary Convent in Simla. Even his own family objected and the 
ulama issued a fatwah*? condemning convent education as anti- 
Islamic. Zulfiqar Ali Khan stood his ground and Qudsia went from 
Jesus and Mary Convent to Queen Mary’s College in Lahore. But 
Zulfigar Ali Khan also had a traditional streak and insisted his daugh- 
ter observe purdah and continue to wear the burqah.** 

In 1929 Qudsia married Nawab Syed Aizaz Rasul, a talugqdar 
(member of the landed gentry) of Avadh. Her mother-in-law was very 
traditional but her husband opposed purdah. Begum Qudsia seized the 
opportunity, discarded her veil (except in the presence of her mother- 
in-law), and began to speak publicly against purdah. In 1936 she 
decided to contest a general (Muslim) seat for the United Provinces’ 
Legislative Council instead of a seat reserved for women. Once again 
the ulema issued a fatwah. They warned the electorate about this 
scandalous woman who denounced purdah and competed with men. 
The fatwah had little effect. Qudsia Begum recalled “I was elected by 
a thumping majority which only showed that Muslims were not really 

20 Shahnawaz, Father and Daughter, p.165. —?!'_*Ibid., pp. 150-3, 165, 185-8. 

#2 “Notes on Jahanara Shah Nawaz,” RWC, box 69. 

23 An ulama is a body of Muslim religious scholars whose task it is to keep society moving 
in the right direction. A fatwah is a religious edict. 

4 “Begum Aizaz Rasul,” RWC, box 68, pp. 1-3. 


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as orthodox as they were made out to be.” In the Legislature she earned 
additional reproaches when she spoke in favor of birth control and 
asked for women police officers. While serving as secretary to the 
Muslim League, Begum Qudsia won election to the Constituent 
Assembly. In this new role, she asked Muslims to voluntarily give up 
reserved seats. Qudsia Rasul and her husband decided to stay in India 
after partition, testimony to her faith that Muslims would be accorded 
full citizenship.?° 

Begum Sharifah Hamid Ali, a tireless worker for women’s rights, 
stood firm with the women’s organizations. Her father, Abbas Tyabji, 
was the grandson of the merchant-prince Bhai Mian Tyabji. Abbas 
Tyabji, a Bohra Muslim, was educated and lived in England for eleven 
years. After his return to India he married Ameena, his uncle 
Badruddin Tyabji’s daughter. Both Sharifah’s parents supported 
women’s education and social reform and broke with tradition by dis- 
regarding purdah restrictions and sending their daughters to school. 
Begum Sharifah lived with her husband, a member of the Indian civil 
service, in the districts of Bombay Presidency where she began her 
social work.” Shahida Lateef contends that Muslim women’s participa- 
tion in the women’s movement was “always overshadowed by Muslim 
separatist politics.””” This was not the case with Mrs. Sharifah Hamid 
Ali who rejected all politics that would divide the people of India. It 
was not separatist politics that made her cooperation with AIWC 
members difficult, but rather their arrogance about Islam and Muslims. 

Sharifah Hamid Ali was appointed to the women’s sub-committee of 
the National Planning Committee. The sub-committee, established in 
1939, was charged with reviewing the social, economic, and legal status 
of women and suggesting measures to make equality of status and 
opportunity a possibility in the planned economy of free India.”* Two 
other Muslim women appointed to the committee, Begum Amiruddin 
from Madras and Mrs. Zarina E. Currimbhoy from Bombay, stopped 
cooperating because meeting dates were changed at whim and no one 
listened to them. Begum Hamid Ali was the only Muslim woman 
working with the committee; she wrote memoranda, urged the 
Committee to consult an authority on Muslim law, and argued for a 

3 Ibid. pp. 3-9. 26 “Mrs. Sharifah Hamid Ali (1884),” AIWC Files (unnumbered). 
? Lateef, Muslim Women in India, p. 94. 
28 National Planning Committee, sub-committee on women’s role in the planned economy, 

AICC, file no. G-23 (1940). 


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different point of view. But she found that when she explained Muslim 
law to her co-workers, they either did not listen or could not under- 
stand her point. Reading a draft report, she found, “[it] showed such 
ignorance of Islam — its laws and practice (in spite of my having sent a 
very clear and detailed report in my evidence on these matters) that I 
had to protest very strongly against its inclusion.”?? Begum Hamid Ali 
signed the final report only after Nehru intervened, granted the sub- 
committee an extension, and personally asked for her signature.*? Rani 
Rajwade, chair of the sub-committee, was not at all sympathetic. She 
feared, she wrote to Jawaharlal Nehru, “Begum Hamid Ali is thinking 
on communal lines.”*! 

Kulsum Sayani, the daughter of Dr. Rajabally Patel (a Khoja 
Muslim and Gandhi’s first physician upon his return to India from 
South Africa), grew up calling Gandhi “Kaka” (Uncle). Her mother 
was the first Muslim girl to attend school in Bombay and her aunt 
the first to matriculate. Kulsum was educated at home by a governess 
and, at age eighteen, married Dr. Janmohamed Sayani, the first physi- 
cian in charge of a new Congress hospital in Bombay. Both were 
devoted to Mahatma Gandhi and wanted to serve their country, Dr. 
Sayani through his medical work, and Kulsum through social 

Kulsum Sayani had joined a number of women’s organizations in 
search of a meaningful project when Miss Godavari Gokhale drew up 
guidelines for Bombay’s first literacy campaign. Launched in 1938, it 
was so successful the government took charge. To oversee the program 
they created the Bombay City Adult Education Committee and 
appointed Kulsum Sayani to its membership. 

Kulsum Sayani traveled to England that year and upon her return 
decided she wanted to teach purdah women. She thought a home-class 
scheme would cause the least inconvenience to her target population of 
lower middle-class women and submitted a plan to the Committee. 
They advanced her Rs 100 and she set up daily classes in six buildings. 
Kulsum Sayani found educating these women an uphill battle: her 
poorly paid teachers were indifferent and the pupils soon lost interest. 


Begum Hamid Ali to Jawaharlal Nehru (April 1, 940), JN, part 1, vol. xxx1, 1937. 

Series of letters between Begum Hamid Ali and Jawaharlal Nehru and from Nehru to Rani 
Rajwade, JN, part 1, vol. cxxxv1, 1940. 

Rani Rajwade to J. Nehru (March 31, 1940), JN, part 1, vol. cxxxvI, no. 5006. 

Interview with Kulsum Sayani (January 4, 1957), RWC, box 68, pp. 1-2. 





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She decided to personally supervise the program and began to spend 
her days going “from lane to lane, house to house and floor to floor 
talking, enthusing and persuading women to learn to read and write.”? 
When the Committee’s money ran out the Bombay branch of the 
AIWC provided enough money to support eleven classes enrolling 420 
women. The Bombay Committee then decided to finance fifty educa- 
tional centers for purdah women. To provide reading material for 
newly literate women, Kulsum Sayani set up and financed the monthly 
newspaper Rahber (“Guide”). Her “post-literacy paper” carried 
stories and articles in Urdu, Nagri, and Gujarati script with translations 
into simple Hindustani. This was her personal effort to effect national 

During the war and the agitation for partition, Kulsum Sayani 
remained a staunch Gandhian. Sarojini Naidu and Rameshwari Nehru 
were her mentors; “Rameshwari was my ideal of Indian woman- 
hood,” she wrote.*° She deplored the effect of the “Jinnah movement” 
on poor Muslims. Crying “Islam in danger” only inflamed the people 
and turned them against programs that were helping them. Kulsum 
Sayani’s loyalty to Gandhi and Congress earned her the taunts and 
threats of Muslims who called her educational endeavors destructive 
to religion.*° 

Hajrah Ahmed joined the Communist Party in 1937 after years of 
working with the AIWC. A new awareness of the conditions of 
working-class women led Hajrah Begum to the party. Still working 
with the AIWC, she unsuccessfully attempted to raise her co-workers’ 
consciousness about the conditions of working women. However 
much she tried, she could not change their mission. 

In 1940 the AIWC began hounding Hajrah Begum about her “polit- 
ical” work (she had apparently refused to attend a reception at the 
Governor’s house) while serving as organizing secretary of the 
Allahabad branch. Hajrah Begum did not see this as “political” in the 
usual sense of the term but conceded, “I have been associated in the past 
with the Congress and am Socialist by conviction and I simply cannot 
become non-political.”>” Less than a month later when her husband, 

% Kulsum Sayani, “My Experiences and Experiments in Adult Education,” unpublished 
paper, p.2.  *4 Sayani, “My Experiences,” pp. 1-4. 

3 Interview with Kulsum Sayani (July 30, 1970), p. 16, South Asian Archive, Centre for 
South Asian Studies, Cambridge. 

© Interview with Sayani (RWC), pp. 2-3; interview with Sayani (Cambridge), pp. 17-18. 

37 Hajrah Begum to Lakshmi Menon (July 26, 1940), AIWC Files (unnumbered). 


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Dr. Z. A. Ahmed, went to prison for political activities, she voluntarily 
resigned as organizing secretary “for Baby’s sake.”?8 

Later Hajrah Begum resumed her efforts to try to bring Congress 
and AIWC women to see the value of the Communist Party’s goals. 
Once again she became an organizing secretary and following 
Independence became an editor of Roshni, the AIWC journal.°? 
Although critical of the bourgeois mentality of the AIWC, Hajrah 
Begum regarded it as an organization committed to keeping Hindu and 
Muslim women together. It was the Muslim League that fomented 
communalism by insisting Muslim women leave the AIWC. 
Communal electorates made it almost impossible to ignore this 

These five were representative of elitist Muslim women. They all 
enjoyed formal education and were the beneficiaries of the attitudes of 
progressive fathers and husbands. They were among the privileged few 
who traveled and had some autonomy in decision making. Jahan Ara 
Shah Nawaz, Qudsia Rasul, Sharifah Hamid Ali, Kulsum Sayani, and 
Hajra Ahmed worked with women’s organizations until the 1940s. 
Separate electorates for Muslim women and the consequence of the 
Communal Award presented each with a special challenge. Jahan Ara 
Shah Nawaz and Qudsia Rasul made decisions about their relationship 
with the Muslim League, one supporting from the margins, the other 
defying from within. Sharifah Hamid Ali and Kulsum Sayani were 
social reformers forced to deal with political issues. They both chose 
Congress and women’s organizations but not without soul-searching 
in Sharifah’s case, and the pain of public harassment for Kulsum. 
Hajrah Begum had the fewest doubts. She chose the Communist Party 
which denounced all religions and her work, with both Congress and 
AIWC women, was inspired by a party decree. 

The all-India women’s organizations had recruited Muslim women 
and made efforts to represent their interests. Worried that condemna- 
tion of purdah might be seen as cultural imperialism, the women’s 
organizations adjusted to it as a fact of life and only vaguely condemned 
it in resolutions.*! Female seclusion and sex segregation were observed 

38 Hajrah Begum to Lakshmi Menon (August 15, 1940), AIWC Files (unnumbered). 

3° Hajrah Begum, “Women in the Party in the Early Years,” New Age (December 14, 1975), 
pp-11-12.  * Hajrah Begum, interview (New Delhi, April 2, 1976). 

“1 Geraldine Forbes, “From Purdah to Politics,” Separate Worlds, ed. Hannah Papanek and 
Gail Minault (Delhi, Chanakya Publications, 1982), pp. 236-8. 


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by both Hindus and Muslims but the two communities differed when 
they remembered the “golden age.” Hindu women harked back to a 
time when women were active participants in the life of the commu- 
nity; Muslims to the veiling of the Prophet’s wives. To the extent the 
leaders in women’s organizations conceived of purdah as a problem, 
they labeled it a Muslim problem. When it came to politics, the 
women’s organizations talked as if all women were equal and threw 
their support behind universal franchise. Faced with the reality of com- 
munal elections, they had no answer. The Congress claimed it could 
speak for all Indians and the women’s organizations echoed this state- 
ment. The Muslim League objected and asked Muslim women to be 
loyal to their own people. 

These women, except for Begum Shah Nawaz, blamed the Muslim 
League for driving a wedge between Hindu and Muslim women. The 
blame must be shared by the Indian National Congress and the 
women’s organizations. The insensitivity of Rani Rajwade is a case in 
point. Sharifah Hamid Ali was not a traditionalist, she had worked long 
and hard with the AIWC on a wide range of issues. All she wanted was 
to have her colleagues understand Islamic law before they made their 
recommendations. But no one was ready to listen. 


In September of 1939 the British government announced India’s entry 
into the war. Congress offered full cooperation in return for a truly 
responsible government and the promise of independence at the 
conclusion of the war. There was no satisfactory reply. In November 
Congress ministries resigned and planned their protest. 

By this time women were members and sometimes even leaders of 
student associations, peasant movements, and labor unions. The pres- 
ence of women in the various movements of the day was as significant 
for the anti-British movement during the war years as was their elec- 
tion to legislative seats and their appointment to positions of power and 

Gandhi sanctioned civil disobedience at the beginning of October 
1940. Individual satyagrahis, in the beginning people personally chosen 
by him, made public anti-war speeches in defiance of emergency 
orders. One by one Congress leaders declared themselves opposed to 
the government, were arrested and imprisoned. Altogether four 


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hundred Congress men and women were jailed in 1940. By June of 
1941 almost 20,000 had gone to jail but the movement declined after 
that. Congress leaders were not very happy with this campaign, termed 
by Sumit Sarkar “far and away the weakest and least effective of all the 
Gandhian national campaigns.”4? But Gandhi was pleased and 
Congress leaders were reluctant to lose his leadership. At the beginning 
of December the government decided to release satyagraha prisoners 
creating high hopes for détente. On December 7, the Japanese attacked 
Pearl Harbor and the next day the USA entered the war. 

On August 8, 1942, the All-India Congress Committee met in 
Bombay and passed a resolution calling for British withdrawal from 
India. Until this occurred Congress sanctioned non-violent mass strug- 
gle and instructed the people that in the event there were no orders 
from Congress, “every man and woman... must function for himself 
or herself within the four corners of the general instructions issued.”*? 
The Quit India resolution spoke directly to women “as disciplined sol- 
diers of Indian freedom” and attracted them to the movement.” 

Gandhi asked the Indian people to conduct a non-violent campaign 
using previously sanctioned techniques: salt-making, boycotts of 
courts and schools, picketing cloth and liquor shops, and non-payment 
of taxes. The British reacted by arresting Congress leaders. Mass pro- 
tests followed and when the authorities responded to these with force, 
they provoked a massive and violent attack on the symbols of state 
authority.** The movement began in the cities with strikes, demonstra- 
tions, and clashes with the police and moved to the countryside where 
peasants rebelled against landowners and the agents of British author- 
ity. Women participated in the initial strikes and demonstrations in 
cities, were among the radical students who organized peasant move- 
ments, and, when protest was suppressed, joined the secret under- 

Usha Mehta operated a clandestine radio transmitter in Bombay. A 
child during the civil disobedience movement of 1930-2, she joined the 
“monkey army” of children who ran errands and carried messages for 
adults. When Congress leaders called for volunteers to join the Quit 
India movement, Usha Mehta looked for a way to help. The government 

42 S, Sarkar, Modern India, pp. 381-3. 

4 Aruna Asaf Ali, The Resurgence of Indian Women (New Delhi, Radiant Publishers, 1991), 
pp. 136-7; S. Sarkar, Modern India, p. 388. 

44 Aruna Asaf Ali, The Resurgence, p.136.  *° S. Sarkar, Modern India, pp. 389-91. 


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were blacking out news of the rebellion so Usha decided to set up a radio 
transmitter. The “Voice of Freedom” began broadcasting news of resis- 
tance and arrests, profiles of patriotic young people, and Gandhi’s 
famous “Do or Die” speech launching the Quit India movement. Usha 
and her brother continued broadcasting until their arrest on November 
12, 1942. Following extensive interrogation, Usha was sentenced to four 
years’ imprisonment. In prison she found many people who, like herself, 
had joined the movement out of conviction, patriotism, and regard for 
Congress leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi. 

When the movement spread to the countryside, large numbers of 
peasant women joined men in protesting against taxes, land tenure, and 
landholder’s rights. At the end of September 1942, peasants attacked 
police stations and destroyed telegraph lines in four sub-divisions of 
Midnapur District. The British responded with repressive measures 
and a new round of violence began. On September 29 the people of 
Tamluk sub-division marched on the town with the intention of cap- 
turing the court and the police station. Face to face with the soldiers 
guarding the court, they hesitated. Matangini Hazra, a seventy-three- 
year-old widow, stepped forward, lifted the Congress flag, and gave her 
first public speech. 

Matangini Hazra (b. 1870) had been the child bride of Trilochan 
Hazra, a sixty-year-old widower. By age eighteen she was a widow. At 
age sixty-two she took the Congress pledge and ten years later, in 1942, 
she asked to lead a battalion. On September 29 she urged the crowd 
onward in the name of Gandhiji and refused to stop when challenged. 
She was shot first in the hand holding the flag and then in the head. The 
authorities were clearly determined to squash this rebellion. Equally 
determined, the people of Midnapur District continued their resistance 
and were brutally repressed.*” 

Aruna Asaf Ali (b. 1909) became a leader of the underground move- 
ment in 1942 and was forced to remain in hiding until 1946. Roshni, the 
AIWC journal, called her the “direct successor” to the fictional char- 
acter Devi Chaudharani, the dacoit queen who robbed from the rich 
and gave to the poor, and the historical Rani of Jhansi, the warrior 
queen who fought the British in 1857.** Aruna Ganguli was born in 

*6 Kaur, The Role of Women, pp. 228-9; Dr. (Miss) Usha Mehta, Oral History Transcripts, 

47 Kaur, The Role of Women, p. 215; “Matangini Hazra,” DNB, vol. 11, pp. 159-61; Sarkar, 
Modern India, pp. 401-2. 48 “Aruna Asaf Ali,” Roshni, 1, no. 1 (February, 1946). 


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Bengal, raised as a child in the hill station, Nainital, and attended the 
Convent of the Sacred Heart in Lahore. She refused to consider an 
arranged marriage and left home to accept a teaching job at the Gokhale 
Memorial School for Girls in Calcutta. She met Asaf Ali, a Muslim bar- 
rister from Delhi, while vacationing in Allahabad and after some time 
he proposed. She defied her father’s objection to her marriage with a 
Muslim more than twenty years her senior and married Asaf Ali in 
1927. They moved to Delhi where Rameshwari Nehru introduced 
Aruna to the Delhi Women’s League and Satyavati Devi brought her 
into the civil disobedience movement. Aruna broke the salt law, was 
arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned in Lucknow. 

In 1941 Aruna Asaf Ali courted arrest by offering individual satya- 
graha and was sent to prison but she was soon released.*? Within 
hours of the AICC Quit India resolution, top-ranking Congress 
leaders, including her husband, were arrested. In their absence, Aruna 
went to preside over a flag-raising ceremony and announced the 
arrests. As she unfurled the flag, the police threw tear gas into the 
crowd. “The experience of that morning,” she remembered, “made me 
decide that I would not again tamely enter jail by offering 

Aruna Asaf Ali met with other delegates to the Congress session and 
they decided to return to Delhi. They traveled by train to Agra, and 
then by automobile to the capital. Aruna Asaf Ali, together with 
Congress socialists J. P. Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia and Achyut 
Patwardhan, and Gandhians Sucheta Kripalani and R. R. Diwakar, 
decided to go underground to try to coordinate and channel the anger 
of undisciplined mobs. Their aim was to organize resistance and hinder 
the war effort. During her three and a half years in hiding, Aruna was 
constantly in motion, urging people to “liberate” the land from foreign 

Gandhi was critical of Aruna who, he said, “would rather unite 
Hindus and Muslims at the barricades than on the Constitutional 
front.”>? Sucheta Kripalani criticized Aruna and her associates for sab- 
otaging the war effort. In her defense, Aruna claimed she advocated 
planned dislocation of the war effort but not wanton destruction. She 
quoted their pamphlet on the “A.B.C. of dislocation”: 

49 Dhan, Aruna Asaf Ali (Lahore, New Indian Publications, 1947), pp. 1-8; “Aruna Asaf Ali,” 
DNB, vol. 1, pp. 70-1. °° Aruna Asaf Ali, The Resurgence, p. 138. 
1 Ibid., p. 140. 52 “Aruna Asaf Ali,” DNB, vol. 1, p. 70. 


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Dislocation is a common and effective method used by enslaved and oppressed 
peoples against their rulers... Thus, if telegraph wires are cut, fishplates on railway 
lines are removed, bridges are dynamited, industrial plants put out of order, petrol 
tanks set on fire, police stations burnt down, official records destroyed — they are 
all acts of dislocation. But a bomb thrown at a market place or a school or a dhar- 
mashala [a shelter for pilgrims] is not dislocation. It is either the work of agents 
provocateurs or misdirected energy.» 

While some historians have characterized her as the most important 
leader of the resistance, Aruna characterized herself as “a splinter of the 
lava thrown up by the volcanic eruption of the people’s indignation.”*4 

Following the release of Congress leaders in 1945, the Working 
Committee met and condemned the violence that had occurred. Aruna 
Asaf Ali and Mr. Achyut Patwardhan wrote the Congress president 
that they would not recant for their actions because they acted with 
noble intentions. Furthermore, they claimed their authority derived 
from the All-India Congress Committee.*> Gandhi disagreed with 
Aruna’s tactics but he did not denounce her. Instead, he praised her 
bravery and agreed to meet her while she was still in hiding from the 
police. When Nehru was released from prison he made special mention 
of Aruna Asaf Ali as “one of India’s brave women.”** 

The historian R. P. Dutt argued that the mass protests and sporadic 
destruction of property did not constitute an organized struggle.” 
Other historians disagreed and maintained there were two centers 
directing activities, both underground, both led by women. Aruna Asaf 
Ali, capable of endorsing revolutionary tactics, was one; Sucheta 
Kripalani, pledged to non-violence, the other.** 

Sucheta Mazumdar Kripalani (1908-74), was born in Ambala where 
her father, Dr. S. N. Mazumdar, was a medical officer in the Punjab 
Medical Service. She attended a number of schools, her final degree 
being an MA in history and political science from St. Stephen’s College, 
Delhi. She taught school in Lahore and then became a lecturer at 
Benares Hindu University. A long-time follower of Gandhi, Sucheta 
married another Gandhian, Acharya Kripalani, in 1936, in a well-pub- 
licized celibate marriage. They moved to Allahabad in 1939 where 

> Aruna Asaf Ali, The Resurgence, pp. 141-2. ™ Ibid., p. 140. 

55 Dhan, Aruna Asaf Ali, p.27.  ** Aruna Asaf Ali, The Resurgence, pp. 142-3. 

>” R. Palme Dutt, India Today, 2nd edn. (Calcutta, Manisha, 1946), reprinted 1970, pp. 572-3. 

58 G. Ramachandra, “Her Memory Will Live,” an obituary, in Sucheta: An Unfinished 
Autobiography, ed. K. N. Vasvani (Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1978), pp. 


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Sucheta began working in the Congress office. In 1940 she was chosen 
to organize a women’s department of the Indian National Congress.*? 

The women’s department was charged with finding the best ways to 
utilize “women’s genius and peculiar gifts for the revolutionary purposes 
of achieving independence and then making a contribution in national 
life.”6° The document stating the aims of the new department said that 
women’s first duty was to the nation: “only thus can they progress and 
bring about their emancipation from the age long slavery to habit and 
custom. ”®! This document made it crystal clear that service to the nation 
was the only way to winrights. The tasks of the department were to study 
the disabilities of Indian women, recruit women to Congress, coordinate 
and guide the activities of Congress women, and maintain contact with 
other women’s organizations. The women’s department wanted to 
raise the political consciousness of women and identify Congress with 
social change that benefited women.® Clearly this new department 
intended to co-opt the functions of the national women’s organizations 
and place women under the control of the Indian National Congress. 

The women’s department had hardly begun its work when Sucheta 
offered individual satyagraha and was imprisoned for two years. She 
was out of prison when Congress leaders were arrested in 1942 and, 
hearing the news, decided to go into hiding. Sucheta’s first job was to 
establish contact with groups still active throughout India and encour- 
age them to continue non-violent activity. The aim, she wrote, “was to 
bring the Government to a stand-still by any method, excluding vio- 
lence against individuals.” Wearing a variety of disguises, Sucheta 
traveled from province to province to keep leaders in touch with one 
another and help them plan activities. In 1944 she was captured and 
lodged in Lucknow jail as a “dangerous prisoner.”® 

After her release in 1945 Sucheta tried to revive the women’s depart- 
ment. She wanted to enroll women as party members and organize 
them to carry out social and political programs. Within a year she real- 
ized that Provincial Congress Committees were uninterested in her 
scheme and switched her attention to mobilizing the women’s vote. 


“Sucheta Kripalani,” DNB, vol. 1, pp. 364-5. 

° “The Aims of the Women’s Department of the AICC,” AICC, file no. WD-7, p. 1. 

6 [bid. & Thid. 

6 “Scheme of the Work of the Women’s Department,” AICC, file no. WD-2, p. 1. 

6 Ramachandra, Sucheta, p.32. © Ibid., pp. 32-7. 

© Circular no. 1 (November 17, 1945), AICC, file no. WD-9; Sucheta Devi to secretaries, 
Provincial Congress Committees (February 5, 1946), AICC, file no. 6-22. 




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In 1946 she became a member of the Constituent Assembly, positioned 
to take part in the earliest actions of independent India. Communal vio- 
lence claimed her attention in 1947 and she joined Gandhi in the riot- 
stricken areas of eastern Bengal where he hoped to stop the killing. 
Always loyal to Congress she maintained that women had done their 
duty to the country and been rewarded with “emancipation.”*” 

In contrast to 1930, when women were asked to wait until men com- 
pleted the march to Dandi and then assigned special duties, in 1942 
women fought alongside men and suffered the same consequences. 
Activist women were so caught up in the struggle, they ignored gender 
issues or, like Sucheta Kripalani, put them aside until independence had 
been achieved. Only women who held themselves aloof from the con- 
flict could put all their energies into calling for a feminist agenda. This 
meant the feminist movement, as defined by the women’s organiza- 
tions, continued to espouse social feminism and work for legal change 
while many from their ranks had left and were engaged in more danger- 
ous and compelling activities. 


