4GK005 Campaigning and Citizenship: Women in Britain and its Empire from 1800 to 1950

Women in India


Before the British arrived in India, villages owned land communally and paid percentage of their produce to ruler. British introduced landlordism in some areas and individual peasant proprietorship in others. British raised taxes annually irrespective of quality of harvest.

1770s 10 million people died in Bengal famine.
India had textile, metal and ship building industries - textile industry destroyed by British because it competed with British textile industy.

1854 - 1901 29 million Indians starved to death

1857-8 Indian Mutiny - against background of peasant rebellions, Indian troops in British army refused to use new breech loading rifle because cartridges greased with animal fat and tips of cartridges had to be bitten off before insertion - imprisoned and then released by force - Indian troops took over Delhi, Lucknow and Cawnpore - one of leaders was 23 year old woman, Laxmi Bai, who died in battle - massacre of British at Cawnpore led to indiscriminate killing by British forces.

British India before and after the Great Rebellion of 1857 by Professor Peter Marshall
The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005)


Both feminism and nationalism in India emerged from the social reform movement of the C19th.
The social reform movement originated within the Indian intelligentsia and spread to sections of the middle classes.
It appeared first in Bengal - Ram Mohan Roy founded Atmiya Sabha in Bengal in 1815.
1828 Brahmo Samaj also formed in Bengal
It was partly inspired by Hindu revivalism and partly by liberal ideas.

Talwar (1990) points out that the movement for the uplift of women initiated by men in the early C19th – e.g. Raja Ram Mohun Roy – and included education, widow remarriage, abolition of purdah, and agitation against child marriage.
The author argues that social reform movements arose out of conflict between the older feudal joint family system and material needs of the developing urban middle class.
The urban m/c family was no longer a productive unit but a place of emotional fulfilment. The reform movement of the C19th was generally limited to urban areas.

'As an Indian bourgeois society developed under western domination, this class sought to reform itself, initiating campaigns against caste, polytheism, idolatry, animism, purdah, child marriage, sati and more, seeing them as elements of a pre-modern or primitive identity' (Kumar 1993).

Women's Education

Foreign missionaries had promoted schooling for girls (and Christianity) from the early part of the century - Kumar says mainly attended by girls from poor families.
Indigenous campaigns did not start till mid 19th century. Non-Orthodox Hindus and members of the reform movement Brahmo Samaj opened own schools as alternative to mission schools.
Chatterjee (1990) says that in Bengal there were 95 schools with attendance of 2,500 in 1863 and 2238 schools & 80,000 in 1890.
The development of vernacular literature (i.e.in local languages) in Bengal accompanied growth of girl’s education.
1870 Teacher training college for women set up.
By 1882, 2,700 schools and colleges for girls and women in India with 127,000 students.
1880s - Women also beginning to graduate from universities.

Acquiring an education presented to m/c girls as a personal challenge. Schools became places where they could be autonomous subjects. They could also feel superior to previous generation, Western women and lower class women.
Education directed at domestic virtues but boundaries of ‘home’ had become more flexible – a m/c woman could appear in public as long as spiritual signs of her femininity visible in her dress, eating habits, social demeanour and religiosity.

Still met some resistance from more orthodox Hindus.
Sarkar says 'In colonial India, male claims to power depended very largely on their intellectual achievements, since most other forms of `manly' and masterful enterprise were closed to them. Educated women, therefore, posed a threat to the very basis of masculinity' (Sarkar 1997).

Education for Muslim girls came later.
1895 Muslim girls' school founded by Amina Tyabji
1906 Begum Abdullah and the Begum of Bhopal opened a girls' school at Aligarh in the face of opposition from the local Urdu press.

Kumar (1993) says that around 1900 new emphasis on education for women - not just to make them better housewives and mothers but to help them educate their children and so contribute to nation-building.
In 1900-1903, there were also schemes to train widows as teachers all over the country.
In 1906, Sarojini Naidu said in speech to Indian Social Conference in Calcutta
'Therefore, I charge you, restore to your women their ancient rights, for, as I have said, it is we, and not you, who are the real nation builders, and without our active co-operation at all points of progress all your Congressses and Conferences are in vain. Educate your women and the nation wll take care of itself, for it is as true today as it was yesterday and will be to the end of human life that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world'(quoted in Kumar 1993: 50).

Education viewed as a 'means to enhance the social presence of Indian women and enable them to adapt to a changing external situation' (Thapar 1993: 83).

'When Gandhiji assumed India's leadership the average life span of an Indian woman was only 27 years. Babies and the pregnant women ran a high risk of dying young. Child marriage was very common and widows were in very large number. Only 2% of the women had any kind of education and women did not have an identity of their own. In North India, they practiced the Purda (veil) system. Women could not go out of the house unless accompanied by men and the face covered with cloth. The fortunate ones who could go to school had to commute in covered carts (tangas)'.
Jyotsna Kamat Gandhiji & the Status of Women http://www.kamat.com/mmgandhi/gwomen.htm (accessed 11 January 2011).


1829 Sati Abolition Act - abolished the practice of some widows burning themselves on their husband's funeral pyre - was not a widespread practice - seen by some m/c Indian reformers and many British administrators as primitive practice. (See R Kumar, A History of Doing, 1993)

'The reform of Hinduism became a vital issue is the Indians were to counter the attacks and criticisms of the British, and, ultimately if they were to resist British domination' (Liddle and Joshi 1986: 82).