The Bengal famine of 1943-4, understood by historians as a man-made 
disaster, caused the death of at least 3.5 million people and the impov- 
erishment and dislocation of millions more.** Agricultural laborers, 
fishermen, and those engaged in rural transport were the first to suffer 
the consequences of drought and poor harvests. The urban areas, par- 
ticularly Calcutta, experienced the famine primarily through the influx 
of starving people. Throughout the countryside men went in search of 
work leaving women and children to fend for themselves. Women who 
previously earned a living by husking paddy or trading in the local 
market were deprived of their incomes.® In addition to food shortages, 
women faced sexual harassment when they sought employment or help 
from relief centers. 

During the famine years women were visible both as victims and 
activists. Starving women begged for food in public places and door to 

67 Sucheta Devi, “Women and Satyagraha,” AICC, file no. 9. 

68 See Paul R. Greenough, Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal (Oxford, Oxford 
University Press, 1982); Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines (Delhi, Oxford University 
Press, 1981). 

6 Sen, Poverty and Famines, p. 72; Renu Chakravartty, Communists in the Indian Women’s 
Movement, 1940-1950 (New Delhi, People’s Publishing House, 1980), p. 32. 


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door in the suburbs. They flocked to the red-light districts, doubling 
the number of women in Calcutta’s brothels.”? Middle-class women 
came forward to provide relief and women in Mahila Atmaraksha 
Samiti (Women’s Self-Defense League) (MARS) organized and led 
women’s demonstrations calling on the government to take action. 

In Calcutta, women’s organizations banded together in 1939 to 
demand the release of political prisoners. One of the groups involved 
in these protests was the Congress Mahila Sangha (Women’s 
Association) begun as an “AIWC with politics.” Their concern was 
teaching women how to protect themselves in the event of a Japanese 
invasion. After 1941 this organization grew as Communist women, 
newly released from prison, joined its ranks. Renu Chakravartty wrote 
about public reaction to the boldness of her and her colleagues: 
they thought us to be a peculiar type of women, going all over the area from house 
to house, shamelessly talking to everybody ... Many [women] became members 

of our area samities. Others shooed us away. Menfolk made sarcastic remarks and 
asked their wives to stay away from us.”! 

It was not easy to hold the attention of the women who attended 
their meetings. Women brought their children, talked among them- 
selves, and left when they were bored. The organizers experimented 
with plays, songs, and stories to hold their audience. As the meetings 
became more interesting and accessible, the movement grew and in 
1942 was renamed Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti. In addition to calling for 
the release of Gandhi and other nationalist leaders, MARS taught 
women about the evils of fascism and instructed them in self-defense.” 

On March 17, 1943, a procession of 5,000 women from Calcutta and 
its suburbs marched to the Legislative Assembly protesting against 
rising prices and demanding food. Hunger marches by women fol- 
lowed in Bankura, Pabna, Madaripur, Badarganj, Dinajpur, and 
Chittagong.”> MARS members were prominent in all these demonstra- 
tions and there is no doubt they gave local women courage. In 
Midnapur 200 women went to the rice mill demanding lower prices. 
They stood their ground when threatened with police action and were 
finally allowed to buy rice at their price.”* 

In April 1943, 500 women attended the first MARS conference. 
Mohini Devi, an elderly freedom fighter, presided and Ela Reid, an 

70 Renu Chakravartty, Communists in the Indian Women’s Movement, p. 28. 
" Ibid, p.18. 7 Ibid. pp.20-9. 7 Ibid.,pp.34-5. ™ Ibid., p. 39. 


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American follower of M. N. Roy, became organizing secretary. At this 
meeting Renu Chakravartty, Kamala Chatterjee, and Manikuntala 
Sen, all members of the Communist Party, spoke about women’s 
primary interests: food and self-defense.” By this time MARS 
branches were in twenty-one districts with over 22,000 women as 

Famine work attracted a number of women who had belonged to the 
revolutionary movement in the early 1930s. Experienced in organizing, 
toughened by jail experience, and deeply moved by the suffering they 
witnessed, these women stepped forward to lead the movement. 
Kalyani Das Bhattacharjee, the organizer of Chattri Sangha, toured the 
famine-stricken regions of the province and set up 200 medical relief 
centers run by women.” 

The AIWC set up food kitchens in Bankura District which fed about 
50,000 people daily and established relief centers in Bhola, Rajbari, 
Tamluk, Comilla, and Mymemsingh Districts. Foodgrains were sup- 
plied to the city of Calcutta and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, after touring the 
province, devised a plan for children’s homes. All over India ATWC 
branches raised money for famine relief.”” Their work was impressive 
and they saved many lives, but unlike MARS they did not encourage 
political activism. 

Leftist women like Renu Chakravartty and Manikuntala Sen were 
becoming increasingly critical of the AIWC. They had worked in the 
organization and acknowledged its good work, but found AIWC resis- 
tance to mass membership frustrating. When the question of including 
poor women in the AIWC was broached in 1942, some of the older 
members called this a Communist plot.” Younger women maintained 
that by ignoring political aspects of oppression the AIWC did nothing 
to help women fight continued exploitation.”” 

> Ibid., pp. 36-7. 
76 Kalyani Das Bhattacharjee, “A Short Life Sketch of Kalyani Bhattacharjee,” unpublished, 

P- 5- 

7” Aparna Basu and Bharati Ray, Women’s Struggle: A History of the All India Women’s 
Conference 1927-1990 (New Delhi, Manomar, 1990), pp. 74-5. 

78 AIWC, minutes of the half-yearly meeting of the standing committee (June 1942), p. 6; 
Renu Chakraborty, “New Perspectives for Women’s Movement after Twenty-Five Years 
of Drift,” Link (August 15, 1972), pp. 177-81. 

79 Renu Chakravartty, interviews (Calcutta, July 23, 1972, August 15, 1972). 


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Outside the country, Indian women joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s 
Indian National Army.*° Bose,*! a disaffected Congress leader, escaped 
from Calcutta in January 1941, and made his way to Berlin to strike a 
deal with Hitler. Almost a year and a half later he traveled by subma- 
rine to Tokyo where he took charge of Indian prisoners of war. These 
prisoners were taken to Singapore to be transformed into an army of 

On July 9, 1943, the Indian Independence League of Singapore made 
Subhas Bose their president and promised him the funds and personnel 
necessary to fulfill his dream. He called for total mobilization: 300,000 
soldiers, Rs 30,000,000, and “a unit of brave Indian women.”* 

A few days later Bose addressed the women’s section of the League 
and asked them to join the Rani of Jhansi brigade. Bose wanted women 
to be full partners in the freedom struggle; now he was proposing a 
women’s regiment to fight with Indian men.* He had discussed the 
women’s regiment with his secretary during their submarine journey to 
Japan and composed this speech long before he reached Singapore.** 

Subhas Bose also added a Department of Women’s Affairs to the 
League and appointed Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan® as head. Lakshmi 
Swaminathan (b. 1914) was born in Madras, trained as a medical doctor, 
and practiced medicine in Singapore. She recalled her impression of 
Subhas Bose after their first meeting: “His utter, absolute sincerity 
struck me most and I felt this man would never take a wrong step and 
that one could trust him completely and have the utmost confidence in 
him.”8¢ The first goal of the department was to recruit women for the 
INA, but its long-range goal was equality for women.” 

Subhas Bose told Dr. Lakshmi and the women of Singapore he 
wanted them to follow the brave example of women freedom fighters 
in India. Women had demonstrated their fearlessness through 

© On the Indian National Army see, Peter Ward Fay, The Forgotten Army (New Delhi, Rupa 
and Co., 1994). 

The most exhaustive work on Subhas Bose is Leonard A. Gordon’s Brothers Against the 
Raj (New York, Columbia University Press, 1990). 

82 M. Gopal, ed. The Life and Times of Subhas Chandra Bose (Delhi, Vikas, 1978), p. 280. 
Gordon, Brothers against the Raj, p. 496. 

Krishna Bose, “Women’s Role in the Azad Hind Movement,” unpublished paper, p. 4. 
Also written Swaminadhan, she was the daughter of Ammu Swaminathan. 

8 Quoted in Gordon, Brothers against the Raj, p. 497. 

8? Lakshmi Swaminathan Sahgal, interviews (Kanpur, March 19, 20, and 21, 1976). 



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Gandhian protests and revolutionary acts, he told them. To continue 
this tradition and link it with India’s historical fight for freedom, the 
regiment was named after the Rani of Jhansi, the heroine of 1857.*° 
The first Rani of Jhansi training camp opened near Singapore on 
October 22, 1943, with Subhas Bose presiding. Dr. Lakshmi 
Swaminathan, now Captain Lakshmi, took charge of the regiment’s 
fighting and nursing units. Janaki Davar, one of the young women who 
volunteered to become a rani, first read about the regiment in the news- 
paper. When Subhas Bose came to Kuala Lumpur, she went to hear his 
speech and offered her earrings for his war chest. Her parents were 
furious but she persuaded them to invite Captain Lakshmi for tea. 
Janaki recalled that afternoon: 
I had got hold of an application form for the regiment and filled it out, and after 
father had met Captain Lakshmi I asked him to sign it; I had to have a parent’s sig- 

nature; and he signed it. Before he could change his mind I turned it in at the 
League. After several weeks, instructions came to go down to Singapore.* 

At age seventeen, Janaki became a rani. Japanese military leaders 
scoffed at the idea of a women’s regiment but the Japanese press and 
Indians found it inspiring. It dramatically underscored the concept of 
total mobilization and made it clear the INA was not just a prisoner- 
of-war army. 

The three camps — at Singapore, Rangoon, and Bangkok — soon had 
about 1,000 women recruits. Only a minority received nurse’s training, 
the rest were instructed as soldiers. Their preparation was essentially 
the same as that for men and they even wore a uniform of caps, shirts, 
jodhpurs, breeches, and boots. Some leaders had suggested sari uni- 
forms, but Subhas Bose and Captain Lakshmi agreed the ranis must 
dress as soldiers if they were to be taken seriously. Bose wanted them 
to have short hair but decided to leave it up to the young women; about 
go percent had their hair cut.” 

With their training completed, the young ranis begged to see action 
at the front. The evidence suggests Subhas Bose intended employing 
them in combat, but subsequent events made that impossible. A con- 
tingent of women was moved to Burma just as the Japanese were being 
pushed back from Imphal. It was clear then the only fighting the ranis 
would do would be as a retreating army. By June of 1945 they had 

88 Arun, ed., Testament of Subhas Bose (Delhi, Rajkamal Publications, 1946), pp. 193-4. 
8 Quoted in Peter Ward Fay, The Forgotten Army, p.220. ™ Sahgal, interviews. 


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returned to Singapore while Captain Lakshmi stayed behind in the 
jungles of Burma to carry on rescue work. The ranis saw their com- 
mander, Subhas Bose, for last time on August 14 when they staged a 
drama on the life of the Rani of Jhansi.”! 

When the British returned to Burma and Malaya, they first inter- 
rogated the men who had joined the INA and then the women. 
Expecting shy and helpless women coerced into joining this army, the 
British were shocked when these young women appeared in full 
uniform, saluted smartly, and declared themselves members of the Rani 
of Jhansi regiment. Only a few of these women returned to India after 
the war, but their “story” demonstrated that women were willing to 
take up arms to free India from its foreign rulers. 

The real impact of Subhas Bose’s INA was not in military terms, but 
in its psychological effect. Tales of the brave ranis were memorialized 
in popular publications such as Jai-Hind: The Diary of a Rebel 
Daughter of India with the Rani of Jhansi Regiment masquerading as 
Captain Lakshmi’s diary. But as important as the legend of the intrepid 
ranis, was the impact of this experience on the women themselves. 
Several of these women, especially Captain Lakshmi, went on to what 
Leonard Gordon has called “exceptional careers of service.” Long after 
the war, they recalled Subhas Bose’s faith in their ability to sacrifice for 
the good of the nation.” 


In the post-war period a number of educated young women joined 
peasant movements. Jail-going for their political work in the Quit India 
movement had radicalized them, just as it had radicalized another 
generation a decade earlier.?? When they joined these peasant move- 
ments they were fighting for a vision of India that promised social and 
economic justice for men and women and rich and poor. It was a 
revolutionary vision that anticipated change far beyond that contem- 
plated by either the Indian National Congress or the women’s 

! K. Bose, Women’s Role, p. 7; Geraldine Forbes, “Mothers and Sisters: Feminism and 
Nationalism in the Thought of Subhas Chandra Bose,” Asian Studies, 2, no. 1 (1984), pp- 
23-30. % Gordon, Brothers against the Raj, p. 497. 

° Geeta Anand, “The Feminist Movement in India: Legacy of the Quit India Movement of 
1942,” senior thesis, Dartmouth College (1989), pp. 8-15. 


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The tebhaga movement 

In September of 1946 the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha (Peasant’s 
Organization) called for a mass struggle among sharecroppers to keep 
tebhaga (two-thirds) of the harvest. Young Communists went out to 
the countryside to organize peasants to take the harvested crop to their 
own threshing floor and make the two-thirds share a reality. The move- 
ment began in North Bengal and gradually spread throughout the rest 
of the province.” 

Rani Mitra Dasgupta, Manikuntala Sen, Renu Chakravartty and 
other women who had worked with MARS during the famine years 
wanted to bring rural women into this movement. Although the party 
was lukewarm in its support for this idea and the male peasants suspi- 
cious, they found rural women ready to work with them. At first 
women played a subsidiary role, helping harvest the crops, cooking 
food for the leaders, acting as lookouts, and sounding the alarm to alert 
their colleagues to danger. As police repression became more brutal and 
the Communist Party, unprepared for armed struggle, withdrew from 
active leadership, women formed their own militia, the naribabini.” 

Manikuntala Sen and Renu Chakravartty told their leaders women’s 
problems had to be addressed along with problems of economic 
exploitation and political oppression. First and foremost, meeting 
times had to be convenient for women. Second, if women were going 
to play a prominent role in the movement, something had to be done 
to free them from household work. Third, something had to be done 
about the women’s complaints that their husbands beat them, drank 
too much, and took away the money they earned through petty trade. 
But male CPI leaders wanted peasant women to be “good comrades” 
and put the struggle above personal concerns. CPI women argued 
unsuccessfully for a program that would encourage peasant women to 
defy their husbands.” 

Bimala Maji, a widow of Midnapur District, became a successful 
organizer of women. She had worked with Manikuntala Sen during the 
famine to encourage destitute women to form self-help committees. 
These women’s committees obtained paddy, on trust, from landlords; 

% §. Sarkar, Modern India, pp. 439-41. 

% Peter Custers, “Women’s Role in the Tebhaga Movement,” EPW, 21, no. 43 (October 25, 
1986), pp. wsg7—ws104. % Renu Chakravartty, interviews. 

°7 Manikuntala Sen, interview (Calcutta, February 21, 1976). 


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husked, sold it, and kept the profits after repaying the landlords. 
During the tebhaga campaign the Communist Party sent Bimala to 
Nandigram to recruit women for the movement. At first women were 
reluctant to join but before long Bimala had mobilized women to 
demand tebhaga and collect the harvest. Pursued by the police, Bimala 
went underground. As the police arrested Communist Party and Kisan 
Sabha leaders, Bimala had to assume more and more responsibility. It 
was she who made the decision and led peasants to destroy the thresh- 
ing floors of the jotedars (rich peasants) and sell the landlords’ share of 
the harvest. After an extensive search, the police captured her and kept 
her in a cage for a month until she was tried for 140 offenses. She was 
detained in prison for two and a half years.” 

There were many women like Bimala Maji and the history of the 
tebhaga movement is especially important for a history of women in 
India. The Communist cadres and Kisan Sabha were content to have 
women play a secondary role in the movement. Women helped harvest 
the paddy, carried it to the threshing floor, and sounded the alarm when 
enemies approached. As the movement became more militant and 
police repression more violent, the leaders of the movement lagged 
behind their followers. This was when peasant women stepped forward 
to play a significant role and formed the naribahini. The origin of these 
women’s units is unclear; most likely they grew out of experiences 
when women successfully repulsed the police. Peter Custers accounts 
for their appearance in terms of the lack of central control. There was, 
he asserts, “a connection between the increasingly spontaneous char- 
acter of the uprising and the more and more prominent role played by 
women.” Custers argues it was the withdrawal of the Communist 
Party with its “patriarchal prejudices” that allowed women leaders to 

Warli movement 
Godavari Parulekar worked among the Warlis, adivasis (sometimes 
referred to as tribal or aboriginal peoples) in western India, between 
1945 and 1947 to help them obtain social and economic justice. The 
daughter of a Poona advocate, Godavari Gokhale received an excellent 
formal education and was encouraged by her father to think and act 
independently. After studying law, she passed the bar exam and then 

%8 Custers, “Women’s Role,” p. ws100. ° Ibid. p. wstot. 100 Tbid., p. ws102. 


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requested admission to the Servants of India Society.’°! Working 
among women in Bombay tenements she became friends with young 
Communists. It was at this time she met and married the labor leader 
Shamrao Parulekar. During the war years she was frequently arrested, 
detained, and imprisoned for her work with labor unions. At the 
conclusion of the war she joined the Warli peasants as they struggled to 
escape their status as bonded labor. 

The primitive Warlis had once owned much of the land in Thana 
District, about sixty miles from Bombay. Under colonial rule, specula- 
tors from all over India came into the region and appropriated their 
land. These outsiders became powerful landlords and the Warlis their 
captive labor force. The Warlis were now allocated land as sharecrop- 
pers and required to pay the landlords one-third to one-half of their 
harvest as rent. Moreover, they were required to work without 

After attending a kisan (peasant) conference in 1945 Warli leaders 
were inspired to take up a red flag and defy their landlords. The land- 
lords counter-attacked, badly beating the Warlis. When the 
Maharashtra Kisan Sabha (Maharashtran Peasants’ Association) heard 
about the battle they sent Godavari Parulekar as their representative to 
live with the Warlis.1” 

Godavari soon learned that Warli women were triply oppressed. 
Victims of rape by landlords, Warli women were considered less “pure” 
than Warli men, and not infrequently accused of witchcraft and killed. 
Godavari understood the nature and seriousness of female oppression 
butcould dolittleaboutit. Her first concern was imparting arudimentary 
political education to a people engaged in revolutionary struggle. 

During the time Godavari was allied with the Warlis they suffered 
vicious attacks from both the police and army. In 1946 she was forbid- 
den to enter the Warli areas but continued to do so in secret. She stayed 
in hiding for nearly three years but was caught in 1950 and spent the 
next three years in prison.'© Finally the Warlis won the right to be paid 
for their work and some of the worst forms of exploitation were abol- 


101 See chapter 6. 

102 Sources for information on Godavari Parulekar’s work with the Warlis include, Godavari 
Parulekar, Adivasis Revolt (Calcutta, National Book Agency Private Ltd., 1975); 
Godavari Parulekar, interview (Bombay, February 24, 1980); Renu Chakravartty, 
Communists, pp. 162-9. 105 Godavari Parulekar, interview. 


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Godavari Parulekar had always worked for women’s rights and eco- 
nomic justice at the same time. In Bombay her efforts on behalf of both 
causes — for example, the literacy campaign, encouraging labor unions, 
the domestic workers’ union, and sewing classes — were significant. But 
when she worked with the Warlis, she was unable to focus on the spe- 
cific problems of women. Warli women gained the same freedom as 
their men but this movement had done nothing to liberate them from 
the gender oppression endemic to their society. 

Telangana struggle 

The “Telangana people’s struggle,” lasting from 1946 to 1951, was the 
armed uprising of men and women against the Nizam of Hyderabad. 
Hyderabad was India’s largest princely state with a population of over 
seventeen million. About 40 percent of the people lived on feudal 
estates where powerful owners had their own courts and jails. The 
feudal system allowed these owners to demand manual labor from both 
men and women. It was the landlord’s privilege to sleep with a new 
bride on the marriage night. The custom of adi bapa required a bonded 
female servant to accompany her master’s daughter to the girl’s mar- 
riage home. Once there, she had to serve the new bride and provide sex 
for the groom. In addition, landlords endured no censure for raping 
and making concubines of women who took their fancy.! The other 
60 percent of the population were settled on lands held by the Nizam. 
They were ruled by deshmukhs (overseers) who forced them to labor 
and beat them at will.!% 

Upper- and middle-class women, both Hindu and Muslim, escaped 
the oppression experienced by peasant women, but were controlled by 
purdah. Under the Nizam, Hyderabad was one of the most backward 
of the princely states. Social reforms and institutions for female educa- 
tion, measures that had begun to transform the lives of some women in 
British India and other princely states, were unknown in Hyderabad.'% 

By the 1930s women’s organizations had survived strong opposition 
and established branches in Hyderabad. At first the meetings were 
places for upper- and middle-class women to socialize but they soon 
became forums for the discussion of women’s issues. Their work on 
behalf of education and social reform nurtured women leaders who 

104 ‘Vasantha Kannabiran and K. Lalita, “That Magic Time: Women in the Telangana People’s 
Struggle,” Recasting Women, p. 182. 105 Renu Chakravartty, Communists, pp. 121-2. 
106 Kannabiran and Lalita, “That Magic Time,” pp. 182-3. 


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increasingly became aware of larger political and economic issues. 
When it was clear India would become independent, the Nizam began 
to negotiate with the British regarding his future. The Communist 
Party saw his regime crumbling and called on the All-India Trade 
Union Congress, the All-Hyderabad Student’s Union, and the 
women’s organizations to join it and the Andhra Mahasabha against the 
Nizam. At its height the Telangana movement included 3,000 villages 
and over three million people. 

Women played an important role in this struggle. There were 
deliberate attempts to mobilize women and in doing so the issues espe- 
cially important to them — wages, wife-beating, childcare, hygiene, the 
right to breast-feed infants during work, food, and even lavatories — 
were discussed. This was an organizing tactic, not a challenge to funda- 
mental ideology and strategies. In the final analysis, the very fact that 
these issues were raised was enough to gain the “loyalty and support 
[of women] without leading to an increased awareness of the nature or 
source of that subordination.”!”” Women fought, side by side with men, 
for land, better wages, an end to forced labor, and against exorbitant 
interest rates. And they were the victims of some of the worst atroc- 

“We Were Making History”: Life Stories of Women in the Telangana 
People’s Struggle, a collection of life stories of women who took part in 
the Telangana struggle, allows us to hear the voices of women who 
would never have written their memoirs. Among the many memories 
recorded is the disjointed narrative of Golla Mallamma about the 
Razakars (a private militia of the Majlis, a fundamentalist Islamic sect) 
coming to her village: 

As they came to our well, they lit a match. They set fire to a cattle shed and killed 
people. As we beat our breasts and wept, they stripped us... We began to run. We 
kept saluting them and running ... Rajakka why don’t you tell them? It was near 
their well. Rajakka will tell you... They burnt the ones they killed... They killed 

the ones they burnt... They burnt our houses too... They burnt and killed every- 
one in our village.!% 

In the liberated areas peasants seized and redistributed land and put 
an end to bonded and forced labor. In 1948 Hyderabad state was incor- 
porated into India by a “police action” and the Indian army moved to 

107 [bid., p. 187. 
108 Stree Shakti Sanghatana, “We Were Making History”: Life Stories of Women in the 
Telangana People’s Struggle (New Delhi, Kali For Women, 1989), p. 63. 


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suppress this uprising. By 1950 the Communists decided to follow the 
Chinese model and designated Telangana the “Yenan of India.” In 
response, the army intensified its efforts causing moderate sympathiz- 
ers to withdraw their support. In 1951 it was obvious there was little 
chance of victory and the movement was called off. 

The Telangana movement had brought substantial gains for the peas- 
antry. Many were able to retain the land they had acquired and forced 
labor ended. Peasant women benefited by the end of forced labor, adi 
bapa, and concubinage. But women did not receive land unless they 
were widows. The party had not developed a policy for women and 
party leaders were unable to see them as equals in the struggle.!” 


The period between the campaign for the 1937 legislatures and the first 
election in free India saw women come alive politically. In the early 
years of the twentieth century a few women began participating in 
political meetings and expressing their opinions. These were such rare 
occurrences that the presence of women in political arenas seemed to 
evoke even greater reference for Mother India. In the 1920s, women 
joined public demonstrations and brought hundreds of new recruits 
into the freedom movement. By the 1930s they marched, protested, 
picketed, and courted arrest endorsed by Gandhi’s leadership and 
tactics. By World War II the situation had changed dramatically. 

While Congress called for a Quit India campaign, the Communists 
worked to build a strong base in the countryside. Some Congressites 
went to jail, others worked underground. Subhas Bose escaped to 
Singapore to build an Indian National Army to liberate India with the 
help of the Japanese. And throughout the country, groups long held in 
check — peasants, sharecroppers, laborers, adivasis — vented their griev- 

A new generation of young women - educated, unmarried, willing 
to undertake dangerous and difficult tasks — joined these movements. 
No longer were their activities confined to “women-only” groups. In 
acting these women often incurred the enmity of their families and 
neighbors and the hostility of those they wanted to help. 

They were building the first bridges between urban middle-class 

109 “We Were Making History”, pp. 15-17. 


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women and the rural masses. That most of them were feminists seems 
evident from their writings, that most found their feminism largely 
irrelevant in the countryside is not surprising. Issues of social reform- 
ers — purdah, the legal status of women, and female education - paled 
in comparison with the brutality of forced labor and sanctioned rape. 
These educated women brought with them ideological tools that gave 
them a way of thinking and speaking about the conditions they wit- 
nessed. Learning about women’s problems first-hand, gaining the trust 
and acceptance of the women they sought to help, and working to 
accomplish real change was an entirely different proposition. 

Manikuntala Sen has written about trying to teach impoverished 
peasant women, during the tebhaga movement, about Marxism. The 
women were suffering from encounters with drunken and abusive hus- 
bands. Instead of tackling these problems or trying to teach about 
modes of production and the evils of capitalism, Manikuntala Sen con- 
fessed she talked about a future where children would be healthy and 
well fed. When Godavari Parulekar first traveled to Warli villages she 
discovered only Warli men could cook for guests while “impure” 
women were ordered to pound grain and grind spices. She was unable 
to do anything to change the situation. Those who tried to work with 
factory women learned that these women worked ten-hour shifts and 
then went home to cook and perform household tasks. Women 
involved in famine relief became sadly aware of starving women pros- 
tituting themselves to feed their children or capitulating to the desires 
of male relief workers. By listening to the women they met in the cities 
and countryside, activist women became aware of the extent to which 
women were oppressed by poverty, household work, and a patriarchal 
system which failed to value women. 

Between the Quit India movement and Independence in 1947 Indians 
faced a devastating famine and the threat of invasion. British officials 
were bewildered by a naval mutiny, peasant movements, and industrial 
strikes. For women it was difficult to maintain ideological purity. Some 
women held fast to a vision of “universal womanhood” untouched by 
the divisions of caste, class, party, and religion. But most women found 
they owed their loyalties to groups with ideologies more compelling 
than the social feminism espoused by the women’s organizations. 

The women activists of the 1940s challenged the norms of respect- 
ability that obsessed an earlier generation of women leaders. In the 
1930s sevikas dressed in orange or white saris to signal their purity and 


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devotion to the nation. They wanted to be recognized as different from 
ordinary women and courted a symbolic identification with Bharat 
Mataram (Mother India). This style was anathema to the needs of the 
1940s. Women who could work with angry mobs, peasants, “tribals,” 
factory workers, famine victims, and revolutionaries were required. 
The work was dangerous and exhausting and a number of middle-class 
women experienced first-hand the brutality usually reserved for their 
poorer sisters. Yet it seems that, for the first time, women of different 
classes were linked in a common struggle. 

As women broadened their scope two things happened. First, they 
lost their identification with the goddess and became “enemies” who 
could be beaten or killed without a moment’s notice. The other signif- 
icant change was the decline in their influence. Saraladevi Chaudhurani, 
Sarojini Naidu, Latika Ghosh, Lilavati Munshi, Manmohini Zutshi, 
and Satyavati Devi were all listened to with rapt attention. Their 
speeches to crowds or political assemblies were reported in newspapers 
and acclaimed by leaders. Women lost their privileged position when 
their numbers in political parties and movements increased. 

It is interesting to speculate why women’s concerns and ideas were 
not incorporated into the various struggles, either against the Raj or for 
social and economic justice. It was certainly not because women stood 
aloof from the battles or failed to do their part. Manikuntala Sen, for 
example, knew a lot about women’s condition and wanted to make 
their emancipation an integral part of the movement for economic 
justice. Her superiors in the party were not interested in tying gender 
oppression to the demand for a fair share of the harvest. Most women 
leaders objected to partition, but their views played no part in the final 
decisions. Yet it was women who were charged with keeping families 
together and making households run. When the division was made 
final, many found their lives shattered. 

As women had become more active and their contribution real, as 
opposed to symbolic, they undermined the hegemony of the women’s 
organizations and the myth that women spoke with one voice. Social 
feminism had nothing to offer the women of Telangana or the refugees 
after partition. Women had begun working with a wide range of parties 
and organizations, but none of these were seriously interested in gender 
justice. Unfortunately, the ideologies which replaced social feminism for 
activist women did not advocate emancipation from patriarchy. 


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On August 14, 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence from 
British rule. Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, president of the All-India 
Women’s Organization in 1946, remembered that time: 

All Indians lived through terrible, dark months after Independence. With the 
Partition of the country and the unexpected, cruel, and unhappy exchanges of 
populations between Pakistan and India forced on the peoples of both countries, 
tragedies of a magnitude and intensity beyond the grimmest imagination of any 
leader were enacted . . . The rejoicing of our nation on its liberation from nearly 
two hundred years of colonial rule was turned to mourning at the suffering of our 
people who were driven from their homes in Pakistan.! 

On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi died from an assassin’s bullet. 
Within a year women active in the major women’s organizations had 
lost their dream of a unified country and their beloved leader. 

India and Pakistan constructed themselves differently, India as a 
secular, democratic nation and Pakistan as a religious, authoritarian 
nation. This chapter will focus only on India and will attempt to draw 
out the historical roots of problems and issues of Indian women in the 
period following Independence. Specifically, it will consider women’s 
political role, the relationship of women to the modern economy, and 
the new women’s movement. 


The Indian Constitution declared equality a fundamental right. This 
document also guaranteed equal protection of the law, equal opportu- 
nities in public employment, and prohibited discrimination in public 
places. The Hindu Code, passed as separate Acts between 1955 and 
1956, rewrote for Hindus the laws of marriage and divorce, adoption, 
and inheritance. Adult suffrage added women to the electoral roles and 
political parties pledged their commitment to women’s issues. The new 

1 An Inheritance: the Memoirs of Dhanvanthi Rama Rau (Bombay, Allied Publishers Private 
Limited, 1978), pp. 227-8. 


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state developed a bureaucratic structure designed to meet the specific 
needs of women. This included creating the National Social Welfare 
Board, assigning special duties to block development officers, and 
asking the Department of Health and Welfare to prepare a specific plan 
with women in mind. In the documents of the new Indian state the past 
had been undone, modernity was triumphant, and women were no 
longer subordinate to men. 

The immediate concerns of people were not constitutional rights but 
political reality. The partition of British India into India and Pakistan 
affected millions of women and men as populations fled both countries. 
When the migrations were over more than eight million people had 
moved from Pakistan to India or from India to Pakistan. Ritu Menon 
and Kamla Bhasin have argued that the story of 1947 is: 

a gendered narrative of displacement and dispossession, of large-scale and wide- 
spread communal violence, and of the realignment of family, community and 
national identities as people were forced to accommodate the dramatically altered 
reality that now prevailed.” 

Many women - estimates range from 80,000 to 150,000 — were 
abducted during this time. Because they were seen as dependants of 
patriarchal households, India and Pakistan agreed on procedures for 
recovery and restoration.’ 

Over 30,000 women were “recovered” by 1957, the last year the 
Abducted Act was renewed. Their stories were not all alike. Some faced 
horrible brutality and were grateful to be rescued. Others had made 
peace with their new surroundings by the time they were discovered 
and saw “recovery” as a second abduction. The state, assuming the 
mantle of “father-patriarch,” was enforcing the concept of the legiti- 
mate family.’ It is only now that this policy is being questioned by 
scholars applying a feminist perspective.> 

Many of the women who participated in the social reform and polit- 
ical activities of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were pleased with the 
constitutional provisions and legal reform. Belonging to the upper and 
? Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance: Indian State and 

Abduction of Women During Partition,” EPW, 28, no. 17 (April 24, 1993), p. ws. 
> Ibid., pp. ws3-ws4. + _-Ibid., pp. ws2—-ws11. 
> The Review of Women’s Studies section in the April, 1993 issue of EPW, 28, no. 17 (April 

24, 1993), was devoted to this topic. It included the following articles: Ritu Menon and 

Kamla Bhasin, “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance,” pp. ws2—-ws11; Urvashi Butalia, 

“Community, State and Gender,” pp. ws12—ws24; Karuna Chanana, “Partition and Family 

Strategies,” pp. ws25—ws34; Ratna Kapur and Brenda Crossman, “Communalising 
Gender/Engendering Community,” pp. ws35—-ws44. 


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middle classes of society, they were poised to become the beneficiaries 
of new opportunities. The government asked prominent women’s 
organizations to assist them in developing five-year plans. These 
women agreed with government that economic growth was the most 
salient issue and shared the assumption that women would gain from 
expected prosperity. 

The best-known of the women’s organizations became institutional- 
ized as they secured permanent buildings, well-staffed offices, libraries, 
and bureaucracies of their own. They set up and continue to adminis- 
ter programs designed to serve women, especially day-care centers, 
hostels for working women, educational centers, and medical dis- 
pensaries. Like the government with which they have been closely 
allied, their approach has been “welfarist.”° Prominent women’s 
organizations have been criticized for this and faulted for not preparing 
women for new responsibilities.” Pat Caplan, in her research on Madras 
women’s organizations, observed women blocking change and per- 
petuating the traditional socialization of women as dependants.® 

The Communist women were the most vocal in expressing their dis- 
satisfaction with constitutional provisions, five-year plans, and govern- 
ment and party promises. In 1954 Vibhla Farooqui and her female 
colleagues in the CPI organized a national conference to address 
women’s issues. At this conference they founded the National 
Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) to focus attention on 
“[women’s] struggle for equal rights and responsibilities in all spheres 
of life and for improvement in their living conditions.”? They viewed 
prevailing political forces as trying to “reduce the role of women’s 
organizations to charitable work combined with, off and on, passing 
resolutions”!° and pleaded for a new orientation. At the same time they 
found their male colleagues in the CPI indifferent to women’s issues 
and reluctant to include women on working committees. Vimal 
Ranadive, secretary of the Communist Party of Bombay from 1951 to 
1962 and a trade union worker from 1962 to 1972 recalled another dif- 

© M. Mathew and M. S. Nair, Women’s Organizations and Women’s Interests (New Delhi, 
Ashish Publishing House, 1986), pp. 35-7. 

7 From Sulabha Brahme, quoted by Neera Desai in “From Articulation to Accommodation: 
Women’s Movement in India,” Visibility and Power, ed. Leela Dube, Eleanor Leacock and 
Shirley Ardener (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 294. 

8 See Patricia Caplan, Class and Gender in India (London, Tavistock Publications, 1985). 

9 Tenth Congress of the National Federation of Indian Women, Trivandrum, December, 1980 
(Delhi, NFIW, 1980), p. 3. 10 Tbid., p. 3. 


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ficulty - that of attracting working women to trade union meetings." 
Leftist women found themselves fighting “feudal ideas” on two fronts: 
within their parties and in society. 

There were other women, close followers of Gandhi, who saw eco- 
nomic and social change as more important than legal and constitu- 
tional rights. They too were dissatisfied. But many of these individuals 
also believed in voluntarism and focused their attention on grass-roots 
projects. Krishnabai Nimbkar, the former Krishnabai Rau who led 
demonstrations in Madras during the civil disobedience movement and 
went to jail for her actions, never lost her attachment to Gandhian prin- 
ciples. Antipathetic to bureaucracies and centralized government plan- 
ning, she and others like her made small inroads into the system but 
could not change the direction of major programs.” 

There are three major observations that can be made about the period 
immediately following Independence. First, the celebration of victory 
was shunted aside by the refugee issue. Second, even without this 
tragedy, there would have been disgruntlement among women over 
issues of institutionalization and bureaucratization. And third, during 
the struggle for independence some women accepted the domination of 
Congress but others did not. Many of these women worked with the 
revolutionary fringe and these tendencies carried on after 

Despite sporadic criticism, the Indian government’s commitment to 
equality was not seriously challenged until 1974 when Toward 
Equality, a report on the status of women, was published. In 1971 the 
Ministry of Education and Social Welfare appointed a committee “to 
examine the constitutional, legal and administrative provisions that 
have a bearing on the social status of women, their education and 
employment” and to assess the impact of these provisions.'4 There had 
been an internal demand for such a document but the actual timing was 
in response to a United Nations request to all countries to prepare 
reports on the status of women for International Women’s Year sched- 
uled for 1975. 

1 Geeta Anand, “The Feminist Movement in India: Legacy of the Quit India Movement of 
1942,” senior thesis, Dartmouth College (1989), p. 21. 

12 Neera Desai and Vibhuti Patel, Change and Challenge in the International Decade, 
1975-1985 (Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1985), pp. 68-9. 

3 Letter from Dr. (Mrs.) Krishnabai Nimbkar to G. Forbes (August 12, 1992). 

| Toward Equality, report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (New Delhi, 
Government of India Ministry of Education and Social Welfare, 1974). p. xii. 


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Dr. Phulrenu Guha, Union Minister for Social Welfare, chaired this 
committee with Dr. Vina Mazumdar, appointed in 1972, as member- 
secretary. The remaining nine members of the committee represented a 
wide spectrum of interests and experience. Only two of the members, 
Maniben Kara and Dr. Phulrenu Guha, had directly experienced the 
struggle for independence. Other members had worked closely with 
women’s organizations, were well-known academicians, or were 
involved in politics. The committee was asked to suggest ways to make 
women full members of the Indian state. In order to write this report, 
the committee commissioned a number of studies and interviewed 
about 500 women from each state. By 1973 they had concluded their 
proceedings. These studies and the report issued in 1974 were the first 
major effort to understand the extent to which constitutional guaran- 
tees of equality and justice had not been met for women. Authors of 
this report charged that women’s status had not improved but had, in 
fact, declined since Independence: 

The review of the disabilities and constraints on women, which stem from socio- 
cultural institutions, indicates that the majority of women are still very far from 
enjoying the rights and opportunities guaranteed to them by the Constitution... 
The social laws, that sought to mitigate the problems of women in their family life, 
have remained unknown to a large mass of women in this country, who are as 
ignorant of their legal rights today as they were before Independence." 

This declaration, that social change and development in India had 
adversely affected women, shocked many Indians. Mrs. Indira Gandhi 
was Prime Minister and India was one of the few countries in the world 
that regularly sent women abroad as ambassadors, representatives to 
the United Nations, and delegates to international conferences. To cel- 
ebrate International Women’s Year, organizations all over the country 
were programming special sessions to publicize women’s achieve- 
ments. Only one year before Toward Equality was released, Femina, a 
popular magazine for “modern women,” published a special 
Independence Day issue with a cover portraying Indira Gandhi as the 
Goddess Durga. The brief note explaining the cover gloated: 

To be a woman — a wife, a mother, an individual - in India means many things. It 
means that you are the store-house of tradition and culture and, in contrast a 

volcano of seething energy, of strength and power that can motivate a whole 
generation to change its values, its aspirations, its very concept of civilized life.'® 

5 Toward Equality, p. 359. 16 Femina, 14, no. 17 (August 17, 1973), p- 5- 


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The feature story, “Shakti in Modern India,” credited Mahatma Gandhi 
with bringing women into politics and thereby: 
setting into motion the process of liberation of Indian women. Once out of the 

home . . . the Indian woman has been quick to seize every opportunity to free 
herself from male domination.” 

These contrasting images are startling now and were startling at the 

Toward Equality’s impact on programs and policies for women in 
India as well as our reading of the history of women in India from 
Independence until 1970 has been momentous. Following publication 
of the report the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) 
established an advisory committee on women’s studies headed by Dr. 
Vina Mazumdar. This supported further research into questions raised 
in the report. Almost all of the research carried out under the direction 
of this advisory committee attempted to discover the conditions under 
which women lived and worked in contemporary India. In 1980 the 
Center for Women’s Development Studies, an autonomous research 
institute, was founded, with Vina Mazumdar as director. This center 
has carried forward the work of studying the status of women and 
making recommendations to the government regarding policies. The 
Research Center for Women’s Studies at SNDT Women’s University 
began its work in 1974 as a research unit. Under the able directorship 
of Neera Desai, it was accorded the status of Center for Advanced 
Research in Women’s Studies by the University Grants Commission in 

The over-all picture of Indian women presented in Toward Equality 
and the studies carried out by these and other research institutes is 
depressing. Much of this literature has focused on the failure of pro- 
grams and policies. Nevertheless, the advances made by some Indian 
women have been and continue to be awe-inspiring. Further, institu- 
tional changes have made a difference, as is evidenced by the leading 
roles Indian women continue to play in India and on the world stage. 
They have been strong enough to mount a challenge to ultra-conserv- 
ative forces that would have them return to “traditional roles” that 
were fictionalized ideals even in the nineteenth century. But the main 
point of the report, that millions of Indian women have not benefited 

17 Shanta Serbjeet Singh, “Shakti in Modern India,” Femina, 14, no. 17 (August 17, 1973), p- 


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from “modernity” whether it be economic, technological, political, or 
social, remains true even today. 


The record of Indian women in politics is often cited in rebuttal to 
accounts and reports that dwell on the subordination of women. Indian 
women can vote and stand for election to all provincial and central 
bodies. Women have been ministers, ambassadors and, most notably, 
the Prime Minister. While the extent of their involvement falls far short 
of the equality promised by the Constitution it is significant in 
comparison with other countries of the world. 

Women vote in approximately the same proportion as men. Analysts 
argue that most women follow the lead of male family members, but a 
few surveys and anecdotal accounts suggest that women are increas- 
ingly interested in political power and vote independently. However, it 
does not appear that women vote for women’s issues or necessarily for 
women candidates. 

The number of women elected to the assemblies often seems larger 
than it is because of the personalities involved. The first assembly had 
very few women, about 2 percent, but included Masuma Begum who 
later became the Minister of Social Welfare and deputy leader of the 
Congress Party; Renuka Ray, a veteran social worker; Durgabai (later 
Durgabai Deshmukh), a well-known Gandhian and, after 
Independence, chair of the Central Social Welfare Board; and Radhabai 
Subbarayan, appointed delegate to the first Round Table Conference. 
Accounts from the time suggest that men in the assembly listened care- 
fully to their speeches. 

In the following elections, the return was somewhat better and 
women consistently held 4~5 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha (the 
lower house of India’s parliament) until the 1980s when their numbers 
increased to 7-8 percent. In the less powerful Rajya Sabha (the upper 
house of parliament), where members are elected by their state assem- 
blies and nominated by the President of India, women have held 
between 7 percent and 10 percent of the places.!® 

The number of elected women compares favorably with other coun- 

18 Wendy Singer, Department of Political Science, Kenyon College, Ohio, is now engaged in 
a study entitled “‘Women’ and Elections in India: 1936-1996.” This will be the first study 
of women as voters, candidates, and audience for campaign rhetoric. 


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tries. Historically women’s representation has reached 30-40 percent 
only in Scandinavian countries, the former Soviet Union, and those 
countries until recently referred to as the “Eastern bloc.” As of June 
1991, India’s percentage of women in parliament, 7.1 percent, com- 
pared favorably with the USA’s 6.4 percent, the United Kingdom’s 6.3 
percent and France’s 5.7 percent.!? 

Examined next to other nations, India’s record of women in politics 
is impressive. However, it is not remarkable from a historical per- 
spective. The politics of agitation brought women into all facets of the 
freedom movement where they demonstrated their bravery. Following 
Independence these women found it difficult to make the transition 
from agitational politics to electoral politics. 

First, there has been the problem of party backing. The political 
parties all give lip service to the ideal of women in politics but have been 
reluctant to gamble with seats. 

Second, woman candidates have disliked the rough and tumble of 
political life. While many expressed a willingness to put up with the 
hardships of a political campaign, they have not been able to change 
social attitudes about women’s proper place. Those women who 
accepted the challenge have had to endure sexual harassment and 
sordid gossip. Many women found themselves agreeing with Anutayi 
Limayi, former member of the Executive Board of the Prajya 
Socialist Party, who expressed her dislike for the political process and 
preference for the gentler arena of social welfare work.”° Ela Bhatt, a 
trade unionist and the founder of the Self-Employed Women’s 
Association (SEWA), remembered her early years in trade union 

there were no other women .. . I was very shy. Also, our people are not so kind, 
so they make up all kinds of stories. I had to travel... I had to go by car, and 
with men. Then you also stay overnight when you go. So it was not much 
approved. So I had to fight a lot and I used to feel, What am I doing? Am I doing 
the right thing??! 

These statements have led some social scientists to suggest the legacy of 
the freedom movement is the problem. Wendy Singer observed women 
avoiding the political arena for the security of “behind-the-scenes” 

19 Marie-Jose Ragab, “Women in Parliaments,” National NOW[National Organization of 
Women] Times (June, 1991), p. 8. 20 Anand, “The Feminist Movement,” p. 31. 

71 Quoted in Elisabeth Bumiller, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons (New York, 
Random House, 1990), p. 137. 


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petitioning. In Singer’s view, the method that gave women power in the 
1930s, marginalized their influence in 1989.” 

The third problem women in politics face is related to their repre- 
sentation as both “feminine” and “unfeminine” (or unsexed).”? Indian 
news media never fail to notice a woman politician, but much of the 
attention focuses on either their performance of traditional roles and 
dress, appearance, and style or on their masculine traits. In some 
instances — and Mrs. Gandhi is a case in point — political women become 
icons — dressed in the garb of a powerful goddess or the heroic Rani of 
Jhansi. But there is little room for either goddesses or warrior queens 
in day-to-day political life and women politicians must perform like 
their male colleagues. Like men, women must do battle for the bills 
they want passed and the constituencies they serve. In short, they must 
learn the games of power. 

What is worthy of attention is the striking number of women who 
have held responsible positions. For example, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur 
became Union Health Minister in 1947; Renuka Ray was West 
Bengal’s Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation; and Sucheta Kripalani 
was general secretary of the Congress in 1959, Labor Minister in the 
Uttar Pradesh cabinet in 1962, and Chief Minister of United Province 
from 1963 to 1967. Vijayalakshmi Pandit was appointed Uttar 
Pradesh’s Minister for Health and Local Self-Government in 1937 and 
following Independence was selected as a delegate to the United 
Nations. In 1947 she was appointed ambassador to the USSR and in 
1949 ambassador to the USA. In 1953 she was elected president of the 
United Nations General Assembly. This is only a short list of the 
women who have wielded power and influence in post-Independence 

The most important political woman in India was Mrs. Indira 
Gandhi (1917-84), India’s only woman Prime Minister and the second 
woman to head a state in the twentieth century.** Mrs. Gandhi’s long 
tenure in office, from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984, ended with her 
assassination on October 31, 1984. Her one political defeat was in 1977 

22 Wendy Singer, “Women’s Politics and Land Control in an Indian Election: Lasting 
Influences of the Freedom Movement in North Bihar,” in Harold Gould and Sumit 
Ganguly, eds., India Votes (Boulder, Westview Press, 1993), p. 182. 

23 Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women (London and New York, Routledge, 
1993), P- I15. 

24 Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) from 
1960 to 1965. 


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following her declaration of an “emergency” in India and the suspen- 
sion of a number of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. 

Indira was the only child of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s “Father of the 
Country,” and Kamala, a Gandhian and leader of women’s demonstra- 
tions in northern India. Indira was raised on politics. Her grandfather 
Motilal, a leading member of the Indian National Congress since the 
turn of the century, was proud to have three generations of his family 
in prison at the same time. Kamala (1899-1936), Indira’s mother, was 
unprepared by her traditional family for the sophisticated atmosphere 
of the Nehru household, but later took part in demonstrations and 
delivered forceful feminist speeches. Indira was nineteen years old 
when her mother died of tuberculosis. Six years later Indira married 
Feroz Gandhi, her mother’s devoted friend and confidant. They had 
two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, but began to live apart as Feroz’s political 
career became more demanding and Indira was increasingly occupied 
with the needs of her father the Prime Minister. 

As her father’s companion, Indira organized his domestic affairs, 
accompanied him on his many trips abroad, and played the role of offi- 
cial hostess. Older Congress bosses considered her malleable and since 
they thought they had nothing to fear, made Indira president of the 
Indian National Congress Party in 1959. Nehru died in 1964. Lal 
Bahadur Sastri succeeded him but died unexpectedly in 1966 leaving 
the country without a leader. Indira’s candidacy was supported by 
Congress Party leaders who wanted “a Nehru” in office and believed 
she would be easy to control. 

In office, Indira demonstrated more strength than predicted. By 1972 
she was victorious at home, with Congress in power both at the center 
and in many of the states; and triumphant abroad having supported 
Bangladesh in its war of independence against Pakistan. Three years 
later the high court at Allahabad overturned her election. Mrs. Gandhi 
refused to accept their decision, declared a state of emergency, and tem- 
porarily saved her own power. In the process she sanctioned measures 
that brought about the Congress Party’s first defeat at the center since 
Independence. Mrs. Gandhi was in opposition between 1977 and 1980 
when she was returned to power. That year her favored younger son, 
Sanjay, was killed when the plane he was flying crashed. 

Back in office, Indira Gandhi responded in a patterned fashion to 
threats to her power. She proclaimed dissident states ungovernable, 
declared President’s Rule, and used the central police and intelligence 


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forces to suppress regional opposition.” In 1984 Indira was assassi- 

nated by two Sikhs from her own guards. They were enraged by 

Operation Bluestar, the invasion of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, 

Sikhism’s holiest shrine. This assault was designed to capture Sant 

Bhindravale, the leader spearheading a violent movement for an inde- 

pendent Sikh state. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s eldest son, won the follow- 

ing election and remained Prime Minister until his defeat in 1989. He 
was assassinated in 1991 while campaigning to return to office. 

Indira Gandhi consistently denied she was a feminist. Speaking at a 
New Delhi college, she said, “I am not a feminist and I do not believe 
that anybody should get a preferential treatment merely because she 
happens to be a woman.” But at the same time she referred to women 
as “the biggest oppressed minority in the world,” and said Indian 
women were handicapped from birth.’” But in talking about herself, 
she denied gender had played a role in either her socialization or her 
political success.72 When McCall’s, a US publication designed for 
women, purchased a full-page advertisement in the New York Times to 
promote a feature story on her elevation to head of state in India, Indira 
was not pleased. She told reporters, “I do not regard myself as a 
woman. I am a person with a job to do.””? 

Mrs. Gandhi frequently talked about the importance of women as 
mothers and homemakers and extolled women’s traditional roles.*° 
Interviewed by Meher Pestomji of Eve’s Weekly, Mrs. Gandhi said her 
greatest fulfillment came from motherhood.*' Indira said that the 
emancipation she wanted for the average woman in India, was “an 
honourable status, in life, and that she should be able to exert her influ- 
ence for the good and benefit of the community.” 

When asked about the role of women in politics, Mrs. Gandhi replied 
2 Paul R. Brass, The Politics of India Since Independence (Cambridge, Cambridge 

University Press, 1990), p. 321. 

26 Indira Gandhi, “What Does ‘Modern’ Mean?” New Delhi, Miranda House (March, 1993), 
Great Women of Modern India, vol. vu, Indira Gandhi, ed. Verinder Grover and Ranjana 
Arora (New Delhi, Deep and Deep Publications, 1993), p. 169. 

27 Indira Gandhi, “India’s Programme for International Women’s Year,” Lok Sabha (April, 
1975), Indira Gandhi, p. 137. 

78 Indira Gandhi, “Equality — An Indian Tradition,” interview (March 1968), Indira Gandhi, 
p- 142. 2° The Asian Student (November 23, 1974), p. 5- 

3° Indira Gandhi, “Women’s Power,” speech, YWCA, Bombay (February 1975), Indira 

Gandhi, p. 153. 

31 Meher Pestonji, “All Eyes on Mrs. G!” Eve’s Weekly (October 27-November 2, 1979), p. 

32 Indira Gandhi, “All Women are Teachers,” speech, Lady Irwin College, New Delhi 
(November 1967), Indira Gandhi, p. 141. 


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that Indian men, beginning with Mahatma Gandhi, welcomed women 
to share power. Moreover, men fought for women’s rights in the past 
and they could be trusted to do so in the future. The Prime Minister did 
not think having more women in parliament would affect the political 
scene.>? Female emancipation would come when women, and men like 
her father, worked to make the Constitution a reality. 

Asked about Toward Equality’s conclusion, that the position of 
women had not improved since Independence, Indira answered: “the 
people who sit on these committees look at us from Western standards. 
Very few of them have their feet firmly on Indian soil.” Indians, she 
declared, were not sexists and were barely cognizant of the fact that the 
country was led by a woman.** 

Regrettably, feminist scholars, with the exception of Rajeswari 
Ranjan who has looked at issues associated with representation, have 
not yet tackled questions associated with the Prime Minister’s gender, 
what this meant to the country, and the extent to which her policies 
were relevant for women. Recent books on women in contemporary 
India have either ignored the fact that India had a woman holding the 
most important political office,” or claimed that reverence for the 
goddess operates in daily life to assist certain women in attaining polit- 
ical power.*8 

It is interesting that in Toward Equality the only reference to the 
Prime Minister’s gender was included in two general sentences about 
women in politics: 

Though only a very few women were able to reach the highest level of power and 
authority, those who did so were recognized for their administrative skills and 
capacity to manage their affairs. Since 1952 there have been 13 women ministers in 
the Union Government — 6 of them Deputy Ministers, 5 became Ministers of State, 
1 attained Cabinet rank and the other Prime Minister — a position which she has 
retained since 1966.” 

How should one understand the elevation of a number of Indian 
women to prominent positions and what does this mean for women in 

33 “All Eyes on Mrs. G!” p. 15. 

#4 Indira Gandhi, “Tasks Before Indian Women,” speech, SNDT Women’s University, 
Bombay (June 1968), Indira Gandhi, pp. 162-83. 

35 “All Eyes on Mrs. G!” p. 15. 

>6 Rajeswari Ranjan, “Gender, Leadership and Representation,” Real and Imagined Women, 
pp. 103-28. 

7 Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi, Daughters of Independence (London, Zed Books, 1986). 

38 Sara S. Mitter, Dharma’s Daughters (New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 
1991), p.80. > Toward Equality, p. 297. 


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India? Ashis Nandy has termed this apparent inconsistency between 
highly placed political women and the status of the masses of Indian 
women “[the] commonplace paradox of every social interpretation of 
the Indian woman.”*° He explains women’s political (and scientific) 
success in terms of the culture’s non-gendering of aggressive and 
activist traits. This hypothesis, with its focus on culture, is akin to those 
which articulate the cultural/symbolic linkage between shakti (power) 
and the feminine.*! Taking a slightly different tack in his discussion of 
the relationship between cultural values and social structure, Gerald D. 
Berreman recognizes that women’s roles are subordinate to those of 
men, but argues that women are taken seriously as human beings. 
Women’s activities may be circumscribed but women themselves are 
never trivialized.” 

Other scholars have focused on the elite status of women in promi- 
nent positions. While it is true that most of the women who attained 
positions of power belonged to “political families,” they did not all 
belong to an elite in the sense of a wealthy and powerful minority. 
There was a vast difference between Amrit Kaur and Durgabai 
Deshmukh and between Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishnabai Rau. To 
label them elites and suggest they were the beneficiaries of dynastic pol- 
itics, fails to recognize the differences in actual status and the value of 
the tutelage these women received. It also overlooks their personal 
political savvy. To understand the elevation to power of certain 
women I think it is far more useful to look at family culture, opportu- 
nities, and individual personality. 

The political scientist Mary Katzenstein has summed up the promi- 
nence of Indian women in politics as “the Mrs. Gandhi anomaly.” 
According to Katzenstein, political factors, especially the mobiliza- 
tion of women during the struggle for independence and Gandhian 
ideology, as well as the importance of kinship, have combined to 

© Ashis Nandy, “Woman Versus Womanliness: An Essay in Speculative Psychology,” Indian 
Women: From Purdah to Modernity, ed. B. R. Nanda (New Delhi, Vikas Publishing, 1976), 
p- 158. 

“| See Susan S. Wadley, “Introduction,” The Powers of Tamil Women, ed. Susan S. Wadley 
(Syracuse, N.Y., Maxwell School, 1980), pp. ix—xv. 

42 Gerald D. Berreman, “Women’s Roles and Politics: India and the United States,” in Robert 
W. O’Brien, et. al., eds., Readings in General Sociology, 4th edn. (Boston, Houghton 
Mifflin Co., 1969), pp. 68-71; Gerald D. Berreman, “Race, Caste and Other Invidious 
Distinctions in Social Stratification,” Race, 13 (July, 1971-April, 1972), pp. 386-414. 

* Imtiaz Ahmed, “Women in Politics,” in Devika Jain, ed., Indian Women (New Delhi, 
Government of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1975), pp. 301-12. 


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create opportunities for women to move into leadership positions.” 

Have the women in positions of political power been effective? As 
far as solving the problems of India’s women, the answer is no. In India 
women vote in substantial numbers and hold high political office yet 
rarely have they used their vote or office to consistently advance 
women’s cause. Many of the women in power have referenced their 
gender in political campaigns, referring to themselves as mothers, wives 
or dutiful daughters, but they have not gendered their political roles. 
Only a few women have focused specifically on women’s problems. 
For example, Mrinal Gore, a member of the Legislative Assembly of 
Maharashtra in the 1970s and member of the Lok Sabha in 1980, was 
fondly called “Paaniwalibai” (the water-woman advocate) for organiz- 
ing women against price rises and chronic water problems. Time and 
again, Mrinal Gore returned to what she argued were fundamental 
problems for women: “In so many villages today, I think half the life of 
a woman is spent in fetching water.”*> Extraordinary women like 
Mrinal Gore, Phulrenu Guha, and Renuka Ray, to name only a few, 
have made their mark but they have not had the political clout to 
improve the lot of women as a whole. 

The exigencies of political life preclude concentrating only on issues 
of interest to women or approaching all issues from a feminist per- 
spective. Nevertheless, women in political positions are highly visual 
and may serve as models of empowered women. Ela Bhatt, a member 
of the Rajya Sabha, said that having a woman as Prime Minister made 
all women more aware of their rights.” 

If the question is whether or not women can be effective politicians 
the answer is yes and the degree of success would be ascertained by 
examining individual careers. Indira Gandhi may have owed her ascent 
to power to dynastic politics but she was certainly an effective politi- 
cian. But the fact remains, political participation has not benefited 
Indian women to the extent envisioned in the 1920s and 1930s by those 
working for female enfranchisement. 

44 Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, “Toward Equality? Cause and Consequence of the Political 
Prominence of Women in India,” Asian Survey, 18, no. 5 (May, 1978), p. 483. 

“5 Binoy Thomas, “Mrinal Gore: ‘Paaniwalibai,’ Watered Down,” Society (March, 1980), pp. 
20-7; Mrinal Gore, interview (Bombay, March 18, 1980). 

“© Bumiller, May You Be the Mother, p. 151. 


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There are many who would argue that the key to women’s status is their 
economic position. Regardless of the indices consulted - ownership of 
property, control of resources, wages earned, food consumed, access to 
medical care, or sex ratio - Indian women are not the equals of Indian 

Questions about the extent to which women’s lives may have 
improved over time are difficult to answer because historians have paid 
so little attention to this topic. Prior to Independence, work loads, life 
conditions, even the views of working women were of little concern. 
Only rarely did the committees and commissions set up to study spe- 
cific questions regarding labor include interviews with the workers 
themselves, and when they did it was generally the men they asked. 
Occasionally members of the women’s organizations spoke on behalf 
of their “less fortunate” sisters. This has changed in the sense that we 
now have studies of female workers in a range of industries from 
construction” to milk production.*8 

Moreover, recent scholarship challenges both the modernization 
paradigm and its assumptions regarding women. Champions of 
modernization have claimed that technology, industrialization, and 
capitalism improve living conditions for the entire population and that 
women experience economic change in the same way as men. The early 
leaders of independent India shared some of the assumptions about the 
benefits of technology and industrialization and hoped to alleviate or 
correct the worst abuses of capitalism through long-range planning and 
continued state involvement. While there were a number of Marxist 
scholars ready to challenge the benefits of this planned change, the 
second assumption, viewing women as natural beneficiaries, went 
unchallenged until the advent of feminist scholarship. 

The most disturbing comment on contemporary Indian society has 
been made by those economists and demographers who have noted 
India’s differential sex ratio.” At the beginning of the century there 

7 Leela Gulati, “Devaki, the Construction Worker,” chapter 5 of Profiles in Female Poverty 
(Delhi, Hindustan Publishing, 1981). 

48 Devaki Jain, “Milk Producers of Kaira,” Women’s Quest for Power (Sahibabad, U.P., Vikas 
Publishing, 1980). 

© Barbara D. Miller, The Endangered Sex (Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1981); 
Amartya Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” The New York Review 
(December 20, 1990), pp. 61-6. 


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were 972 females per 1,000 males, by 1941 the ratio had fallen to 945 
females per 1,000 males and it fell even further, to 933 females per 1,000 
males, by 1981.°° The economist Amartya Sen wrote: “We confront 
here what is clearly one of the most momentous, and neglected, prob- 
lems facing the world today.”>! 

It is important to note that there are variations in sex ratios in differ- 
ent regions of India. In 1981 Kerala reported a female to male sex ratio 
of 1,032: 1,000, while Haryana and Punjab, two of India’s more 
prosperous states, reported sex ratios of 870:1,000 and 879:1,000 
respectively. Most researchers agree that female survival chances are 
lower than those for males because of differential feeding and health 
care. Jocelyn Kynch and Amartya Sen have drawn our attention to the 
combination of the lowness of the female—male ratio with the declining 
trend of this ratio. They comment: 

Indeed, with economic and social progress, as the absolute position of both men 
and women has improved, the relative position of women seems to have fallen 
behind. If we judge well-being in a poor country like India by the capability to live 
long, women’s well-being has fallen vis-a-vis men’s, even though absolutely both 
have increased substantially.” 

Why this happens cannot be adequately explained by turning to cul- 
tural values or poverty and underdevelopment. The most compelling 
explanations for this pattern look at women’s low rate of participation 
in the market economy and the low valuation placed on them as human 

Toward Equality blames women’s low economic status on public 
policies that view women’s work as supplemental to family incomes 
and to the economy generally. Statistical evidence from the census 
showed a decline in women’s participation in the formal economic 
sector, both as a percentage of the total female population and as a per- 
centage of the total population. Members of the committee explained 
this decline, first, as part of the process of the “transformation of the 
role of the household and small-scale industry in the national 
economy.”°? As production moved from the household to the orga- 
nized sector of the economy, women were the biggest losers. They were 

° Bina Agarwal, “Rural Women, Poverty and Natural Resources: Sustenance, Sustainability 
and Struggle for Change,” EPW, 24, no. 43 (October 28, 1989), p- ws47. 

51 Amartya Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” p. 66. 

52 Jocelyn Kynch and Amartya Sen, “Indian Women: Well-being and Survival,” Cambridge 
Journal of Economics, 7, no. 3/4 (September/December, 1983), p. 371. 

3 Toward Equality, p. 153. 


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not able to compete for jobs in the new industries that relied more 
heavily on technology and called for skills and education women did 
not have. Second, their presence in the modernized workforce was not 
viewed as desirable. The authors of Toward Equality commented: 
“opposition to increasing opportunities for women’s participation in 
economic activities springs . . . from a conservative view regarding 
women’s ‘proper’ role in society.” This has led to economic marginal- 
ization of women in the unorganized sector where they are especially 
vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation.** 

At the same time, women have made substantial gains in the profes- 
sions and in certain sections of the service industries. To conclude that 
these gains have been neutralized by women’s disappearance from 
other areas of the economy is valid only in the statistical sense. 
However, women’s growing importance in the service industries and 
professions focuses new attention on the problems associated with 
housing, transportation, sexual harassment, and conservative atti- 

The available data on the lives of working women challenges the 
assumption that women’s position will automatically improve as the 
economy modernizes.** The very opposite seems to have happened; 
when work moves from the household to the factory or mill, it is 
women who lose. For example, the beedi (traditional cigarette) indus- 
try, infamous for its exploitation of women, is being mechanized. 
Instead of benefiting from higher wages and improved working condi- 
tions, women who work in this industry are losing their meager 

Recent data also calls into question assumptions about the benefits 
to women of family prosperity. Most social scientists interested in 
India’s economic development have assumed that richer families would 
provide better food, clothing, and medical care for their daughters as 
well as their sons. Not so. In studies of child nutrition in rural areas, it 

54 Ibid., pp. 149-50. 

55 Madhu Kishwar, “Sex Harassment and Slander as Weapons of Subjugation,” Manushi, 68 
(January-February, 1992), pp. 2-15. 

56 For example, see the articles in a special issue of EPW, 24, no. 17 (April 29, 1989), pp. 
wsi-ws44: C. Sridevi, “The Fisherwoman Financier”; Nirmala Banerjee, “Trends in 
Women’s Employment, 1971-1981”; Jeemoi Unni, “Changes in Women’s Employment in 
Rural Areas, 1961-1983”; Roger Jeffrey, Patricia Jeffrey and Andrew Lyon, “Taking Dung- 
Work Seriously”; and Miriam Sharma, “Women’s Work is Never Done.” 

57 Prayag Mehta, “We Are Made to Mortgage Our Children — Interviews With Women 
Workers of Vellore,” Manushi, 22 (1985), pp. 14-17. 


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16 Entertainer, Rajasthan 


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17 Indian women police, n.d. 

appears that well-off peasant families continue to spend on sons and 
deprive daughters. In other words, son preference persists even in 
prosperous families.*® 

“Female feticide,” that is, the practice of aborting the female fetus 
after sex-determination tests, offers another challenge to the view that 
prosperity will benefit females. Mostly it is the middle class who 
condone this practice that makes possible both small families and 

The third assumption challenged by recent studies is that employed 
women will demand changes in the system. In India there are organiza- 
tions that strive for better working conditions for women, encourage 
labor unions to take the demands of women seriously, and publicize 
sexual harassment in the workplace. But they have not been able to 
change public policy. In those areas where women have organized they 
have had some impact on the system and been able to garner for them- 

58 Amartya Sen, Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam, North Holland, 1985), pp. 

5° Uma Arora and Amrapali Desai, “Sex Determination Tests in Surat,” Manushi, 60 
(September—October, 1990), pp. 37-8; Manju Parikh, “Sex-Selective Abortion in India: 
Parental Choice or Sexist Discrimination,” Feminist Issues (fall, 1990), pp. 19-32; Vibhuti 
Patel, “Sex-Determination and Sex Preselection Tests in India: Recent Techniques in 
Femicide,” Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, 2, no. 2 (1989), pp. Il 1-19. 


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selves a greater share of the resources available. For example, SEWA of 
Ahmedabad has been successful in helping women obtain small loans 
to build their businesses. But improved economic status does not guar- 
antee these women will become rebels against a system that oppresses 
them. Far more common is a tendency to seek status in the existing 
system and that may mean using hard-earned money for a daughter’s 
dowry rather than her education. 


The first women’s movement, dubbed in retrospect “first-wave fem- 
inism,”©° condemned tradition and religion for women’s suffering 
and sought redress in education and legal change. It was feminist in 
the sense that leaders of the organizations forming this movement 
recognized women as oppressed because of their sex. They con- 
structed women as biologically, psychologically, and spiritually 
different from men and based their claim for representation in public 
life on the complimentarity of this difference. Women, social femi- 
nists had argued, could bring a special knowledge of the household 
and family matters to forums where public policy was debated and 
formulated. This ideology fitted well with Gandhi’s view of women 
and the nationalists’ desire to bring women into the freedom move- 
ment. With the British gone, social feminism was incapable of either 
explaining women’s subordination to men or providing a blueprint 
for change. 

Beginning in the 1930s some feminists critiqued the patriarchal state 
and family system but they were unable to forcefully challenge social 
feminism. In the 1960s, women dissatisfied with the status quo joined 
struggles of the rural poor and industrial working class. Neera Desai 
has catalogued this activity and given it a place in the development of 
the contemporary women’s movement: 

Participation of women in the Naxalbari movement, anti-price rise demonstra- 
tions, Navnirman Youth Movement in Gujarat and Bihar, rural revolt in Dhule 

District in Maharashtra and Chipko Movement provided a backdrop for the 
ensuing struggles on women’s issues.°! 

6 Geraldine Forbes, “Caged Tigers: First Wave Feminists in India,” WS/Q, 5, no. 6 (1979), 
PP. 525-36. 

6! Neera Desai, ed., A Decade of Women’s Movement in India (Bombay, Himalaya 
Publishing House, 1988), p. vii. 


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Gail Omvedt has traced the origins of the contemporary women’s 
movement to the early 1970s when rural and working women were first 
trained as leaders. But there were few linkages at that time to the 
urban, intellectual women who could articulate the oppression of rural 
and working women in feminist terms. Most well-educated women 
would agree with Vina Mazumdar who recalled those years and said 
about herself and her academic associates: “We hadn’t a clue.”® 

The UN declaration of International Women’s Year and the 
International Women’s Decade led to the appointment of the Guha 
Committee and its subsequent report. These two events coincided with 
a new spirit among individuals, groups, grass-roots activists, and 
researchers that made them search for ways to prevent “the oppression 
and exploitation, sexual harassment and domestic violence” they were 
now experiencing and which they knew were equally a fact of life for 
the agrarian poor, artisans, and tribal populations. 

Vina Mazumdar remembered her shock when she first read the data 
being assembled by the Guha Committee. Her second reaction was 
anger and the feeling that “something has to be done.”® The heat and 
energy generated by Toward Equality and the emerging research data 
provided the intellectual foundation for a new women’s movement. 

The contemporary feminist movement emerged in the late 1970s and 
early 1980s. Replacing the all-India women’s organizations were a large 
number of autonomous groups, joined not through the structure of a 
formal association, but through the connections of their leaders, an 
emerging feminist press, the general media’s coverage of women’s 
issues, and periodic large-scale meetings or conventions. Mary 
Katzenstein has defined the contemporary women’s movement in India 
as similar to the women’s movement in Europe in that feminist groups 
are dispersed, without one centralized organization, and with “political 
commitments and language . . . more leftist than liberal.”°* In 
Katzenstein’s words this movement is made up of “a panoply of 
organizations” from all castes and classes, rural and urban areas, and 
involving both activist and academic women.” Autonomous organiza- 

& Gail Omvedt, Reinventing Revolution (Armonk, N.Y., M. E. Sharpe, 1993), pp. 76-7. 

© Quoted in Bumiller, May You Be the Mother, p. 124. 

6 A.R. Desai, “Women’s Movement in India: An Assessment,” EPW, 20, no. 23 (June 8, 
1985), p. 992. 6 Quoted in Bumiller, May You Be the Mother, p. 126. 

6 Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, “Organizing Against Violence: Strategies of the Indian 
Women’s Movement,” Pacific Affairs, 62, no. 1 (spring, 1989), p. 54. 

67 Tbid., p. 54. 


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tions played a major role in awakening a new consciousness about 
women’s problems. In October 1975 a coalition of activist women 
organized the United Women’s Liberation Struggle Conference in 
Pune. Over 700 women, including agricultural laborers and professors, 
coolies and bank employees, teachers and students, met for two days to 
discuss a range of women’s issues from dowry to clean drinking water. 
This conference was followed by others in different regions of India. 
What is especially significant about these conferences is the class diver- 
sity and the breadth of issues under discussion. This diversity was only 
possible in what Omvedt has characterized as “a new atmosphere of 
cultural radicalism” that made possible a critique of the Ram-Sita par- 

This women’s movement continued to focus on traditional practices, 
beliefs, and institutions as the source of oppression. It also attended to 
violence against women, the institutional framework for the mainte- 
nance of gender differences, and the impact of the economic situation 
on the day-to-day lives of women. 

One of the first steps taken by the leaders of this movement was to 
break the silence: to expose the “various categories of humiliation, 
atrocities, tortures and individual and mass assault to which they 
[women] were subjected.””° This meant breaking through the image of 
the ideal Indian woman as accommodating, self-sacrificing, and 
devoted to serving her family. It also necessitated an attack on the 
family. At the same time, newly vocal activist-scholars stepped up their 
criticism of the growing powers of the central state. The women com- 
mitted to fomenting change were now critiquing the family, the 
government, and the larger society. 

Exposing gendered violence began in the mid-1970s but escalated 
toward the end of the decade. In 1979 a small group of women in New 
Delhi began to publish Manushi, A Journal about Women and Society 
in Hindi and English. This has now become India’s premier feminist 
journal, treating specifically women’s issues, such as sexual harassment 
or the adjustment expected of a new bride; violence against women, in 
the home and as a weapon of political and social control; history and 
literature on, about, and by women; and social/political/economic 
issues such as communalism and public health policy. 

In 1980 the Mathura case shocked middle-class women into demon- 

6 Omvedt, Reinventing Revolution, p.82. © Ibid., p. 83. 
70 A.R. Desai, “Women’s Movement,” p. 992. 


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strating against police brutality and government complacency. 
Mathura, a low-caste girl of between fourteen and sixteen years of age, 
was detained by the police for questioning and raped in the police 
station. Released, Mathura complained about the rape but the police- 
men claimed she had consented to sexual relations. The sessions judge 
believed the policemen, but the Nagpur branch of the Bombay High 
Court found them guilty of rape and imposed prison sentences. The 
incident happened in 1972. Six years late the Supreme Court reversed 
this judgment since there was no evidence Mathura had resisted. 

Professor Upendra Baxi of Delhi University Law School noticed this 
case in a law journal and together with three colleagues, Raghunath 
Kelkar and Lotika Sarkar of Delhi University and Vasudha 
Dhagamwar of Pune University, wrote an open letter to the Chief 
Justice urging him to review the case.?! Women’s organizations 
demanded the case be reopened. When the Supreme Court dismissed 
these petitions on technical grounds, women in New Delhi and 
Bombay demonstrated in the streets shouting: “Supreme Court, 
Supreme Court. Against you, where can we report?””? 

The government appointed a Law Commission to study the problem 
and suggest amendments to the existing law and in 1980 a criminal law 
amendment bill was introduced. This was deemed unsatisfactory. 
When the Supreme Court reviewed the issue, it concluded: “the uncor- 
roborated testimony of a rape victim should not be ordinarily 
doubted.””? Women activists had wanted rape recognized as a violent 
crime but knew this legislation would not protect women from rape.”* 

Rape was only one issue that galvanized the contemporary women’s 
movement. “Dowry murders,” the term used to refer to the deaths by 
burning of young married women by their in-laws, emerged as a new 
phenomenon in the late 1970s. One of the first protests against these 
incidents occurred in July of 1979 when 200 angry demonstrators 
shouted slogans in front of a house in a prosperous New Delhi 
suburb. A young wife of twenty-four years had burned to death in her 
father-in-law’s home and the crowd were demanding a police 
investigation of this “accident.” Earlier that evening the woman had 

71 Subhadra Butalia, “The Rape of Mathura,” Eve’s Weekly (March 8-14, 1980), pp. 10-13. 

7 “The Rape Rap,” India Today (June 30, 1983), p. 44. ® Ibid., p. 44. 

7* “The Raped Still Tremble,” Probe India (March 1983), p. 53; Vibhuti Patel, “Recent 
Communal Carnage and Violence Against Women in Connivance with the State 
Machinery,” presented to the House of Commons, UK (February 2, 1993). 


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gone to her parent’s home and told them her husband wanted a 
scooter. She also told them her in-laws were mistreating her. When her 
husband came to take her home, she resisted and he beat her in the 
presence of her brother. Her brother called the police but they would 
not interfere. Hours later she burned to death in a kitchen fire. Many 
of the neighbors refused to believe this was an accident and those pro- 
testing accused the dead woman’s in-laws of committing a “dowry 

In the following months women activists began to pay particular 
attention to the deaths of young, newly married women. The 
number of deaths attributed to accidental fires was extraordinary. 
There were 358 such death in Delhi in 1979, less than fifty were sui- 
cides, twenty-three were labeled “dowry burnings,” and the remain- 
der were classified as “accidental.” Everyone who investigated these 
deaths heard from grieving families and shocked neighbors eager to 
expose these accidents as grisly murders. Families produced evidence 
in the form of letters from their daughters about continuous harass- 
ment and demands for additional dowry. Neighbors had their own 
stories to tell: of wife abuse, of seeing young women with their saris 
on fire run into courtyards screaming for help, and of hasty funeral 
services. Only rarely were the police involved and on most of those 
occasions they seemed to concur that the deaths had been suicides or 

The number of accidental deaths that fitted this pattern increased to 
466 in Delhi by 1981 and 537 by 1982.” In 1982 a group of women 
activists in New Delhi set up Saheli, a small-scale women’s center, in a 
garage in a south Delhi residential colony. None of the volunteers who 
staffed this space believed they would be able to stop dowry murders 
but they hoped to provide counsel and shelter for endangered women. 
Saheli volunteers began to keep records on the deaths of women and 
7° Suaina Low, “The Gentle Stirrings of their Discontent,” Jmprint (May 1983), p. 38. 

76 The literature on “dowry deaths” is extensive. For example, see Chairanya Kalbag, “Until 
Death Do Us Part,” India Today (July 15, 1982), pp. 52-3; Saheli Newsletter, 1, no. 2 (June, 
1984); Lotika Sarkar, “Feeble Laws Against Dowry,” Facets, 3, no. 3 (May-June, 1984), pp. 
2-5; Sevanti Ninan, “At the Crossroads of the Courts,” Express Magazine (November 27, 
1983); Vimla Farooqui, “Dowry as a Means of Acquiring Wealth and Status,” HOW (May, 
1983), pp. 11-12, 16; “Daughters, Dowry and Deaths,” Newsletter, Research Unit on 
Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, 4, no. 4 (November, 1983), pp. 1-2; Law 
Commission of India, Ninety-first Report on Dowry Deaths and Law Reform (August 10, 
1983). There have also been numerous articles in Manushi. 

These numbers were obtained from Saheli, a New Delhi organization. They cite their 
source as police records. 



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whenever possible intervened with the police to demand more thor- 
ough investigations.” 

Saheli was the first of many small centers established to address 
issues of domestic violence and harassment. “Dowry murders” were 
reported daily in the capital’s newspapers, discussed in all the estab- 
lished women’s organizations, and addressed by the editors of impor- 
tant feminist publications. 

Outside Delhi, cities and towns all over India began to report unusu- 
ally high numbers of young newly married women dying following 
domestic fires. The numbers never approached those in Delhi but they 
pointed to a widespread pattern of violence against women. For those 
who have studied dowry murders two conclusions seem apparent: 
these deaths are related to the larger issue of the low valuation of 
women, and consumerism has brought about a new way of exploiting 
women’s dependency. In other words, dowry deaths are about both 
tradition and modernity. 

As the campaign against these deaths escalated, politicians hastened 
to condemn the practice and blame it on non-compliance with the 
Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. Pramila Dandavate introduced a 
private member’s bill in 1980 to amend the laws against dowry. 
Activists agreed that additional legislation was in order. 

By August of 1982 the Joint Committee of the Houses (chaired by 
Shrimati Krishna Sahi), appointed to examine the question of the 
working of the Dowry Prohibition Act, presented their report to the 
Lok Sabha.”? During subsequent hearings the Law Commission of 
India presented a report titled “Dowry Deaths and Law Reform.” 
These hearings produced a bill in 1984 that was then amended, and 
passed, in 1986. This legislation increased the punishment for accept- 
ing dowry and decreed that in cases where a woman died an unnatural 
death, her property would devolve on her children or be returned to 
her parents. The campaign was over, new legislation had been passed, 
but dowry deaths continue.*° 

In September of 1987 the death of Roop Kanwar, an eighteen-year- 

8 Saheli Newsletter, 1, no. 2 (June, 1984); Sahel: Report (November 25, 1983). Both were pri- 
vately circulated. 

7”? Report of the Joint Committee of the Houses to Examine the Question of the Working of 
the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, C.B. (II), no. 333 (New Delhi, Lok Sabha Secretariat, 

8° Flavia Agnes, “Protecting Women Against Violence? Review of a Decade of Legislation, 
1980-1989,” EPW, 27, no. 17 (April 5, 1992), pp. ws19-ws33. 


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old woman burned to death with her husband’s corpse in the village of 
Deorala in Rajasthan, claimed the attention of feminists. Roop Kanwar 
was hailed as a sati, that is, a virtuous women who had chosen death 
instead of widowhood. Sati was abolished in 1829 and as Veena 
Oldenburg has written: 

With the law in place and enforced, the act of committing sati — whether the 

widow’s participation was voluntary or coerced —was shorn of all mystification, 
glory, glamour, and ritual significance, and adjudged to be simply a crime.®! 

Nevertheless, hundreds attended this sati-style death and cheered as 
Roop Kanwar burned to death. On September 16 the chunari mahot- 
sava, a ceremony that commemorates a recent sati and consecrates the 
ground where it took place, was performed with an estimated 500,000 
people in attendance. While Rajasthani men guarded the site of the 
pyre, enterprising businessmen sold photographs and souvenirs, and 
clever politicians reverentially visited the spot.*? 

Roop Kanwar’s death mobilized feminists and liberals to protest 
this so-called sati as a crime of violence, called “cold-blooded 
murder” by some. They condemned society for neglecting and mis- 
treating widows, thereby forcing some women to prefer death to the 
living hell of widowhood.® For the first time in history Indian fem- 
inists made the burning of women their issue and declared they 
would not stand by while their sisters were murdered in the name of 
some distant and purportedly hallowed tradition. The government 
reacted with legislation. Parliament passed a Sati Prevention Bill, a 
repeat of the 1829 legislation, and outlawed its glorification. 
According to Veena Oldenburg this law obfuscates the difference 
between voluntary and coerced sati, defines sati as a women’s crime, 
and makes the other people involved in the sati guilty only of abet- 
ting the woman’s act.** 

There was a sensational aspect to the Mathura case, “dowry deaths,” 
and the Deorala sati that attracted both Indian media and foreign atten- 
tion. Young single women at colleges and universities and working at 
jobs in cities read about these incidents, met and talked about them, and 
decided to take action. In major Indian cities street theater, demonstra- 

81 Veena Talwar Oldenburg, “The Roop Kanwar Case: Feminist Responses,” Sati, the 
Blessing and the Curse, ed. John S. Hawley (New York, Oxford University Press, 1994), 
p-102.  ® “A Pagan Sacrifice,” India Today (October 15, 1987), pp. 58-63. 

83 “Sati — Cold Blooded Murder,” Research Center Women’s Studies Newsletter, 8, nos. 3 and 
4 (December 1987), pp. 1-14. 84 Oldenburg, “The Roop Kanwar Case,” p. 126. 


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tions, documentation centers, and new organizations emerged.® And 
in the rural areas new groups and coalitions formed to protest exploita- 
tive work and issues of violence. 

The government responded to the urban campaigns about rape, 
dowry deaths, and sati murders with legislation. Flavia Agnes com- 
mented on the startling number and extent of the enactments: 

If oppression could be tackled by passing laws, then this decade would be adjudged 

a golden period for Indian women ... Almost every single campaign against vio- 
lence on women resulted in new legislation. 

Unfortunately, hard questions about the deeper causes of this violence 
and the ability of the law to remedy the situation were rarely asked. The 
result has been a decade of extraordinary legislation and subsequent 
despair because these laws have meant so little in practice. Once passed 
this legislation depended for enforcement on men whose view of 
women and their place in the world had not changed. In the process of 
“breaking the silence” feminists had turned to the government for help. 
The government responded and assured women it could and would be 
their protector. Now it appears the “protector” has used women’s 
issues for its own ends. Real issues have not been addressed but the 
central state has emerged with more control of people’s private lives.” 

Even as questions of violence against women have brought a new and 
significant focus to the women’s movement other issues have frag- 
mented this new solidarity. The gravest challenges have come from a 
revitalized and gendered communalism as illustrated by the Shah Bano 
case and the dispute over the mosque at Ayodhya. 

In April of 1985, the Supreme Court granted Shah Bano, a divorced 
Muslim woman, the right to financial support from her former 
husband. The Muslim community protested. This was the final deci- 
sion in a long series of suits and appeals in which her ex-husband 
argued that he had discharged his duty according to Muslim law. The 
Supreme Court, in reaching their decision, cited Section 125 of the 
Criminal Procedure Code that requires husbands with means to 
support destitute ex-wives.*® 

85 Saumitra Banerjee, “Women against Rape,” Sunday (March 30, 1980), pp. 40-3; Subhadra 
Butalia, “Taking it to the Streets,” The Times of India (March 2, 1980), p. III. 

86 Agnes, Protecting Women, p.wsi9. —*”_ Ibid. 

88 Zoya Hasan, “ Communalism, State Policy, and the Question of Women’s Rights in 
Contemporary India,” Bulletin of Concerned Scholars, 25, no. 4 (October-December, 
1993), pp- 9-10; Zoya Hasan, “Minority Identity, State Policy and the Political Process,” 
Forging Identities, ed. Zoya Hasan (New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1993), pp. §9-73- 


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Very quickly what had been perceived as a women’s issue became a 
communal issue as Muslims challenged the right of the courts to inter- 
fere in their law. Shah Bano’s ex-husband stated that he had done what- 
ever Muslim law required. Throughout India, conservative Muslims 
argued that this decision was an attack on their identity as a religious 
minority.®? Feminists, liberals, and conservative Hindus denounced 
Muslims for their backward laws. Just as the British had judged their 
treatment of women superior to that of Hindus so, in the mid-1980s, 
Hindus argued that their women were treated better than Muslim 

In 1986 Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government introduced the 
Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights in Divorce) Bill denying 
Muslim women redress under Section 125 and naming the natal family 
responsible for support in cases of destitution.” Outside parliament, 
Muslim women’s groups and Indian women’s organizations, notably, 
the National Federation of Indian Women, the All-India Democratic 
Women’s Association, and the Mahila Dakshata Samiti, protested 
against the bill. But inside parliament Begum Abida Ahmed, a Muslim 
woman in the Congress Party, expressed her shock that a self-respect- 
ing woman would want to beg maintenance from a husband who had 
divorced her. Begum Abida Ahmed was no different from her female, 
or male, colleagues in her acceptance of the party line.”! 

Zoya Hasan argues that Rajiv Gandhi’s government deliberately 
supported this bill in an effort to pacify Muslims angry about the 
reopening of the disputed Ayodhya site. The consequence, for women, 
was denial of the distinction between minority identity and gender 

The Ayodhya mosque referred to above was a sixteenth-century 
mosque allegedly constructed on the site of the god Ram’s birthplace. 
The original temple, so Hindu militants contend, was destroyed during 
the reign of the Mughal emperor Babar. The Ram Janambhoomi move- 
ment, a movement to destroy the mosque and rebuild a Hindu temple, 
was led by the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh, a militaristic Hindu 
organization. In 1986 they were given permission to hold prayer meet- 
ings at this site. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist 

89 Hasan, “Communalism,” p. 11. 

%® Ibid.; Madhu Kishwar, “Pro Women or Anti Muslim? The Shahbano Controversy,” 
Manushi, 32 (January-February, 1986), pp. 4-13. 

1 Rita Manchanda, “Women in Parliament,” Manushi, no. 47 (July-August 1988), p. 29. 

° Hasan, “Communalism,” p. 14. 


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party, took advantage of this situation to garner support for itself. 
Tension escalated, communal clashes increased, and on December 6, 
1992, Hindu militants destroyed the Ayodhya mosque. December of 
1992 and January 1993 witnessed a series of riots and bombings. 
Women belonging to the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of 
the Hindu right, have been at the forefront of attacks on Muslims.” 
Amrita Basu has focused her attention on two important leaders of 
Hindu nationalism: Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Rithambara, both “single, 
militant, young women of modest backgrounds” skilled at inciting 
crowds to violence. Appropriating the rhetoric of the feminist move- 
ment of the 1980s, the BJP has made violence against women its rally- 
ing call. Unfortunately even this issue has been given a communal twist 
as Muslim men are accused of raping Hindu women.” Tanika Sarkar 
warns observers of the Indian scene about the “dazzling visibility” of 
Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharati, and Vijayraje Scindia. These women, 
she observes, come out into the streets and engage in violence only 
when men determine their presence useful.” The activist roles assumed 
by these women do not challenge or violate conventional norms defin- 
ing dutiful daughters and faithful wives.” What is the impact of the 
public roles of these women on Indian women generally and on the 
women who participate? Tanika Sarkar’s answer to the first question is 
negative: “No feminist can possibly argue that the movement can 
contribute anything to the broad rights of women.” However, she 
concedes that individuals engaged in protest might gain bargaining 
power within their homes. Sarkar ends with a word of caution about 
valorizing the activism of right-wing women: “this limited yet real 
empowerment leads them to a complicity with fascist intolerance and 
violence, towards the creation of an authoritarian, antidemocratic 
social and political order.”” 
The new visibility of women in the right-wing movement, appropri- 
3° One of the first serious articles to appear on this topic was Tanika Sarkar’s “The Woman 
as Communal Subject: Rashtrasevika Samiti and Ram Janambhoomi Movement,” EPW, 26, 
no. 35 (August 31, 1991), pp. 2057-62. In 1993 Amrita Basu was guest editor for a special 
issue of the Bulletin of Concerned Scholars (October-December, 1993) on women and reli- 
gious nationalism in India, which included articles by Zoya Hasan, Tanika Sarkar, Amrita 
Basu, and Paola Bacchetta. 
** Amrita Basu, “Feminism Inverted: The Real Women and Gendered Imagery of Hindu 
Nationalism,” Bulletin of Concerned Scholars, p. 26. 
°° Basu, “Feminism Inverted,” p. 29. 
% Tanika Sarkar, “The Women of the Hindutva Brigade,” Bulletin of Concerned Scholars, p. 

20. 7 Basu, “Feminism Inverted,” p. 36. 8 Sarkar, “The Women,” p. 23. 

% Ibid. 


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ating the issues of the contemporary feminist movement in their 
demonstrations against Muslims, is disturbing. It has had a dampening 
effect on the women’s movement that was so buoyant and optimistic in 
the 1980s. It demonstrates that the present-day availability of women 
for a variety of causes is also part of the historical legacy. There is now 
a complicated mix of women playing public roles — leftist women, 
moderates, conservatives, right-wing women - all appropriating the 
trappings of feminism but without commitment to a vision of gender 
justice and human rights voiced by the authors of Toward Equality. 
The outcome remains to be seen. 


There would have been no women’s movement in India if Indian men 
in the nineteenth century had not been concerned with modernizing 
women’s roles. They focused their attention on certain issues: sati, child 
marriage, widow remarriage and, most important of all, female educa- 
tion. They saw the world through a particular caste/class lens and the 
net effect of their efforts was to bring women, especially women from 
their own families, into the new world created by colonial rule. The 
decisions made by these men meant that women, whether they wanted 
to or not, would become part of the new society. 

Those women who liked this new world thrived in it and began to 
develop worlds of their own. Sex segregation and norms of female 
seclusion offered them an opportunity to form their own organizations 
relatively free from male tutelage though not free from patriarchy. 
They explained their organizations, their work, and their demands for 
a greater say in policy-making with an ideology I have labeled social 

The first-wave feminist movement, motivated by this ideology and 
working through women’s organizations, presented demands for 
women’s rights. The involvement of many of these women in the 
nationalist struggle tied women’s rights to the freedom movement 
through a uniquely Indian feminist nationalism. It was an ideology that 
both Gandhi and Nehru supported and which, officially at least, 
became Congress policy. 

After independence from British rule, the Indian Constitution and 
basic doctrines promised equality, participation in nation building, and 
a new valuation of women. This did not mean women had attained 


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equality. Rights, Jawaharlal Nehru warned women, are rarely given 
away, they must be won. 

In the aftermath of Independence many women were pleased with 
what they had gained. The ruling Congress Party paid lip service to 
women’s concerns, set up the National Social Welfare Board to parcel 
out money to a host of social welfare projects, and looked to the all- 
India women’s organizations for help in carrying out its mission. When 
asked to send representatives to planning committees, women from 
main-stream organizations assumed the problems of their own class 
had been solved and only poor women needed help. Simplistic 
schemes, overly dependent on volunteerism, were developed without 
detailed knowledge of the groups to be served. Women in communist 
and socialist parties echoed the party line regarding the alignment of 
power and the need for revolution but they too succumbed to their 
male leaders. Despite their participation in these organizations and 
parties, there were many women who remained clear-headed about the 
actual conditions of women and what needed to be done. 

Toward Equality was the wake-up call. The women who wrote it 
asked how a country that called itself democratic could continue to live 
with worsening conditions for half its population. This report and the 
subsequent studies alerted educated, middle-class women to the worst 
inequities in their society. And as these newly awakened women carried 
out research projects, wrote and spoke about these problems, and 
attempted to institute new programs, they too faced new challenges. 
Their own institutions and families were less supportive than expected 
and the recipients of this attention were not always grateful. 

The contemporary feminist movement, beginning in the late 1970s 
and still alive today, has brought women’s issues to the attention of all 
Indians. Feminists, galvanized by endemic violence against women, 
developed new organizations and new institutions in the 1980s. 

Violence against women was not a new issue but whenever it had 
been raised in the past, it was recast to serve a male political agenda. Sati 
in the nineteenth century became a religious issue. Whether or not hus- 
bands were entitled to conjugal rights with prepubescent girls became 
a debate about the fitness of Indians to govern themselves. Katherine 
Mayo was purportedly concerned about the health and well-being of 
India’s females but her diatribe against Indians supported British offi- 
cials opposed to responsible government for Indians. When Indian 
women freedom-fighters were sexually molested, these incidents were 


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portrayed as attacks on Indian manhood. The facts and consequences 
of violence against women were systematically ignored as men fought 
men in the political arena. But domestic violence was not an invention 
of the colonial debate. Historical evidence suggests an earlier version of 
dowry murders in the “accidental” burnings of women in kitchen fires 
and the “suicides” of women who jumped down wells. During the 
struggle for independence from British rule, whenever Indian women 
raised issues of domestic violence, male leaders urged them to give 
priority to the nationalist struggle. After Independence, women leaders 
were asked to give priority to nation-building. Finally, these issues have 
had a hearing. 

It would be naive to write as if all were well with the women’s move- 
ment in India. The separatist movement in the Punjab, the cycles of 
terrorist acts and repression in this state and other parts of India, the 
revived communalism and pogroms against Muslims, and the rise of the 
Hindu right have all disrupted the women’s movement. Some feminists 
have found it necessary to put these issues first and these movements 
have created ideological divisions between women. After the euphoria 
of the 1980s Indian women who worked with the new organizations 
entered the 1990s disappointed in the new legislation and troubled by 
ethnic and communal conflict. 

Indian women at the end of the twentieth century would argue that 
they still have a long way to go to attain gender justice. The issues of 
the moment and the unsolved problems must not be allowed to negate 
the victories of the past. It is important to temper the interpretation of 
the present with an appreciation of the enormous sacrifices Indian 
women have made to bring about change. This is not the first time that 
legislative measures have been found wanting or that women’s con- 
cerns have been set aside in favor of other issues. As I have tried to indi- 
cate in previous chapters, women’s education and political action have 
altered India’s social and political landscape. Women have moved from 
being objects of legislation to initiators. For many women the family 
no longer exercises total control over their destinies. A general awak- 
ening has begun and it cannot be permanently suppressed. 


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The sources used for writing this book include official government records, 
newspapers, collected speeches and writings, reports and minutes, memoirs 
and autobiographies, oral histories, personal letters, diaries, and songs, as well 
as monographs and articles with Indian women as their subject. It is particu- 
larly significant to note that women’s history is being written now and gender 
is fast becoming as much a tool of analysis as class, caste, and race. Articles and 
books are published daily offering new and fresh insights about women’s lives 
and how gender shapes and is shaped by the wider social and political context. 

The critical year for the history of Indian woman was 1975. Between 1975 
and 1979 thirty books on women were published, as many as the total pro- 
duced over the previous several decades. A bibliography of works on Indian 
women in English published in 1976 incorporated 800 references; four years 
later Carol Sakala’s Women of South Asia: A Guide to Resources (Millwood, 
N.Y., Kraus International Publications, 1980) registered 4,627 entries, and the 
literature has continued to proliferate. Unfortunately the new literature on 
Indian women and questions related to gender in India is not readily available. 
Much of it is published in newer, and sometimes inaccessible journals, pre- 
sented at conferences, or published in collected works. 

There are a few bibliographies which focus specifically on women in India: 
Kalpana Dasgupta, Women on the Indian Scene (Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 
1976); Carol Sakala, Women of South Asia; Harishida Pandit, Women of India: 
An Annotated Bibliography (New York, Garland, 1985) but these works are 
all sadly out of date. Barbara Ramusack’s “Women in South and Southeast 
Asia,” in Restoring Women to History (Bloomington, Ind., Organization of 
American Historians, 1988) is extremely useful as a summary of the main 
periods and issues, and includes a bibliography. This has been revised and will 
be published as “Women in South and Southeast Asia,” in Barbara Ramusack 
and Sharon Sievers, Women in Asia (Indiana University Press). In “From 
Symbol to Diversity: The Historical Literature on Indian Women,” South Asia 
Research, 10, no. 2 (November, 1990), Ramusack discusses the development of 
both women’s history and feminist history in South Asia and discusses key 
works. Aparna Basu’s “Women’s History in India: An Historiographical 
Survey,” was published in Writing Women’s History: International 
Perspectives, ed. Karen Offen et al. (London, Macmillan, 1991). Still, there is a 
crying need for a comprehensive bibliographic work to guide readers to the 
many articles and papers now available. 

There are very few histories of Indian women. For years A. S. Altekar’s The 
Position of Women in Hindu Civilization (Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1959, 


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first published in 1938), was the only such book available. Phallocentric in the 
extreme, this book discussed male texts on and male attitudes towards women. 
Neera Desai’s Woman in Modern India (Bombay, Vora and Co., 1957) was the 
first social history of Indian women with women as its subject. Padmini 
Sengupta’s The Story of Women in India (New Delhi, Indian Book Company, 
1974) offered a journalist’s panoramic sweep of Indian history from ancient 
times until the 1970s. Although not a narrative, the Dictionary of National 
Biography, 4 vols., ed. S. P. Sen (Calcutta, 1972), is valuable for its short biogra- 
phies of prominent women. 

International Women’s Year, 1975, stimulated and reinforced a growing 
interest in women’s history. As a consequence a number of books were pub- 
lished focusing on women with some attention to their history. Tara Ali Baig, 
India’s Woman Power (New Delhi, Chand, 1976); B. R. Nanda, ed., Indian 
Women: From Purdah to Modernity (New Delhi, Vikas Publishing, 1976); 
Devika Jain, Indian Women (New Delhi, Publications Division, Ministry of 
Information and Broadcasting, GOI, 1975); and Alfred deSouza, Women in 
Contemporary India: Traditional Images and Changing Roles (New Delhi, 
Manohar Book Service, 1975) all suit this genre. The three later books, collec- 
tions of papers by women and men who study India, all include useful histor- 
ical articles. 

Toward Equality, the report of the Committee on the Status of Women in 
India (New Delhi, Government of India Ministry of Education and Social 
Welfare, 1974) is not a history but employs an historical perspective in assess- 
ing women’s status. The impact of this report on the research done on women 
in India has been significant. First, the report made scholars aware of the extent 
to which they had ignored the lives of ordinary women. Much of the scholar- 
ship that followed this report sought to compensate by focusing on the lives 
and labor of women from the lower socio-economic strata. Very little histori- 
cal writing was done between 1975 and the late 1980s while economic and 
sociological studies flourished. 

The late 1980s and the 1990s have seen the publication of a number of his- 
torical works on women. Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) began its bi- 
annual “Review of Women’s Studies” in April, 1986. In April and October of 
every year since then, EPW has included five or six articles on women, many 
of them treating historical topics. Throughout the last twelve years EPW has 
provided a valuable forum for the discussion of new research in women’s 
studies. The publication of Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. 
Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid and “We were Making History”: Life 
Stories of Women in the Telangana People’s Struggle by Stree Shakti 
Sanghatana, in New Delhi by Kali for Women, both in 1989, signaled the direc- 
tions that women’s history would take. Recasting Women is a collection of arti- 
cles by historians turning new theoretical perspectives on conventional 
questions and “We were Making History” gives voice to women participating 
in the Telangana struggle. Women and Culture, ed. Kumkum Sangari and 
Sudesh Vaid, a valuable collection of seventeen short articles by historians 
addressing questions of women’s role in Indian history, was first published in 


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1985. It had been extremely difficult to find until it was republished in 1994 by 
the Research Center for Women’s Studies at SNDT Women’s University in 
Bombay. 1995 saw the publication of two new valuable collections of articles 
on women: From the Seams of History: Essays on Indian Women, ed. Bharati 
Ray (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1995), and Indian Women: Myth and 
Reality, ed. Jasodhara Bagchi (Hyderabad, Sangam Books, 1995). 

Throughout the writing of this book I drew heavily on two general histories 
of modern India, Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, 1885-1947 (Delhi, Macmillan 
India, 1983) and Judith M. Brown, Modern India (Delhi, Oxford University 
Press, 1985). 

In writing chapter 1, I used a variety of sources. The British view of India as 
backward because of its gender ideology is best presented by James Mill, The 
History of British India, 2 vols. (New York, Chelsea House, 1968). There are 
numerous missionary accounts of the degraded condition of Indian women 
such as Revd. E. Storrow, Our Indian Sisters (London, The Religious Tract 
Society, n.d.) and Mrs. Marcus B. Fuller, The Wrongs of Indian Womanhood 
(Edinburgh, Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1902). Equally instructive are the 
journalist Mary Francis Billington’s Woman in India (London, Amarko Book 
Agency, 1895) and the ethnographic volume The People of India, by Sir 
Herbert Hope Risley, znd edn. edited by W. Crooke (Delhi, Oriental Books 
Reprint Corp., 1969). 

Among studies of reform in nineteenth-century India, Charles H. 
Heimsath’s Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform (Princeton, N_J., 
Princeton University Press, 1964) is valuable for its attention to reforms affect- 
ing women. Kenneth W. Jones’ Socto-Religious Reform Movements in British 
India (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989) is a regionally based 
history of religious reform movements in India. David Kopf’s The Brahmo 
Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Indian Mind (Princeton, N_J., Princeton 
University Press, 1979) is the most thorough analysis of the Brahmo Samaj. 
Meredith Borthwick’s The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1905 
(Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1985), looks at topics salient to 
women to assess the changes experienced by the women in the Brahmo Samaj. 
Ghulam Murshid, Reluctant Debutante (Rajshahi, Rajshahi University, 
Bangladesh, 1983) treats the same topic. Judith E. Walsh looks closely at the 
late nineteenth century “advice” literature to Bengali women in “What Women 
Learned When Men Gave Them Advice: Rewriting Patriarchy in Late- 
Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Journal of Asian Studies, v.56, no. 3 (August 
1997), pp. 641-677. Vina Mazumdar’s article, “The Social Reform Movement 
in India — From Ranade to Nehru,” in /zdian Women: From Purdah to 
Modernity, ed. B. R. Nanda, considers male social reformers concerned with 
women’s issues in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

There are numerous studies of Indian reformers. S$. N. Mukherjee’s “Raja 
Rammohun Roy and the Status of Women in Bengal in the Nineteenth 
Century,” in Women in India and Nepal, ed. Michael Allen and S. N. 
Mukherjee (Canberra, Australian National University, 1982), is a superb 
article on the “father of modern India.” For Rammohun Roy we are fortunate 


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in having translations of his writings, Raja Rammohun Roy Letters and 
Documents, ed. Rama Prasad Chanda and Jatindra Kumar Majumdar (Delhi, 
Anmol Publications, 1987). Isvarachandra Vidyasagar’s Marriage of Hindu 
Widows (1855) has been translated by K. P. Bagchi (Calcutta, K. P. Bagchi and 
Co., 1976). Two studies of this reformer are Asok Sen’s, Iswar Chandra 
Vidyasagar and his Elusive Milestones (Calcutta, Riddlu-India, 1977), and S. K. 
Bose, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar (New Delhi, National Book Trust, 1969). 
The Autobiography of Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu, trans. Dr. V. 
Ramakrishna Rao and Dr. T. Rama Rao, 2 parts (Rajamundry, Addepally and 
Co., n.d.) is complemented by Karen I. Leonard and John Leonard’s “Social 
Reform and Women’s Participation in Political Culture: Andhra and Madras,” 
The Extended Family, ed. Gail Minault (Columbus, Mo., South Asia Books, 
1981) and “Rao Bahadur Mr. K. Virasalingam Pantulu and His Wife,” JLM, 2 
(September, 1902). Neera Desai’s Social Change in Gujarat (Bombay, Vora and 
Co., 1978) focuses specifically on Gujarati reformers in the nineteenth and 
twentieth centuries. Pratima Asthana’s Women’s Movement in India (Delhi, 
Vikas Publishing House, 1974) takes as its subject both the principal male 
reformers and some of the women pioneers. 

The literature assessing the colonial experience is especially rich. I have 
always liked Francis G. Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence: British 
Imperialism in India (Princeton, N_J., Princeton University Press, 1967) for his 
discussion of British motives. Mrinalini Sinha’s “‘Manliness’: A Victorian Ideal 
and Colonial Policy in Late Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Ph.D. dissertation, 
SUNY Stonybrook (1988), published in 1995 by Manchester University Press 
as Colonial Masculinity: The “manly Englishman” and the “effeminate 
Bengali” in the late nineteenth century, affords a feminist’s view of the role of 
gender in the making and carrying out of colonial policy. Tapan 
Raychaudhuri’s Europe Reconsidered (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1988) 
shows us Europe through the eyes of nineteenth-century Bengali intellectuals. 
Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (Delhi, 
Oxford University Press, 1986) discusses the interaction between Western and 
Indian ideas in the development of Indian nationalism. Sudipta Kaviray’s 
article, “On the Construction of Colonial Power: Structure, Discourse, 
Hegemony,” Contesting Colonial Hegemony, ed. Dagmar Engels and Shula 
Marks (London, German Historical Institute, 1994) is a fascinating discussion 
of the interplay between consent and coercion in colonial India. Although 
none of these books is about women, they define the setting for reforms aimed 
specifically at women. Partha Chatterjee’s influential article, “The Nationalist 
Resolution of the Women’s Question,” in Recasting Women: Essays on 
Colonial History, focuses on the waning of the woman question in nationalist 
politics. His The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial 
Histories (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1993) includes two excel- 
lent chapters: “The Nation and Its Women” and “Women and the Nation.” 

What we know about women’s lives before the nineteenth century is pri- 
marily textual. A significant contribution to our literature on the traditional 
role of women is I. Julia Leslie’s The Perfect Wife (Delhi, Oxford University 


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Press, 1989). A feminist article challenging the class orientation of such docu- 
ments is Uma Chakravarti’s “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?” in 
Recasting Women. 

Women Writing in India, vol. I: 600 BC to the Early Twentieth Century, ed. 
Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (New York, The Feminist Press, 1991), translations 
of writings by women, makes a valuable contribution to our study of history. 
Malavika Karlekar, Voices From Within (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1991) 
selects from nineteenth-century writings by Bengali women. Tanika Sarkar has 
written about Rassundari Devi in “A Book of Her Own. A Life of Her Own: 
Autobiography of a Nineteenth-Century Woman,” History Workshop 
Journal, 36 (autumn, 1993). There are also memoirs and autobiographies of 
women reformers and social workers, for example, Ramabai Ranade, Himself, 
The Autobiography of a Hindu Lady (New York, Longman, Green and Co., 
1938) and Shudha Mazumdar, Memoirs of an Indian Woman, ed. Geraldine 
Forbes (New York, M. E. Sharpe, 1989). 

The literature dealing with sati has flourished since Roop Kanwar’s death in 
1987. One of the most direct and readable articles is I. Julia Leslie’s “Suttee or 
Sati: Victim or Victor?” Bulletin, Center for the Study of World Religions, 
Harvard University, 14, no. 2 (1987/1988). V. N. Datta has written Sati, A 
Historical, Social and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow 
Burning (Delhi, Manohar, 1988). A. Yang’s “Whose Sati? Widow Burning in 
Early Nineteenth-Century India,” Journal of Women’s History, 1, no. 2 (1989) 
is an interesting interrogation of the documents available on sati. The most 
recent book on this topic is John Stratton Hawley’s Sati, the Blessing and the 
Curse (New York, Oxford University Press, 1994). Lata Mani’s writings on 
sati have focused attention on the discourse surrounding this custom; see 
“Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, in Recasting 

Other topics of social reform have not yet received the attention that has 
been lavished on sati. However, Rosalind O’Hanlon’s work on Tarabai Shinde, 
A Comparison Between Women and Men: Tarabai Shinde and the Critique of 
Gender Relations in Colonial India (Madras, Oxford University Press, 1994) 
offers new insights into the problems of women and women’s consciousness 
about their own oppression. O’Hanlon also discusses Tarabai Shinde’s writ- 
ings in “Issues of Widowhood: Gender and Resistance in Colonial Western 
India,” Contesting Power, ed. Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash (Delhi, 
Oxford University Press, 1991). Lucy Carroll’s work on law is a welcome and 
significant contribution to social history. For this period see her “Law, 
Custom, and Statutory Social Reform: The Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act of 
1856,” Women in Colonial India, ed. J. Krishnamurty (Delhi, Oxford 
University Press, 1989). Sudhir Chandra’s Enslaved Daughters: Colonialism, 
Law and Women’s Rights (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1998) is an exhaus- 
tive study of the Rukhmabai case. 

Research for chapter 2 was difficult because so few histories of women’s 
education have been written. Of value in establishing a baseline view of the 
status of female education in the early nineteenth century are William Adam’s 


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reports on vernacular education in Bengal and Bihar, submitted to the govern- 
ment in 1835, 1836, and 1838. Joseph Diamond’s One Teacher, One School 
(New Delhi, Biblia Imper Private Ltd., 1983) includes Adam’s second report 
on Rajshahi and his third report on Bengal and Bihar. One of the few books on 
women’s education is Karuna Chanana, ed., Soctalisation, Education and 
Women: Explorations in Gender Identity (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1988). 
This collection of essays includes a number of historical works: Aparna Basu, 
“A Century’s Journey: Women’s Education in Western India, 1820-1920”; 
Karuna Chanana, “Social Change or Social Reform: The Education in Pre- 
Independence India”; Mrinal Pande, “Women in Indian Theatre”; and 
Meenakshi Mukherjee, “The Unperceived Self: A Study of Nineteenth 
Century Biographies.” Two books on education generally were useful: Syed 
Nurullah and J. P. Naik, History of Education in India (Bombay, Macmillan, 
1943) and Aparna Basu, Essays in the History of Indian Education (New Delhi, 
Concept Publishing Co., 1982). Glendora B. Paul has written about women’s 
education in “Emancipation and Education of Indian Women Since 1829,” 
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (1970). J. C. Bagal’s Women’s 
Education in Eastern India: The First Phase (Calcutta, The World’s Press 
Private Ltd., 1956), is limited to Bengal. Meredith Borthwick’s Changing Role 
is another important source on this topic but also limited to Bengal. Michelle 
Maskiell has written about students of Kinnaird College in Women Between 
Cultures (Syracuse, South Asia Series, Syracuse University, 1984). Two addi- 
tional books of a general nature are Minna S. Cowan, The Education of the 
Women of India (Edinburgh, Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1912) and 
Premila Thackersey, Education of Women: A Key to Progress (New Delhi, 
Ministry of Education and Youth Services, 1970). There are articles on female 
education in two very useful collections: Evelyn C. Gedge and Mithan Choksi, 
Women in Modern India (Bombay, D. B. Taraporewala, 1929) - a book called 
the “authentic voice of modern Indian womanhood” — and Syam Kumari 
Nehru, ed., Our Cause: A Symposium by Indian Women (Allahabad, 
Kitabistan, 1938). The Indian Social Reformer, begun c. 1894, includes numer- 
ous articles on female education. 

The missionaries were very active in female education in India and there are 
valuable accounts of their schools in missionary archives located in England 
and the USA. I used the collection of letters, magazines, and official reports at 
the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in London (formerly 
Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) to write my article 
on zenana education: “In Search of the ‘Pure Heathen’: Missionary Women in 
Nineteenth Century India,” EPW, 21, no. 17 (April 26, 1986). Aparna Basu has 
written a fine article covering almost two centuries of missionary work in 
“Mary Ann Cooke to Mother Teresa: Christian Missionary Women and the 
Indian Response,” Women and Missions: Past and Present, ed. Fiona Bowie, 
Deborah Kirkwood and Shirley Ardener (Providence, R.I./Oxford, BERG, 
1993). One of the few people working on Indian Christian women is Dr. 
Padma Anagol. Her article, “Imperialism and the Question of Subaltern 
Women’s Agency: Indian Christian Women and Indigenous Feminism, 


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c.1850-1920,” is included in Claire Midgley (ed.), Gender and Imperialism 
(Studies in Imperialism Series) (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 
1998), pp. 79-103. 

There are a number of books on English women, other than missionaries, 
who became involved in promoting female education. One example is Mary 
Carpenter’s Six Months in India (London, Longman, Green and Co., 1868); 
another is Sister Nivadita’s [Margaret Elizabeth Noble] The Complete Works 
of Sister Nivedita (Calcutta, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission, Sister Nivedita 
Girls’ School, 1967-8). Annette Beveridge’s career as a teacher in India is 
related by her husband in India Called Them by Lord Beveridge (London, 
George Allen and Unwin, 1947). Annette Beveridge also wrote a diary and 
letters which are available at the Indian Office and Oriental Library Collection 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Theosophical 
Society in Madras attracted English and Irish women who became interested 
in women’s education. Most notable among them was Annie Besant, the 
subject of a two-volume biography by Arthur H. Nethercot. It is the second 
volume, The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (Chicago, University of Chicago 
Press, 1963) that deals with her life in India. There are also a number of writ- 
ings and lectures by Besant dealing with education that have been published. 
Two such works are Ancient Ideals in Modern Life (Benares, Theosophical 
Publishing House, 1900) and Wake Up, India (Madras, Theosophical 
Publishing House, 1913). On her views on women and politics, see Annie 
Besant, The Political Status of Women, 2nd edn. (London, C. Watts, 1885), 

For the Arya Samaj’s efforts on behalf of women’s education I have relied on 
Kenneth W. Jones, Arya Dharma (Delhi, Manohar, 1976), Madhu Kishwar, 
“Arya Samaj and Women’s Education: Kanya Mahavidyalaya,” EPW, 21, no. 
17 (April 16, 1986), and Kumari Lajjavati, “A Pioneer in Women’s Education,” 
ISR, 45 (June 1, 1945). 

Pandita Ramabai’s letters to her spiritual preceptor at Wantage have been 
published as: The Letters and Correspondence of Pandita Ramabai, compiled 
by Sister Geraldine, ed. A. B. Shah (Bombay, Maharashtra State Board of 
Literature and Culture, 1977). We also have Pandita Ramabai’s own polemical 
work designed for sale in the USA and Canada: The High-Caste Hindu 
Woman (New York, FE. H. Revell, 1887). There are a number of sympathetic 
biographies of Ramabai by Christians, for example: Rajas Krishnarao Dongre 
and Josephine F. Patterson, Pandita Ramabai (Madras, Christian Literature 
Society, 1969), Nicol Macnicol, Pandita Ramabai (Calcutta, Association Press, 
1926), and Muriel Clark, Pandita Ramabai (London, Paternoster Bldg., 1920). 
Meera Kosambi’s article on Ramabai, “Women, Emancipation and Equality: 
Pandita Ramabai’s Contribution to Women’s Cause,” EPW, 23 no. 44 
(October, 1988), is especially insightful. This article as well as Kosambi’s, “An 
Indian Response to Christianity, Church and Colonialism: The Case of 
Pandita Ramabai,” have been published, together with her article on the Age 
of Consent Bill, in At the Intersection of Gender Reform and Religious Belief 


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(Bombay, Research Center for Women’s Studies, SNDT University, 1993). 
Pandita Ramabai is one of the subjects of Padma Anagol’s dissertation, 
“Women’s Consciousness and Assertion in Colonial India: Gender, Social 
Reform and Politics in Maharashtra, c.1870-1920,” (University of London, 
1994), which traces the emergence of feminism among women in Western India 
in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Antoinette Burton 
treats Ramabai’s years in England in At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and 
the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley, University of 
California Press, 1998). Jyotsna Kapur, “Women and the Social Reform 
Movement in Maharashtra,” M.Phil. thesis, Delhi University (1989), is a valu- 
able piece of work for putting these issues into perspective. There is a signifi- 
cant (and neglected) collection of yearly reports, pamphlets, and 
correspondence at “Mukti,” Ramabai’s last school at Kedgaon, Maharashtra. 

Material on the Mahakali Pathshala is difficult to locate although I have 
interviewed some women in Calcutta who attended this school in the early 
years of this century. M. M. Kaur in The Role of Women in the Freedom 
Movement (1857-1947) (New Delhi, Sterling, 1968) discusses the founder as a 
niece of the Rani of Jhansi, the heroine of 1857. Most of my information came 
from newspaper articles, for example, “The Mahakali Pathshala,” The 
Statesman (February 3, 1985) and journals such as the Indian Ladies Magazine 
in 1903. 

The educational institutions developed by (Maharshi) Dhondo Keshav 
Karve in Poona are discussed in his own memoir, Looking Back (Poona, Hinge 
Stree-Shikshan Samastha, 1936), and in his life story, written in Marathi. This 
has been translated and included with his wife Anandibai’s memoir in The New 
Brahmins, ed. and trans. D. D. Karve, with editorial assistance from Ellen E. 
McDonald (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1963). The one biogra- 
phy of D. K. Karve was written by G. L. Chakravarkar, Dhondo Keshav Karve 
(New Delhi, Publications Division, Government of India, 1970). An extremely 
valuable account of Karve’s work on behalf of widows is included in the auto- 
biography of his sister-in-law, a teacher in his school, Parvati Athavale. Her 
book is entitled My Story, The Autobiography of a Hindu Widow, trans. Revd. 
Justin E. Abbott (New York, G. P. Putnam, 1930). Karve’s Women’s 
University was renamed Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Indian 
Women’s University (or SNDT) and relocated in Bombay. SNDT Women’s 
University is India’s premier institution for women’s higher education. An 
article that discusses the transition is “Thackesay [sic] Women’s University 
Convocation,” Sir Visvesvaraya’s Convocation Address (June 29, 1940), The 
Indian Annual Register, vol. 1 (January-June, 1940) (Calcutta, Annual 
Register, 1940). 

Gail Minault has been at the forefront of uncovering the history of educa- 
tion for Muslim women and her book, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education 
and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 
1998) is rich in detail. Her article, “Other Voices, Other Rooms: The View 
from the Zenana,” in Women as Subjects, ed. Nita Kumar (Charlottesville, 
University Press of Virginia, 1994), is an interesting reading of male reformers’ 


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texts to understand zenana life. She has translated Khwaja Altaf Hussain Hali’s 
work (1874) on education for women in Voices of Silence (Delhi, Chanakya 
Publications, 1986). She has also written the following articles on Muslim edu- 
cators of women: “Shaikh Abdullah, Begam Abdullah, and Sharif Education 
for Girls at Aligarh,” Modernization and Social Change among Muslims in 
India, ed. Imtiaz Ahmad (New Delhi, Manohar Book Service, 1983); “Sayyid 
Mumtaz Ali and ‘Huqugq un-Niswan’: An Advocate of Women’s Rights in 
Islam in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Modern Asian Studies, 24, no. 1 (1990); 
and “Purdah’s Progress: The Beginnings of School Education for Indian 
Muslim Women,” Individuals and Ideals in Modern India, ed. J. P. Sharma 
(Calcutta, Firma K. P. Mukhopadhyaya, 1982). Sonia Nishat Amin has written 
extensively about Muslim women, their education, family life, and literary 
activity in “The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal: 1876-1939,” 
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Dhaka (1993) published as The World of 
Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal 1876-1939 (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1996). 
Among other useful articles for this topic by Amin are: “The Early Muslim 
Bhadramahila,” in From the Seams of History and “Filling the Gap: Women’s 
History — The Case of Muslim Bhadromohilas in Bengal,” Journal of Social 
Studies, 62 (October, 1993). For information on Begum Rokeya I relied on 
Roushan Jahan, ed. and trans., Inside Seclusion (Dhaka, BRAC Printers, 1981), 
Murshid, Reluctant Debutante, Sonia Amin’s two articles: “Rokeya Sakhawat 
Hossain and the Legacy of the ‘Bengal’ Renaissance,” Journal of Asiatic 
Society, Bangladesh, 34, no. 2 (December, 1989) and “The New Woman in 
Literature and the Novels of Nojibur Rahman and Rokeya Sakhawat 
Hossain,” Infinite Variety: Women in Society and Literature, ed. Firdous Azim 
and Niaz Zaman (Dhaka, University Press Ltd., 1994), and articles in journals 
such as the Indian Ladies’ Magazine. 

Sources on Sister Subbalakshmi include Monica Felton’s A Child Widow’s 
Story (London, Victor Gollancz, 1966); Women Pioneers in Education 
(Tamilnadu) (Madras, Society for the Promotion of Education in India, 1975); 
an interview with Mrs. Soundarain (Madras, January 22, 1976); note by Sister 
Subbalakshmi (n.d.) enclosed in a letter from Rabindranath Tagore to Miss M. 
F. Prager, Eur. Mss. B 183 (IOOLC); Malathi Ramanathan’s biography, Sister 
R. Subbalakshmi: Social Reformer and Educationalist (Bombay, 1989), and the 
interview with Sister Sublakshami [sc] (December 10, 1930), Ruth Woodsmall 
Collection, box 28. The Ruth Woodsmall Collection is housed at Smith 
College, Northampton, Mass. 

To convey some sense of what education meant to women I have relied 
heavily on Women Writing in India; From Child Widow to Lady Doctor: The 
Intimate Memoir of Dr. Haimabati Sen, translated Tapan Raychaudhuri, ed. 
Geraldine Forbes and Tapan Raychaudhuri (New Delhi, Roli, in press); and 
other first-person narratives. An interesting article suggesting how this new 
educational agenda weaned women away from popular culture is by Sumantha 
Banerjee, “Marginalization of Women’s Popular Culture in Nineteenth 
Century Bengal,” Recasting Women. Nita Kumar’s “Oranges for the Girls, or, 
the Half-Known Story of the Education of Girls in Twentieth-Century 


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Banares,” in Women as Subjects looks at curricula for girls in three schools in 

To write chapter 3 on women’s organizations I was able to use the records 
of the three major women’s Indian associations: the Women’s Indian 
Association (WIA), the National Council of Women in India (NCWD),, and the 
All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC). Records for the WIA are scattered. 
Some are located in the AIWC Library in New Delhi, some are at the old WIA 
headquarters in Madras, and some are in the Reddy Collection in the Nehru 
Museum and Memorial Library (NMML). Records for the NCWI were 
located in a New Delhi garage and have since been deposited in the NMML. 
Other records of the NCWI were in the private library of Mrs. Tarabai 
Premchand in Bombay. I first began to read AIWC records in the library of 
their former building. I continued my research while the present building was 
under construction. In the process of moving to the new building it appears 
some of the earlier files may have been lost. 

Aparna Basu and Bharati Ray have written a history of the AIWC from 1927 
to 1990: Women’s Struggle (New Delhi, Manohar, 1990). Comparable histories 
for the other major organizations do not exist. There are a growing number of 
articles and books which treat women’s organizations, for example, Dagmar 
Engels, “The Limits of Gender Ideology,” WS/Q, 12, no. 4 (1989). [have written 
the following articles on the women’s movement in India: “Women’s 
Movements in India: Traditional Symbols and New Roles,” Social Movements 
in India, 2 vols., ed. M.S. A. Rao (New Delhi, Manohar Publications, 1978), vol. 
1; “Caged Tigers: First Wave Feminists in India,” WS/Q, 5, no. 6 (1982); “The 
Indian Women’s Movement: A Struggle for Women’s Rights or National 
Liberation?” in The Extended Family; “From Purdah to Politics: The Social 
Feminism of the All-India Women’s Organizations,” in Separate Worlds, ed. 
Hanna Papanek and Gail Minault (Delhi, Chanakya Publications, 1982). 
Monographs which explore the linkage between the women’s organizations and 
socio-political change include: Jana Matson Everett’s Women and Social Change 
in India (New Delhi, Heritage Publishers, 1981); Radha Krishna Sharma, 
Nationalism, Social Reform and Indian Women (New Delhi, Janaki Prakashan, 
1981); Vijay Agnew, Elite Women in Indian Politics (New Delhi, Vikas, 1979); 
and Latika Ghose, “Social and Educational Movements for Women and by 
Women, 1820-1950,” Bethune School and College Centenary Volume, 
1849-1949, ed. Dr. Kalidas Nag (Calcutta, S. N. Guha Ray, 1950). Barbara 
Southard’s The Women’s Movement and Colonial Politics in Bengal: The Quest 
for Political Rights, Education and Social Reform Legislation, 1921-1936 (New 
Delhi, Manohar, 1995) was not available when this book went to Press. 

Fewer records are available for studying the earlier women’s organizations. 
For male-initiated women’s organizations in the Brahmo Samaj I used both 
Meredith Borthwick’s The Changing Role and Sivanath Sastri, History of the 
Brahmo Samaj, 2nd edn. (Calcutta, Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, 1974). On the 
Parsee organization my main source was Golden Jubilee Stri Zarthosti Mandal, 
1903-1953, and Silver Jubilee Sir Ratan Tata Industrial Institute, 1928-1953 
Volume (Bombay, n.p., 1953). For information on the Arya Mahila Samaj I 


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drew upon K. J. Chitalia, ed., Directory of Women’s Institutions, Bombay 
Presidency, vol. 1 (Bombay, Servants of India Society, 1936); “Arya Mahila 
Samaj,” (n.d.), notes by Mrs. Leela Joshi (received from the author); and “Arya 
Mahila Samaj: An Appeal” (n.d.), a cyclostyled sheet received from Sarojini 
Pradhar. The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, begun by Mrs. Kamala Satthianadhan 
(b. 1879) in 1901, was an English publication designed to inform women about 
women’s issues. This magazine is an excellent source for information on the 
role of women in the Indian Social Conference and the early women’s 
organizations. Some volumes of this magazine are available in the National 
Library, Calcutta, but the only complete collection I could locate belonged to 
Padmini Sen Gupta (now deceased), Mrs. Satthianadhan’s daughter. 

Early organizations for Muslim women are discussed in Gail Minault, 
“Sisterhood or Separation? The All-India Muslim Ladies’ Conference and the 
Nationalist Movement,” in The Extended Family, Sonia Amin’s dissertation, 
“The World of Muslim Women,” and Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, Father and 
Daughter: A Political Autobiography (Lahore, Nigarishat, 1971). 

The first all-India organization begun by women for women was the Bharat 
Mahamandal. There is an account of its origins by its founder Saraladevi 
Chaudhurani: “A Women’s Movement,” MR (October, 1911). J. C. Bagal’s 
“Sarala Devi Chaudhurani,” in Sahitya Sadhak Charitmala, 99 (Calcutta, 
Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, 1964) includes information on her organization. 
Also, articles in JLM and MR elaborate the workings of the Mahamandal. 
Saraladevi’s memotr, Jibaner Jharapata, in Bengali, was published in Calcutta 
in 1958. Tapati Sengupta of Jadavpur University, Calcutta, is presently writing 
her doctoral dissertation on Saraladevi Chaudhurani. 

To gain some understanding of how these organizations actually operated 
and what they meant to the women who belonged, it is instructive to look at 
memoirs. Three memoirs are particularly valuable for this topic: Kamala Bai L. 
Rau, Smrutika: The Story of My Mother as Told by Herself, trans. Indirabai M. 
Rau (Pune, Dr. Krishnabai Nimbkar, 1988); Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, An 
Indian Freedom Fighter Recalls Her Life, ed. Geraldine Forbes (New York, M. 
E. Sharpe, 1994); and Shudha Mazumdar, Memoirs of an Indian Woman. A 
related book is The Position of Women in Indian Life (New York, Longman, 
Green and Co., 1911) by H. H. the Maharani of Baroda about what India 
needed to borrow and assimilate from the West in the quest for a modern iden- 
tity. An interesting account of women in the World War I era is included in 
Ruth Woodsmall’s notebooks, 1916-17, and diaries, 1913-17, in the Ruth 
Woodsmall Collection. Ruth Woodsmall went to India with the YWCA and 
made a serious effort to get to know the “new women” joining organizations 
and attempting to effect social change. 

Two Irish women intimately associated with the development of the WIA 
were the two theosophists Margaret Cousins and Dorothy Jinarajadasa 
(married to a Singalese theosophist) who settled in Madras. Margaret Cousins 
and her husband James wrote a joint autobiography: J. H. Cousins and M. E. 
Cousins, We Two Together (Madras, Ganesh and Co., 1950). Margaret E. 
Cousins wrote Indian Womanhood Today (Allahabad, Kitabistan, 1947) and 


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there is an account of her work by Dr. (Mrs.) S. Muthulakshmi Reddi, Ars. 
Margaret Cousins and her Work in India (Madras, Women’s Indian 
Association, 1956). Catherine Candy, Loyola University, Chicago, is now 
writing a biography of Margaret Cousins. 

There is much less information available on Dorothy Jinarajadasa even 
though she played a major role in the development of the WIA. There are a 
number of her letters in the Dr. Reddy Papers but I have only been able to find 
one article by her: Mrs. D. Jinarajadasa, “The Emancipation of Indian 
Women,” Transactions of the Eighth Congress of the Federation of European 
National Societies of the Theosophical Society, held in Vienna, July 21-26, 1923, 
ed. C. W. Dijkgraat (Amsterdam, Council of the Federation of European 
National Societies of the Theosophical Society, 1923). The limited appeal of 
theosophy, because of its identification with brahminism, has been explored by 
C. S. Lakshmi in The Face Behind the Mask: Women in Tamil Literature 
(Delhi, Vikas, 1984), and by Prabha Rani in “Women’s Indian Association and 
the Self-Respect Movement in Madras, 1925-1936: Perceptions on Women,” a 
paper delivered at the Women’s Studies Conference, Chandigarh (October, 
1985). C. S. Lakshmi has also discussed the Self-Respect Movement’s 
manipulation of gender issues in: “Mother, Mother-Community and Mother- 
Politics in Tamil Nadu,” EPW, 25, nos. 42 and 43 (October 20-27, 1990). 

Barbara Ramusack has written extensively on the role of British women in 
India: see “Cultural Missionaries, Maternal Imperialists, Feminist Allies: 
British Women Activists in India, 1865-1945,” Western Women and 
Imperialism, ed. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (Bloomington and 
Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1992); “Catalysts or Helpers? British 
Feminists, Indian Women’s Rights, and Indian Independence,” in The 
Extended Family; and “Embattled Advocates: The Debate over Birth Control 
in India, 1920-1940,” JWH, 1, no. 2 (fall, 1989). Antoinette M. Burton in “The 
White Woman’s Burden: British Feminists and ‘The Indian Woman,’ 
1865-1915,” Western Women and Imperialism and her new book Burdens of 
History (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1994) has explored 
the ways the Indian woman question featured in the writings and activities of 
British feminists. Janaki Nair has analyzed the writings of some English 
women in her article, “Uncovering the Zenana: Visions of Indian Womanhood 
in Englishwomen’s Writings: 1831-1940,” JWH, 2, no. 1 (spring, 1990). A 
special issue of Women’s History Review, ed. Barbara N. Ramusack and 
Antoinette Burton, 3, no. 4 (1994), was devoted to a discussion of feminism, 
imperialism, and race — a dialogue between India and Britain. 

Veronica Strong-Boag has written about the International Council of 
Women in The Parliament of Women (Ottawa, National Museum of Canada, 
1976). An excellent book on one of the founders of the NCW is Lady Tata, A 
Book of Remembrance (Bombay, J. B. Dubash, 1933). This book is valuable in 
that it includes some of Lady Tata’s letters and speeches. To help explain the 
interest of some of these elitist women in British-dominated women’s 
organizations, I found Douglas E. Haynes’ article, “From Tribute to 
Philanthropy: The Politics of Gift Giving in a Western Indian City,” in Journal 


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of Asian Studies, 46, no. 2 (May 1987) especially interesting. The Bombay 
Presidency Women’s Council, which has its headquarters in the same building 
as the Asiatic Society in Bombay, has retained its annual reports and some addi- 
tional papers. These are the only regional papers of the NCWI that I was able 
to locate. 

To gain some understanding of Indian women who were involved in the 
reform movement I used a variety of documents given to me by families, inter- 
views, and published and unpublished papers by other historians. Cornelia 
Sorabji’s private papers are at the IOOLC. Cornelia Sorabji has written the fol- 
lowing books about her life and work: Between the Twilights (London, 
Harper, 1908), India Recalled (London, Nisbet, 1936), and The Purdahnashin 
(Calcutta, Thacker and Spink, 1917) as well as a number of articles on Indian 
women and social reform issues. Antoinette Burton has written about Cornelia 
Sorabji’s years in England in “Cornelia Sorabji in Victorian Oxford,” in At the 
Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian 
Britain (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998). My sources on 
Maniben Kara were “Life Sketch of Maniben Kara,” (unpublished) received 
from the Western Railway Employees Union (Bombay, 1979); an interview 
with Maniben Kara (Bombay, April 24, 1976); and “Maniben Kara” 
(September 17, 1969), s-14, South Asian Archive, Centre for South Asian 
Studies, Cambridge. 

Accounts of the AIWC are included in its own records (mentioned above) 
as well as in an article by M. Cousins, “How the Conference Began,” Roshi, 
special number (1946). 

For my discussion of the child marriage debate I used numerous articles 
written on the age of consent issue in 1891 including: Tanika Sarkar, “Rhetoric 
against Age of Consent, Resisting Colonial Reason and Death of a Child- Wife,” 
EPW, 28, no. 36 (September 4, 1993); Dagmar Engels, “The Age of Consent Act 
of 1891: Colonial Ideology in Bengal,” South Asia Research, 3,n0. 2 (November, 
1983); and Mrinalini Sinha, “The Age of Consent Act: The Ideal of Masculinity 
and Colonial Ideology in Late Nineteenth Century Bengal,” Proceedings of the 
Eighth International Symposium on Asian Studies (1986), Padma Anagol- 
McGinn, “The Age of Consent Act (1891) Reconsidered: Women’s perspec- 
tives and participation in the child-marriage controversy in India,” South Asia 
Research, 12: 2 (1992), pp. 100-118. 

I have also written on child marriage: “Women and Modernity: The Issue of 
Child Marriage in India,” WS/Q, 2, no. 4 (1979). For that article and this work 
I used Legislative Assembly Debates; Government of India, Home 
Department Judicial and Political files; the Report of the Age of Consent 
Committee, 1928-1929 (Calcutta, 1929); records of the women’s organiza- 
tions; and a number of articles. Barbara Ramusack has published “Women’s 
Organizations and Social Change: the Age-of-Marriage Issue in India,” 
Women and World Change, ed. Naomi Black and Ann Baker Cottrell (Beverly 
Hills, Sage Publications, 1981). Katherine Mayo’s book, Mother India (New 
York, Harcourt Brace, 1927) turned the child marriage issue into a debate 
about whether or not Indians were fit for self-government. For an insightful 


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review of Mayo in her pre-India days see Gerda W. Ray, “Colonialism, Race, 
and Masculinity: Katherine Mayo and the Campaign for State Police” (1992) 
unpublished paper. Mrinalini Sinha has written two excellent articles on 
Katherine Mayo’s work: “Reading Mother India: Empire, Nation, and the 
Female Voice,” JWH, 6, no. 2 (1994) and “Gender in the Critiques of 
Colonialism and Nationalism: Locating the ‘Indian Woman,” in Feminists’ 
Revision History, ed. Ann-Louise Shapiro (New Brunswick, N_J., Rutgers 
University Press, 1994). Mrinalini Sinha is presently writing a monograph on 
the Indian responses to Katherine Mayo. 

British women became involved in this controversy and some of the letters 
exchanged can be found in the Rathbone Papers in the Fawcett Library in 
London. Eleanor EF. Rathbone wrote Child Marriage: The Indian Minotaur 
(London, Allen and Unwin, 1934) a book which summarized the failure of 
efforts to enforce a minimum age of marriage. 

Chapter 4 was written primarily from records of women’s organizations; 
Government of India Public Home Department files; British parliamentary 
reports; records of the Indian National Congress; private letters, especially in 
the Rathbone Papers in the Fawcett Library and in the Theosophical Society 
archives at the Theosophical Society Library in Adyar, Madras; and articles in 
the Indian Ladies’ Magazine, New India, and Modern Review. | used the fol- 
lowing parliamentary papers: Report on Indian Constitutional Reform (1918); 
Joint Select Committee on Government of India Bill, vol. 1, Minutes of 
Evidence (1919); Joint Select Committee on Government of India Bill, vol. 1, 
Report and Proceedings of the Committee (1919); Report of the Indian 
Franchise Committee (1932); Indian Round Table Conference (Sub-commit- 
tee Reports) (1931); Minutes of Evidence given before the Joint Select 
Committee in the Indian Constitutional Reform (1934); and Joint Committee 
on Indian Constitutional Reform, vol. 1, Report (1934). 

In writing about the first franchise debate I have used accounts written by 
participants, pamphlets, letters, and newspaper clippings. “A Copy of the 
Address Presented by the All-India Women’s Deputation to Lord Chelmsford 
(Viceroy) and Rt. Hon’ble E. S. Montagu (Secretary of State),” is in pamphlet 
form in the Suffrage-India collection in the Fawcett Collection. The Suffrage- 
India collection is the best source for pamphlets, clippings, and letters refer- 
ring to the first franchise campaign by Indian women. Among these materials 
is Mrs. Herabai Tata’s “A Short Sketch of Indian Women’s Franchise Work.” 
Herebai’s daughter, Mithan Lam, wrote “Autumn Leaves: Some Memoirs of 
Yesteryear” (unpublished manuscript). The AIWC also kept files on the work 
done on behalf of the franchise issue by these women. For Cornelia Sorabji’s 
involvement in the franchise issue see Cornelia Sorabji Papers, Eur. Mss. 
F/165/5, IOOLC, especially her newspaper clippings, letters, memoranda, and 
“Social Service” file. Mrinalini Sen, the Indian woman who borrowed suf- 
fragette tactics, wrote “Indian Reform Bill and Women of India” (first pub- 
lished in Africa and the Orient Reviews, 1920), reprinted in Knocking at the 
Door (Calcutta, Samir Dutt, 1954). 

Muthulakshmi Reddy (sometimes written “Reddi”) wrote an auto- 


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biography: Autobiography of Dr. (Mrs.) Muthulakshmi Reddy (Madras, M. 
Reddi, 1964) and Dr. (Mrs.) S. Muthulakshmi Reddy, My Experiences As a 
Legislator (Madras, Current Thought Press, 1930). Her papers, including her 
views on franchise and her speeches, are in the NMML. Dr. Muthulakshmi 
Reddy, the Pathfinder, ed. Aparna Basu (New Delhi, AIWC, 1987), also 
includes a number of her speeches. I have also used some secondary accounts 
already mentioned, especially Dr. (Mrs.) Muthulakshmi Reddi, Mrs. Margaret 
Cousins and Her Work in India. 

There are very few scholarly articles written on the franchise issue. Barbara 
Southard, “Colonial Politics and Women’s Rights: Woman Suffrage 
Campaigns in Bengal, British India in the 1920s,” Modern Asian Studies, 27, 
no. 2 (1993) and Gail Pearson’s “Reserved Seats - Women and the Vote in 
Bombay,” Indian Economic and Social History Review, 10, no. 1 (1983) are 
among the few regional studies. I have written more generally on the franchise 
issue in “Votes for Women,” Symbols of Power, ed. Vina Mazumdar (Bombay, 
Allied Publishers, 1979). 

The second franchise debate is discussed by Mrs. P. Subbarayan, The 
Political Status of Women Under the New Constitution (Madras, n.p., n.d.), 
letters in the Fawcett Collection, and the AIWC files. Especially significant are 
documents such as “Memorandum of the All-India Women’s Conference” 
(1932) found in these files. 

Newspapers and journals, specifically The Hindu, Indian Ladies’ Magazine, 
and Stri Dharma (the magazine of the WIA), include numerous articles on this 
topic. The Suffrage-India collection at the Fawcett Library is a rich source for 
this period as well as the earlier campaign. It includes some rare documents 
such as Mrs. P. K. Sen, “Supplementary Memorandum on the Franchise of 
Women.” Mary Pickford went to India with the Lothian Committee. Her 
account of that experience is in her papers Eur. Mss. D, 1013, IOOLC. 

Renuka Ray’s influential tract, “Legal Disabilities of Indian Women,” first 
published in Modern Review (November 1934), led to the demand for a uni- 
versal law code for women. Records of the government response can be found 
in Government of India Home Department (Judicial) files. The best source for 
the development of the Hindu Code is the Report of the Hindu Law 
Committee, B. N. Rau Papers, file 11, NMML. Harold Levy’s Ph.D. disserta- 
tion “Indian Modernization by Legislation: The Hindu Code Bill,” University 
of Chicago (1973) 1s an important work on this topic. Lotika Sarkar has written 
about Nehru’s role in “Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code Bill,” in Indian 
Women, edited by B. R. Nanda. Janaki Nair’s Women and Law in Colonial 
India: A Social History (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1996) examines the trans- 
formation of the law. 

The Indian National Congress involved women in its planning efforts: see 
National Planning Sub-Committee of Women’s Role in the Planned Economy, 
AICC, file no. G-23/1640. Information on the formation of a women’s depart- 
ment within Congress is in “Scheme of the Work of the Women’s Department,” 
AICC files (1940-2); Sucheta Devi, secretary, Women’s Department, AICC, 
“The Aims of the Women’s Department of the AICC,” AICC files. NMML. 


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Chapter 5 draws heavily from personal accounts, oral interviews, newspaper 
articles, Government of India Home Political Department files, and Congress 
documents. Although there are many accounts of the freedom movement that 
mention the role of women, few of them do so with any specificity. Manmohan 
Kaur, Role of Women in the Freedom Movement, 1857-1947 (New Delhi, 
Sterling, 1968) was the first book on the freedom struggle to focus on women. 
Unfortunately, it is not entirely reliable. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay has 
written a participant’s account: Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom (New 
Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 1983). Vijay Agnew has written on women in the 
freedom movement in Elite Women in Indian Politics. One of the best accounts 
of this period is the regional study by Gail O. Pearson, “Women in Public Life 
in Bombay City with Special Reference to the Civil Disobedience Movement,” 
Ph.D. thesis, Jawaharlal Nehru University (1979). Gail Pearson has also 
written “Nationalism, Universalization, and the Extended Female Space in 
Bombay City,” in The Extended Family. J. C. Bagal has written on Bengali 
women in the freedom struggle in Jattiya Bangla Nari (Calcutta, 1361 B.S. 
[1954]) as has Dr. Niranjan Ghosh, Role of Women in the Freedom Movement 
in Bengal (Calcutta, Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1988). Another regional 
study is K. Sreeranhani Subba Rao, “Women and Indian Nationalism: A Case 
Study of Prominent Women Freedom Fighters of the East Godavari District 
of Andhra Pradesh,” a paper given at the Third National Conference of 
Women’s Studies (Chandigarh, 1985). Manushi carried a number of short and 
valuable articles on women who played a role in the independence movement. 
I have written about women and the Indian National Congress in “The Politics 
of Respectability: Indian Women and the Indian National Congress,” The 
Indian National Congress, ed. D. A. Low (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 
1988). Kumari Jayawardena included a chapter on “Women, Social Reform and 
Nationalism in India,” in Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (New 
Delhi, Kali for Women, 1986). Aparna Basu wrote an article on “The Role of 
Women in the Indian Struggle for Freedom,” in Indian Women, ed. B. R. 
Nanda. Bharati Roy has focused specifically on Bengal in “The Freedom 
Movement and Feminist Consciousness in Bengal, 1905-1929,” in From the 
Seams of History. Geeta Anand, “Appeal of the Indian Nationalist Movement 
to Women,” senior thesis, Dartmouth College (1989) includes interviews and 
songs. Gail Minault treats Muslim women in “Purdah Politics: The Role of 
Muslim Women in Indian Nationalism, 1911-1924,” in Separate Worlds. 

Ihave also drawn heavily on interviews I have conducted, transcripts of oral 
interviews and private papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 
and transcripts in the collection of oral histories in the South Asia Archive, 
Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge. My own interviews were with 
Helena Dutt (Calcutta, September 25, 1975); Latika Ghosh (Calcutta, 
February 29, 1978); Jaisree Raiji (Bombay, May 2, 1976); Dr. Sushila Nayar 
(New Delhi, April 6, 1976); Santi Das Kabir (New Delhi, March 25, 1976); 
Kamala Das Gupta (Calcutta, July 12, 1973) Kalyani Bhattacharjee (Calcutta, 
March 14, 1976); Santi Das Ghosh (Calcutta, February 24, 1976); Smt. S. 
Ambujammal (Madras, January 19 and 25, 1976); Ambabai (Udipi, May 24, 


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1976); Santi Ganguly (Calcutta, February 8, 1976); Ujjala Mazumdar Rakshit- 
Roy (Calcutta, February 8, 1976); and Suniti Choudhury Ghosh (Calcutta, 
February 15, 1976). I have also interviewed many other women and their ideas 
informed this work but I have not directly used their interviews in the writing 
of this chapter. Among the oral history transcripts at NMML on which I drew 
were those of Smt. Sucheta Kripalani, Kamala Das Gupta, Mrs. S. 
Ambujammal, and Smt. Durgabai Deshmukh. The NMML also has collections 
(often very limited) of papers of the following women: Smt. Ambujammal, Raj 
Kumari Amrit Kaur, Smt. Durgabai Deshmukh, Hansa Mehta, Rameshwari 
Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, S.  Muthulakshmi Reddy, Rukmini 
Lakshmipathi, Mridula Sarabhai, and Madame Bhikaji Cama. I also relied on 
the interview with Goshiben Captain (May 16, 1970) in the South Asia Archive 
in Cambridge. 

There are numerous memoirs and autobiographies for this period. Among 
them are Manmohini Zutshi Sahgal, An Indian Freedom Fighter, Kamaladevi 
Chattopadhyay, Inner Recesses/Outer Spaces: Memoirs (New Delhi, Navrang, 
1986), Smrutika: The Story of My Mother. Also of value were short pieces: S. 
Ambujammal, “Face to Face,” a lecture delivered at Max Mueller Bhavan, 
Madras (January 22, 1976) and Bimla Luthra, “Nehru’s Vision of Indian 
Society and the Place of Women in it,” unpublished paper (n.d.), NMML. 
Unfortunately Aparna Basu’s Mridula Sarabhai: Rebel with a Cause (New 
Dehli, Oxford University Press) was not available when this book went to 

Most important for the study of Gandhi is the Collected Works of Mahatma 
Gandhi 90 vols. (Delhi, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and 
Broadcasting, 1958-84). Judith Brown has written three books on Gandhi: 
Gandhi’s Rise to Power, 1915-1922 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 
1972), Gandhi and Civil Disobedience, 1928-1934 (Cambridge, Cambridge 
University Press, 1977), and Gandhi, Prisoner of Hope (New Haven, Yale 
University Press, 1989). Many of Gandhi’s speeches and writings on women 
have been collected in M. K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, 4th edn. 
(Ahmedabad, Navajivan Publishing House, 1954). Gandhi’s letters to women 
in his ashram were published as To the Women (Karachi, Anand T. Hingorani, 
1941). Sujata Patel examined Gandhi’s representations of women in 
“Construction and Reconstruction of Woman in Gandhi,” EPW, 23 (February 
20, 1988). Madhu Kishwar has written the best single article on “Women and 
Gandhi,” published in EPW, 20 (October 5 and 12, 1985). Lalso used Gandhi’s 
newspapers, for example, Young India, and Gandhi’s private letters to 
Saraladevi Chaudhurani, which were given to me by her son Deepak 

The most important newspaper for this chapter was the Bombay Chronicle 
which carried more articles on women than any other newspaper in India. I 
also used Forward, Amrita Bazar Patrika, Modern Review, Indian Social 
Reformer, Stri Dharma, The Hindu, and The Tribune. 

I was able to access records of some of the women’s political organizations, 
particularly Gandhi Seva Sena and Desh Sevika Sangha. These papers are in 


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private hands or in the All-India Congress Committee files, NMML. Accounts 
of the Mahila Rashtriya Sangha by Latika Bose (following her divorce Latika 
resumed use of her maiden name Ghosh and preferred to be known as Latika 
Ghosh) are in Banglar Katha, 11 (Ashwin and Jaitha, 1335 [1928]). 

General works on the revolutionaries include David M. Laushey, Bengal 
Terrorism and the Marxist Left (Calcutta, Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1975); 
Terrorism in India, 1917-1936, compiled in the Intelligence Bureau, Home 
Department, GOI (Simla, GOI Press, 1937, reprinted Delhi, Deep 
Publications, 1974); and Kali Charan Ghosh, The Roll of Honour, Anecdotes 
of Indian Martyrs (Calcutta, Vidya Bharat, 1965). 

For women in the revolutionary movement see Kamala Das Gupta, 
Swadinata Sangrame Banglar Nari [“Bengali Women in the Freedom 
Movement”, (Calcutta, Basudhara Prakashani, 1970). I have written about 
women revolutionaries: “Goddesses or Rebels? The Women Revolutionaries 
of Bengal,” The Oracle, 2, no. 2 (April 1980). Since then Ishanee Mukherjee 
presented “Women and Armed Revolution in Late Colonial Bengal,” at the 
National Conference of Women’s Studies (Chandigarh, 1985) and Tirtha 
Mandal has written Women Revolutionaries of Bengal, 1905-1939 (Calcutta, 
Minerva, 1991). For this book I have used Ishanee and Mandal’s work as well 
as interviews, private documents, official records, and works of fiction. Pather 
Dabi, published serially between 1923 and 1926, was the first popular novel in 
Bengali on revolutionary activities and inspired at least two of the women 
revolutionaries. Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, Char Adhyaya (1934), trans- 
lated as Four Chapters (Calcutta, Visva-Bharati, 1950) is interesting as a 
comment on how revolutionary women were viewed by respectable society. 

Kalyani Das Bhattacharjee shared with me “A Short Life Sketch of Kalyani 
Bhattacharjee,” (unpublished), lists she kept of women who were in prison 
with her, and transcripts of a taped interview. Akhil Chandra Nandy, who 
helped plan Santi and Suniti’s shooting in Comilla, wrote “Girls in India’s 
Freedom Struggle,” The Patrika Sunday Magazine (September 2, 1973) and 
spoke with me about his revolutionary activities on a number of occasions. I 
received a copy of Bina Das’s “Confession” from the author. 

Topics related to women’s role in the freedom movement continue to attract 
scholars. There is a great deal of work being done on their activities as well as 
how they were represented in writings and speeches of the time. A new series 
of writings and speeches of prominent women includes books such as the 
Selected Speeches and Writings of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, ed. G. Borkar (New 
Delhi, Archer Publications, 1961). Some of the participants are now engaged 
in writing their memoirs and collecting their papers for libraries. 

Writing chapter 6 presented immense problems. There are very few articles 
or books written on women’s work in India and many of the official reports 
on labor have omitted women. Census data is also limited for this topic. I have 
drawn on a wide variety of sources for this chapter: official reports, memoirs 
and autobiographies, government files, the records of women’s organizations, 
and some articles and monographs. 

I began with women’s entry into the professions, the most visible result of 


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education for women. I have chosen to focus on the medical field because we 
have some excellent autobiographies by and articles on medical women, for 
example, From Child Widow to Lady Doctor; Autobiography of Hilda Lazarus 
(Vizagapatnam, SFS Printing, n.d.); The Autobiography of Dr. (Mrs.) 
Muthulakshmi Reddy; and The Life of Anandabai Joshee (her name is spelled 
Anandabai and Anandibai and Joshi and Joshee in different accounts) by Mrs. 
Caroline Healey Doll (Boston, Roberts Brothers, 1888). There is a fictional- 
ized account of Anandibai’s life by S. J. Joshi, Anandi Gopal, translated by 
Asha Damle (Calcutta, Stree, 1992). Malavika Karlekar has written on Dr. 
Kadambini Basu, the first Indian woman to complete a medical degree in India, 
in “Kadambini and the Bhadralok,” EPW, 21, no. 19 (April 26, 1986). 

At present there are a number of studies on medical issues in India. Roger 
Jeffrey, The Politics of Health in India (Berkeley, University of California 
Press, 1987), David Arnold, Colonizing the Body (Berkeley, University of 
California Press, 1993) and Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India 
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994) are all significant contribu- 
tions to this topic but say little about women. Four recent articles: Dagmar 
Engels, “The Politics of Child Birth: British and Bengali Women in Contest, 
1890-1930,” Society and Ideology: Essays in South Asian History Presented to 
Professor Kenneth Ballhatchet, ed. P. Robb (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 
1993); Maneesha Lal, “The Politics of Gender and Medicine in Colonial India: 
the Countess of Dufferin’s Fund, 1885-1888,” Bulletin of the History of 
Medicine, 68 (1994); Geraldine Forbes, “Medical Careers and Health Care for 
Indian Women: Patterns of Control,” Women’s History Review (1994); and 
Chandrika Paul, “Uncaging the Birds: The Entrance of Bengali Women into 
Medical Colleges 1870-1890,” a paper presented at the Mid-West Conference 
on Asian Affairs (Cleveland, 1993), are characteristic of the new research on 
women and medicine in colonial India. Chandrika Paul has now completed her 
dissertation on medical women in Bengal at the University of Cincinnati and 
Supriya Guha her dissertation, “A History of the Medicalisation of Childbirth 
in Bengal in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” at the 
University of Calcutta. Dr. Hilda Lazarus’ “Sphere of Indian Women in 
Medical Work,” in Women in Modern India, provides us with an insider’s view. 
The sources available for further work of this nature seem extremely rich. 

The literature on women in professions other than medicine is scanty. 
Cornelia Sorabji wrote about her legal work in Between the Twilights, India 
Recalled, and The Purdahnashin and Mithan Lam wrote about her education 
in “Autumn Leaves.” Calcutta University Commission, 1917-1919, Women’s 
Education (Calcutta, Superintendent Government Printing, 1919), centenary 
and other special celebratory volumes on women’s colleges, such as Bethune 
College and SNDT Women’s University, provide us with some information 
about women in the teaching profession. 

For general works on women’s labor I turned to J. C. Kydd, A History of 
Factory Legislation in India (Calcutta, University of Calcutta, 1920); Morris D. 
Morris, The Emergence of an Industrial Labour Force in India (Berkeley, 
University of California Press, 1965); Janet Harvey Kelman, Labour in India 


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(London, George Allen and Unwin, 1923); D. R. Gadgil, Women in the Working 
Force in India (Bombay, Asia Publishing House, 1965); Jaipal P- Ambannavar, 
“Changes in Economic Activity of Males and Females in India: 1911-1961”, 
Demography India, 4, no. 2 (1975); A. R. Caton, ed., The Key of Progress 
(London, Humphrey Milford, 1930); Shyam Kumari Nehru, ed., Our Cause: A 
Symposium of Indian Women (Allahabad, Kitabistan, 1938); and Evelyn C. 
Gedge and Mithan Choksi, eds., Women in Modern India (Bombay, D. B. 
Taraporewala Sons and Co., 1929). One of my best sources was Dagmar Engels’ 
“The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, c. 1890-c. 1930,” Ph.D. dissertation, 
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1987) published 
as Beyond Purdah: Women in Bengal, 1890-1939 (New Delhi, Oxford 
University Press, 1996). Samita Sen’s doctoral dissertation, “Women Workers 
in the Bengal Jute Industry, 1890-1940: Migration, Motherhood and Militancy,” 
University of Cambridge (1992) is an important contribution to the history of 
laboring women. 

There are only a few articles which have tried to probe women’s economic 
roles under colonial rule. Although they are few in number these articles, for 
example, Mukul Mukherjee, “Impact of Modernization on Women’s 
Occupations” JESHR, 20, no. 1 (1983) and Radha Kumar, “Family and 
Factory: Women in the Bombay Cotton Textile Industry, 1919-1939,” JESHR, 
20, no. 1 (1983) are models for rereading the records that exist. Both these arti- 
cles have been reprinted in Women in Colonial India: Essays on Survival, Work 
and the State, ed. J. Krishnamurty (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1989). A 
more recent article by Mukherjee, “Women’s Work in Bengal, 1880-1930: A 
Historical Analysis,” was published in From the Seams of History. 

I was able to use a few official reports in writing this chapter. Among them 
were the Report of the Textile Factories Labour Committee (Bombay, 1907); 
Dr. A. C. Roy Choudhury, Report on an Enquiry into the Standard of Living 
of Jute Mill Workers in Bengal (Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Books Depot, 
1930); and Report of the Royal Commission on Labour in India (Whitley 
Report, 1930-1) all in IOOLC. On women in mines I was limited to records 
found in the West Bengal Archives, Calcutta. 

I also drew upon my own interviews, interviews conducted by others, and 
writings by women involved with the issues of women’s work in India. Miss 
G. Pimpalkchare, research worker with the Industrial Department, 
Government of Bombay, was interviewed for a report Ruth Woodsmall was 
completing for the YWCA. This interview is located in the Ruth Woodsmall 
Collection. I was able to interview Godavari Parulekar (Bombay, February 24, 
1980), and Renuka Ray on a number of occasions between 1973 and 1989. I 
used Renuka Ray’s Women in Mines, tract no. 2, AIWC (Arunch, AIWC, 
1945) for her views on the issue of female labor in the coal mines. The annual 
reports, files, and correspondence of the women’s organizations were used 
extensively in writing this chapter. 

Records on prostitutes are difficult to trust because they originate with 
people rescuing women from the streets. There is a Box-Bombay in the 


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Josephine Butler Collection in the Fawcett Library which includes papers of 
the Bombay Social Service Conference, the Social Purity League of Bombay, 
and the Bombay Vigilance Association. B. Joardar, Prostitution in Nineteenth 
and Early Twentieth Century Calcutta (New Delhi, Inter-India Publications, 
1985) is a regional study which draws primarily on official records and litera- 
ture. In the last few years feminist scholars have suggested the possibility of 
new interpretations. Women Writing in India has included an excerpt from the 
prostitute-actress, Binodini Dasi, that allows us to hear her voice. Veena Talwar 
Oldenburg has written a tantalizing article, “Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case 
of the Courtesans of Lucknow,” Contesting Power, urging us see the extent to 
which courtesans may have been empowered by their profession. Amrit 
Srinivasan’s, “Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance,” EPW, 20, 
no. 44 (November 2, 1985) is an excellent article on devadasis. Philippa Levine, 
“Venereal Disease, Prostitution and the Politics of Empire: The Case of British 
India,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 4, no. 4 (1994) focuses on the 
construction of the prostitute as the source of venereal disease and the treat- 
ment of both soldiers and women in late nineteenth-century India. 

Unfortunately we do not even have biased literature to inform us about the 
work of women on plantations, in agriculture generally, as petty traders and 
domestic laborers. Swapna Banerjee completed her Ph.D. dissertation on 
“Middle-Class Bengali Women and Female Domestic Workers in Calcutta, 
1900-1947” at Temple University, Philadelphia in 1997. Her article, 
“Exploring the World of Domestic Manuals: Bengali Middle-Class Women 
and Servants in Colonial Calcutta,” was published in South Asia Graduate 
Research Journal, 3, no. 1 (Spring 1996) pp. 1-26. 

Chapter 7 more than any other part of this book uses accounts by women 
who participated in the action described. Unfortunately, the post- 
Independence period has been neglected by people writing histories of women. 
To discuss women’s role in politics from 1937 on, I used AIWC and WIA cor- 
respondence, memoranda, and records of meetings; the Jawaharlal Nehru 
Papers (NMML) for his correspondence with women and with others on 
women’s issues; M. Reddy Papers; clippings on this issue from various news- 
papers sent to Eleanor Rathbone; my own interviews; and oral history tran- 
scripts in the Nehru Library. 

Assessing the role of Muslim women at this time is most difficult. There is 
one broad history of Muslim women: Shahida Lateef, Muslim Women in India 
(London, Zed Books, 1990) but it is very general. Begum Shah Nawaz was a 
major player at this time and she has written: “Women’s Movement in India,” 
Indian Paper no. 5 (New York, International Secretariat Institute of Pacific 
Relations, 1942). Interviews with prominent women, especially Muslim 
women, are included in Ruth Woodsmall’s Survey of Women’s Interests and 
Distinctive Activities, 1930-1932. I was able to meet Kulsum Sayani in 
Bombay and talk with her about her work. She gave me a copy of “My 
Experiences and Experiments in Adult Education,” by Kulsum Sayani 
(unpublished) and showed me copies of her newspaper for women. She was 
interviewed by the Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge 


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(July 30, 1970) and for the Ruth Woodsmall project. Information on Hajrah 
Begum came mostly from AIWC records, an interview (New Delhi, April 2, 
1976), and Hajrah Begum’s article, “Women in the Party in the Early Years,” 
New Age (December 14, 1975). 

Aruna Asaf Ali has written about her own life and political activities in The 
Resurgence of Indian Women (New Delhi, Radiant Publishers, 1991). A biog- 
raphy by Dhan, Aruna Asaf Ali (Lahore, New Indian Publications, 1947), is 
extravagant in its admiration for her. Some of her writings and speeches have 
been collected in Aruna Asaf Ali, Great Women of Modern India, ed. Verinder 
Grover (New Delhi, Deep and Deep, 1993). For Sucheta Kripalani we have 
Sucheta: An Unfinished Autobiography, ed. K. N. Vasvani (Ahmedabad, 
Navajivan Publishing House, 1978), published after the author’s death, and her 
letters and memoranda as head of the newly created women’s department of 
the Indian National Congress. These records are in the All-India Congress 
Committee files in the NMML. 

Two studies of the Bengal famine were used in writing about this period: 
Paul R. Greenough, Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal (Oxford, Oxford 
University Press, 1982) and Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines (Delhi, Oxford 
University Press, 1981). Kalyani Bhattacharjee talked to me extensively about 
her famine work and gave me copies of a journal, Bengal Speaks, they produced 
at the time. Renu Chakravartty’s Communists in Indian Women’s Movement, 
1940-1950 (New Delhi, People’s Publishing House, 1980), is an indispensable 
source. I was also fortunate to be able to interview Renu Chakravartty 
(Calcutta, July 23 and August 15, 1972). Geeta Anand has written an inter- 
esting but unpublished paper on “The Feminist Movement in India: Legacy of 
the Quit India Movement of 1942,” senior thesis, Dartmouth College (1989). 

For my discussion of the Rani of Jhansi regiment I relied on Peter Ward Fay, 
The Forgotten Army (New Delhi, Rupa and Co., 1994) and Leonard A. 
Gordon’s Brothers Against the Raj (New York, Columbia University Press, 
1990). On Subhas Bose I also used M. Gopal, ed., The Life and Times of Subhas 
Chandra Bose (Delhi, Vikas, 1978) and Arun, ed., Testament of Subhas Bose 
(Delhi, Rajkamal, 1946). One of the earliest papers on the role of women in the 
INA was Krishna Bose’s “Women’s Role in the Azad Hind Movement” 
(unpublished, 1976). Lakshmi Sahgal wrote, “The Rani of Jhansi Regiment,” 
published in The Oracle, 1, no. 2 (April, 1979). A Revolutionary Life: memoirs 
of a political activist by Lakshmi Sahgal (New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1997) 
includes her autobiography, an essay on the Raui Jhansi Regiment and an inter- 
view with Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin. My article, “Mothers and Sisters: 
Feminism and Nationalism in the Thought of Subhas Chandra Bose,” was 
published in Asian Studies, 2, no. 1 (1984). I interviewed Lakshmi 
Swaminathan Sahgal, in Kanpur (March 19, 20, 21, 1976). 

For information on the role of women in the radical social and political 
movements I used Peter Custers’ “Women’s Role in the Tebhaga Movement,” 
EPW, 21, no. 43 (October 25, 1986) and Women in the Tebhaga Uprising 
(Calcutta, Naya Prokash, 1987); and interviews with Renu Chakravartty (see 
above) and Manikuntala Sen (Calcutta, February 21, 1976). Sources on 


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Godavari Parulekar’s work with the Warlis include, Godavari Parulekar, 
Adivasis Revolt (Calcutta, National Book Agency Private Ltd., 1975); 
Godavari Parulekar, interview (Bombay, February 24, 1980); and Renu 
Chakravartty, Communists. Vasantha Kannabiran and K. Lalita have written 
about the Telangana struggle in “That Magic Time: Women in the Telangana 
People’s Struggle,” Recasting Women. One of the most exciting books to 
appear is “We Were Making History”, compiled by Stree Shakti Sanghatana. 

The literature on women in post-Independence India, used for chapter 8, is 
abundant and growing daily. One of the best sources for a range of topics on 
women in India is EPW. In addition to bi-annual issues on women’s studies, 
sometimes devoted to a single topic, articles on women and gender appear in 
every issue. I find this the best source for new research. A new Indian journal, 
Genders, has just begun publication. Manushi, A Journal about Women and 
Society covers a wide range of topics and is wonderfully current and relevant. 
In Search of Answers, ed. Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita (London, Zed 
Books, 1984) is a collection of articles from Manushi. There have also been a 
number of edited books on Indian women, articles appearing in a variety of 
journals, and articles included in general anthologies on women. In this essay 
I will not attempt to give an overview of all contemporary scholarship but 
rather mention the sources | used in writing the chapter. 

Scholarship on the fate of women during partition and the “recovery” that 
followed was practically non-existent until EPW devoted its April 24, 1993 
issue (28, no. 17) to this topic. This special issue included the following arti- 
cles: Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin, “Recovery, Rupture, Resistance”; 
Urvashi Butalia, “Community, State and Gender”; Karuna Chanana, 
“Partition and Family Strategies”; Ratna Kapur and Brenda Crossman, 
“Communalising Gender/Engendering Community.” Urvashi Butalia has 
written The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (New 
Delhi, Penguin India, 1998) on this topic. 

There has been a great deal written on the women’s organizations, both the 
old ones that predated Independence and those formed after 1947. Valuable 
sources are: M. Mathew and M.S. Nair’s Women’s Organizations and Women’s 
Interests (New Delhi, Ashish Publishing House, 1986); Neera Desai’s “From 
Articulation to Accommodation: Women’s Movement in India,” Visibility and 
Power, ed. Leela Dube, Eleanor Leacock, and Shirley Ardener (Delhi, Oxford 
University Press, 1986); and Patricia Caplan’s Class and Gender in India 
(London, Tavistock Publications, 1985). Details about the formation of the 
National Federation of Indian Women are included in its Tenth Congress of the 
National Federation of Indian Women, Trivandrum, December, 1980 (Delhi, 
NFIW, 1980). 

There are three general books which take all contemporary Indian women 
as their subject and paint in broad strokes — Joanna Liddle and Rama Joshi, 
Daughters of Independence (London, Zed books, 1986), Sara S. Mitter, 
Dharma’s Daughters (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1991), and 
Elisabeth Bumiller, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons (New York, 
Random House, 1990). 


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Toward Equality was the landmark document for this period. Not only did 
it present a great deal of data and stimulate a new set of studies, it also chal- 
lenged the very categories used to collect data. Yet with all its criticism of 
women’s status, it focused primarily on economic and political issues, largely 
ignoring violence against women. 

Unfortunately very little has been written on Indian women and politics. 
There are a number of memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies of impor- 
tant women, but very few are analytical. On Vijayalakshmi Pandit we have: 
Robert Hardy Andrews, A Lamp for India (London, Arthur Barker, 
1967), Vera Brittain, Envoy Extraordinary (London, Allen and Unwin, 1965), 
R. L. Khipple, The Woman Who Swayed America (Lahore, Lion Press, 1946), 
and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, So J Became a Minister (Allahabad, Kitabistan, 
1939). Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya became a major figure in India’s handi- 
craft production and has been a favorite figure for biographers. Jamila 
Brijbhushan wrote Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya: Portrait of a Rebel (New 
Delhi, Abhinav Publications, 1976) and Yusef Meherally edited At the 
Crossroads, her collected writings and speeches (Bombay, National 
Information and Publications Ltd., 1947). We also have Kamaladevi’s own 
memoir, Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces. Sarojini Naidu died in 1949 but at least 
three biographies have been produced: Tara Ali Baig, Sarojini Naidu (New 
Delhi, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 
1974), Padmini Sen Gupta, Sarojini Naidu (Bombay, Asia Publishing House, 
1966), as well as Sarojini Naidu’s collected Speeches and Writings (Madras, G. 
A. Natesan, 1925). In recent years we have witnessed the publication of the 
autobiographies of women who played significant roles in politics and social 
work after Independence: for example, Renuka Ray, My Reminiscences 
(Bombay, Allied Publishers, 1982), Aruna Asaf Ali, The Resurgence of Indian 
Women, and Sucheta: An Unfinished Autobiography. 

Articles and books on women, other than Indira Gandhi, as political actors 
are difficult to find. There are pieces that celebrate the strength and power of 
Indian women, for example, Shanta Serbjeet Singh, “Shakti in Modern India,” 
Femina, 14, no. 17 (August 17, 1973). Wendy Singer is one of the few histor- 
ians to have written on women as participants in the contemporary political 
process. Her articles, “Women’s Politics and Land Control in an Indian 
Election: Lasting Influences of the Freedom Movement in North Bihar,” and 
“Defining Women’s Politics in the Election of 1991 in Bihar,” both in India 
Votes, ed. Harold Gould and Sumit Ganguly (Boulder, Westview Press, 1993), 
are among the few attempts to look at these questions. Singer is now engaged 
in a study of ““Women’ and Elections in India, 1936-1996.” Amrita Basu wrote 
about women’s activism in Bengal and Maharashtra in Two Faces of Politics 
(Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992). Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s 
“Gender, Leadership and Representation,” in Real and Imagined Women 
(London and New York, Routledge, 1993) is an interesting comment on the 
problems feminist scholars encounter in using feminist theory to look at 
women in powerful positions. 

There are many books on Indira Gandhi and the following is only a sam- 


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pling: Niranjan M. Khilnani, Iron Lady of Indian Politics (Delhi, H. K. 
Publishers, 1989), Raj Darbari and Janis Darbari, Indira Gandhi’s 1028 Days 
(New Delhi, R. Darbari and J. Darbari, 1983), Henry C. Hart, ed., Indira 
Gandhi’s India (Boulder, Colo., Westview Press, 1976), and Inder Malhotra, 
Indira Gandhi (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1989). Ashis Nandy has 
written about the appeal of Mrs. Gandhi in “Indira Gandhi and the Culture of 
Indian Politics,” in At the Edge of Psychology (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 
1980). I found two newspaper articles on Mrs. Gandhi especially interesting on 
the question of whether or not Mrs. Gandhi was a champion of women: 
“Indira Gandhi and Women’s Liberation,” The Asian Student (November 23, 
1974) and Meher Pestonji, “All Eyes on Mrs. G!” Eve’s Weekly (October 
27-November 2, 1979). Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to Indira between 1922 and 
1939 have been published as Freedom’s Daughter, ed. Sonia Gandhi (London, 
Hodder and Stoughton, 1989). Some of Mrs. Gandhi’s speeches have been col- 
lected and published as Indira Gandhi in vol. vu of The Great Women of 
Modern India series, edited by Verinder Grover and Ranjana Arora (New 
Delhi, Deep and Deep Publications, 1993). 

Many social scientists have wrestled with the question of why India has so 
many women in powerful positions while the masses of women are deprived. 
Ashis Nandy’s view is presented in “Woman Versus Womanliness: An Essay 
in Speculative Psychology,” in B. R. Nanda’s Indian Women, and repeated by 
Sara Mitter in Dharma’s Daughters. Susan Wadley presents a cultural explana- 
tion in her “Introduction,” The Powers of Tamil Women, ed. Susan S. Wadley 
(Syracuse, N.Y., Maxwell School, 1980). I find Gerald D. Berreman’s thoughts 
on this topic in “Women’s Roles and Politics: India and the United States,” in 
Readings in General Sociology, 4th edn., ed. Robert W. O’Brien, et al. (Boston, 
Houghton Mifflin, 1969) and “Race, Caste and Other Invidious Distinctions 
in Social Stratification,” Race, 13 (July, 1971-April, 1972) very interesting. An 
article which looks at women in South Asia generally is Raunaq Jahan’s 
“Women in South Asian Politics,” Third World Quarterly, 9, no. 3 (July, 1987). 
I particularly like Imtiaz Ahmed’s “Women in Politics” in Devika Jain’s Indian 
Women and Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, “Toward Equality? Cause and 
Consequence of the Political Prominence of Women in India,” Asian Survey, 
18, no. 5 (May, 1978). 

There are two general books on women in parliament. C. K. Jain’s Women 
Parliamentarians in India (New Delhi, Surjeet Publications, 1993), is a useful 
guide to this topic. The author examines women parliamentarians and their 
role and women in decision-making; it includes interviews with twenty 
women parliamentarians and profiles of women in parliament. J. K. Chopra, 
Women in Indian Parliament (New Delhi, Mittal Publications, 1993), includes 
an unreliable history of women’s political participation from the nineteenth 
century as well as a chronicle of the role played by various women parlia- 
mentarians in certain pieces of legislation. 

There are some very interesting books and articles on the contemporary 
women’s movement. Radha Kumar’s The History of Doing (New Delhi, Kali 
for Women, 1993) is a beautifully illustrated interpretive history of movements 


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for women’s rights and feminism in India in the nineteenth and twentieth cen- 
turies. Half of this volume is devoted to the contemporary women’s move- 
ment. Neera Desai and Vibhuti Patel have focused only on the international 
decade in their Change and Challenge in the International Decade, 1975-1985 
(Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1985). Neera Desai has also edited A Decade of 
Women’s Movement in India (Bombay, Himalaya Publishing House, 1988). 
Gail Omvedt’s We will Smash this Prison! (New Delhi, Zed Press, 1980) is a 
living portrait of women engaged in struggle. Omvedt has also written an 
interesting history of the contemporary women’s movement in a chapter in her 
book Reinventing Revolution (Armonk, N.Y., M. E. Sharpe, 1993). There are 
two articles which offer some special insights into the contemporary women’s 
movement: A. R. Desai, “Women’s Movement in India: An Assessment,” 
EPW, 20, no. 23 (June 8, 1985) and Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, “Organizing 
Against Violence: Strategies of the Indian Women’s Movement,” Pacific 
Affairs, 62, no. 1 (spring, 1989). 

The literature on women’s economic and material conditions has truly blos- 
somed and provides a contrast with the literature from the colonial period. 
Some interesting books on women’s work are Leela Gulati, Profiles in Female 
Poverty (Delhi, Hindustan Publishing, 1981), Maria Mies, Indian Women and 
Patriarchy (New Delhi, Concept, 1980), Devika Jain, Women’s Quest for 
Power (Sahibabad, U.P., Vikas, 1980), Rekha Mehra and K. Saradamoni, 
Women and Rural Transformation (New Delhi, Indian Council of Social 
Science Research, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, 1983), and 
Susheela Kaushik, Women’s Oppression (Sahibabad, U.P., Shakti Books, 1985). 
Prem Chowdhury’s The Veiled Women: Shifting Gender Equations in Rural 
Haryana 1880~1990 (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1994), looks at women’s 
roles - economic, marriage customs, widowhood, inheritance — and sees a 
worsening situation. Chowdhury notes that although modern development 
has transformed the face of Haryana, women have not benefited from these 
changes. Bina Agarwal’s long-awaited A Field of One’s Own: Gender and 
Land Rights in South Asia (New Delhi, Cambridge University Press, 1994), 
focuses on the material basis of women’s subordination, especially their prop- 
erty rights. Srimati Basu, She Comes to Take Her Rights: Indian Women, 
Property and Propriety (State University of New York Press, in press) studies 
why women do not claim their rights. 

Barbara D. Miller’s The Endangered Sex (Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University 
Press, 1981) provided the wake-up call about India’s unequal sex ratio. 
Amartya Sen’s widely read “More Than too Million Women Are Missing,” 
The New York Review (December 20, 1990) discussed this problem in both 
India and China. I find Amartya Sen’s writing on this issue and the absence of 
equity for females extremely sensitive. I especially like his Commodities and 
Capabilities (Amsterdam, North Holland, 1985) and his article written with 
Jocelyn Kynch, “Indian Women: Well-being and Survival,” Cambridge 
Journal of Economics, 7, nos. 3/4 (September/December, 1983). 

EPW carries numerous articles on women and economic issues. For 
example, see the articles in a special issue of EPW, 24, no. 17 (April 29, 1989): 


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C. Sridevi, “The Fisherwoman Financier”; Nirmala Banerjee, “Trends in 
Women’s Employment, 1971-1981”; Jeemoi Unni, “Changes in Women’s 
Employment in Rural Areas, 1961-1983”; Roger Jeffrey, Patricia Jeffrey, and 
Andrew Lyon, “Taking Dung-Work Seriously”; and Miriam Sharma, 
“Women’s Work is Never Done.” Manushi is an excellent source for women’s 
voices about their work. For example see Prayag Mehta, “We Are Made to 
Mortgage Our Children — Interviews With Women Workers of Vellore,” 
Manushi, 22 (1985). 

The linking of sex-determination tests with sex-selective abortions have gal- 
vanized the attention of those studying women in India. Some of the first 
papers on this topic were given by Vibhuti Patel. She has published “Sex- 
Determination and Sex Preselection Tests in India: Recent Techniques in 
Femicide,” Reproductive and Genetic Engineering, 2, no. 2 (1989). Uma Arora 
and Amrapali Desai wrote an essay on this topic: “Sex Determination Tests in 
Surat,” Manushi, 60 (September—October, 1990) and Manju Parikh’s “Sex- 
Selective Abortion in India: Parental Choice or Sexist Discrimination” was 
published in Feminist Issues 10, no. 2 (fall, 1990), pp. 19-32. 

The topic of rape hit the popular press in 1980. For example, Subhadra 
Butalia wrote “The Rape of Mathura” for Eve’s Weekly (March 8-14, 1980). 
Examples of other articles are “The Rape Rap,” India Today (June 30, 1983), 
and “The Raped Still Tremble,” Probe India (March 1983). The literature on 
“dowry deaths” is extensive: Chairanya Kalbag, “Until Death Do Us Part,” 
India Today (July 15, 1982); Sabeli Newsletter, 1, no. 2 (June, 1984); Lotika 
Sarkar, “Feeble Laws Against Dowry,” Facets, 3, no. 3 (May-June, 1984); 
Sevanti Ninan, “At the Crossroads of the Courts,” Express Magazine 
(November 27, 1983); and Vimla Farooqui, “Dowry as a Means of Acquiring 
Wealth and Status,” HOW (May, 1983) are a few examples. There have also 
been numerous articles in Manushi. The Sabeli Report (November 25, 1983) 
was privately circulated. Two official documents of interest are the Report of 
the Joint Committee of the Houses to Examine the Question of the Working of 
the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, C.B.(II), no. 333 (New Delhi, Lok Sabha, 
1982) and the Law Commission of India’s Ninety-first Report on Dowry 
Deaths and Law Reform (August 10, 1983). The best article summarizing the 
new legislation to protect women is Flavia Agnes’ “Protecting Women Against 
Violence? Review of a Decade of Legislation, 1980-1989,” EPW, 27, no. 17 
(April 5, 1992). 

The Roop Kanwar sati-like death was widely reported. “A Pagan Sacrifice,” 
India Today (October 15, 1987) treated it as a possible suicide but many other 
articles glorified it as sati. Feminist writers, like the editor of Research Center 
Women’s Studies Newsletter, called it: “Sati — Cold Blooded Murder,” 8, nos. 
3 and 4 (December 1987). Especially interesting in this controversy is Ashis 
Nandy, “Sati as Profit Versus Sati as Spectacle: The Public Debate on Roop 
Kanwar’s Death,” in Sati, the Blessing and the Curse. Veena Talwar has written 
a superb (and entertaining) article and rebuttal to Nandy: “The Roop Kanwar 
Case: Feminist Responses,” and “The Continuing Invention of the Sati 
Tradition,” also in Sati, the Blessing and the Curse. 


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Communalism has been the issue of the 1990s for women in India as well as 
Indians generally. Zoya Hasan has written an_ excellent article, 
“Communalism, State Policy, and the Question of Women’s Rights in 
Contemporary India,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 25, no. 4 
(October-December, 1993) that discusses the Shah Bano case within the 
context of the larger revival of communalism. This has also been a topic for 
Madhu Kishwar, Manushi’s editor: “Pro Women or Anti Muslim? The 
Shahbano Controversy,” Manushi, 32 (January-February, 1986). Forging 
Identities: Gender, Communities and the State, ed. Zoya Hasan (New Delhi, 
Kali for Women, 1994) includes a number of articles which further our under- 
standing of gender and religious issues for Muslim women. 

One of the first serious articles to appear on women in the Hindutva move- 
ment was Tanika Sarkar’s “The Woman as Communal Subject: Rashtrasevika 
Samiti and Ram Janambhoomi Movement,” EPW, 26, no. 35 (August 31, 1991). 
In 1993 Amrita Basu was guest editor for a special issue of the Bulletin of 
Concerned Asian Scholars, 25, no. 3 (October-December, 1993) on “Women 
and Religious Nationalism in India,” which included articles by Zoya Hasan 
(see above), Tanika Sarkar, “The Women of the Hindutva Brigade,” Amrita 
Basu, “Feminism Inverted: The Real Women and Gendered Imagery of Hindu 
Nationalism,” and Paola Bacchetta, “All Our Goddesses Are Armed: Religion, 
Resistance, and Revenge in the Life of a Militant Hindu Nationalist Woman.” 
Volume 8, nos. 3-4, of the Committee on South Asian Women Bulletin was 
devoted to “Women and the Hindu Right.” It included Jyotsna Vaid, “On 
Women and the Hindu Right,” Sucheta Mazumdar, “For Rama and Hindutva: 
Women and Right Wing Mobilization,” Vibhuti Patel, “Communalism, 
Racism and Identity Politics,” Paola Bacchetta, “Muslim Women in the RSS 
Discourse,” and Madhu Kishwar, “Warnings from the Bombay Riots.” Women 
and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences, ed. Tanika Sarkar and 
Urvashi Butalia (London: Zed Books, 1995) is an excellent addition to this lit- 

The scholarship on women in South Asia is almost all interdisciplinary and 
increasingly influenced by post-modernist theory. This has led to a spate of 
collected works which include articles written from different points of view 
and on different periods. Works that attempt to synthesize periods or move- 
ments are rare. This is a most exciting time to be researching and reading 
women’s history, for every day brings new pieces of work with tantalizing 
possibilities. I view my own work as only a first attempt to provide a useful 
framework for new explorations. 


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