Maja Daruwala on history of Sati legislation in India
Life in India: The Practice of Sati or Widow Burning by Linda Heaphy
Speech by William Bentinck, Governor General of India

1856 Hindu Widows Remarriage Act - high caste Hindus practised child marriage and prohibited remarriage of widows - lower caste Hindus did neither - lifting of ban on former affected property rights of latter group (See R Kumar, A History of Doing, 1993)

'Few women of the upper castes availed themselves to their new right to remarry, while those widows who, in the exercise of their customary rights, remarried independently of the Act, found themselves now subject to the forfeiture clause of Section 2, regardless of their Customary Law which permitted a widow to remarry and certainly in many, if not most, cases permitted her also to retain property inheritied from her first husband' (Carroll 1989: 25).

1872 Marriage Act - minimum age 14 for women and 18 for men - passed as a result of campaigning by reform movement.
1874 Right to Property Act gave widows a life interest in her husband's property, but could not dispose of it.
Sons, not daughters, inherited from their fathers.
1890 1600 ‘Hindu ladies’ sent petition to Queen Victoria asking for legislative reform.
1891 age of consent for girls raised from 10 to 12 - opposed by B.G.Tilak as example of British interference in Indian customs.

Child marriage raised the most controversy – Indian feminists and reformers, European missionaries and British press all campaigned for reform.
Indian campaigners included Behramji Merwanji Malabari & M. G. Ranade. Behram Malabari argued that it resulted in enfeebled children being born.
Opponents of the campaigns included B. G. Tilak who was an extreme Hindu nationalist and orthodox on social questions.
Early marriage justified by those who supported it as controlling wantoness in young people and binding young girl to her husband’s family – seen as supportive of both joint family system and of caste system.
Jayawardena (1995: 91) says that
‘Indian nationalists argued that to be politically credible, social reform of unacceptable practices was necessary, while the British often found an excuse for the continuation of imperial rule in the “social evils” prevalent in India’.

Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) wrote on child marriage after she returned to India to practice law in 1894
1908 she published Between the Twilights about cases she came across in professional work.
European missionary women took up the issue – e.g. Amy Wilson Carmichael (1867-1951) wrote sensational book in 1903 Things As They Are about child marriage, ill treatment of widows, temple prostitutes. She hated Hinduism and blamed it for the degradation of women.

According to Kumar (1993), the All India Women’s Conference divided on whether to campaign for Harbilas Sarda’s bill against child marriage – would raise age of marriage for girls from 10 to 12. Preferred Hari Singh Gour’s Bill of 1924 which proposed minimum age of 14.
Opposition to legislation on child marriage came from those who said Government had no right to interfere in what was a religious matter – this was more about maintaining the boundaries between civil & religious laws and occurred in context of a new wave of religious fundamentalism.
Campaign against child marriage also intended to embarrass colonial state – could not oppose legislation and still claim to be agent of modernity – British government tried to delay law and afterwards tried to slow down its implementation.
Women’s movement used public meetings, resolutions, lobbying, newspaper and journal articles, and picketing of the assembly.
In 1927, also issued Women’s Charter at conference of nationalists & social reformers – included equal pay for equal work, maternity benefits for factory women, equal rights to divorce, and equal standards of morality.

1927 Katherine Mayo, an American journalist published Mother India – defined India as backward & needing imperial rule because of social evils – wrote in lurid & graphic way.
Mayo criticised by many nationalist leaders, missionaries and westerners familiar with India – e.g. Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins & Agnes Smedley denounced book as slandering whole people and culture.
Nationalist men called it an attack on Indian womanhood but, according to Jayawardena (1995) it was mainly an attack on behaviour and customs of men. No Indian women published attacks on her book.

Liddle & Joshi (1986) quote a 1927 issue of the London journal New Statesman and Nation which said that Mother India revealed ‘the filthy personal habits of even the most highly educated classes in India – which, like the degradation of Hindu women, are unequalled even among the most primitive African or Australian savages'. It Went on to say ‘Katherine Mayo makes the claims for Swaraj (self rule) seem nonsense and the will to grant it almost a crime.’

Sinha (2000b) argues that publication of Mother India helped revitalize Indian nationalism and increase influence of liberal feminism within it.
It was an expose of the sufferings of Indian women and intended as an attack on Indian nationalism – abuse of women intrinsic to Hinduism and therefore Indian not fit to govern itself – given secret advice and information by member of British Indian Political Intelligence department in London.
'Mayo's depiction of women as victims of an inherently pernicious Hindu culture, and of Indian nationalism as an irredeemably backward and retrogressive force that was unwilling and incapable of addressing the plight of women in India, attracted considerable international attention. Mother India's emphasis on women and children, for example, resonated with the priorities of the newly formed League of Nations as well as with the effects of the recent enfranchisement of British women. The post-suffrage British women's organizations turned increasingly to the "white woman's burden," especially as it affected the condition of women in the colonies, as a new focus of their own feminist agenda'. (Sinha 2000b)

Up to this date, prevailing gender ideology in Indian nationalism was that women represented the inner or spiritual sphere of the nation which was superior to the West.
‘The burden of representing the inner and authentic realm of the nation in nationalist discourse fell largely on the figure of the "modern Indian woman'. (Sinha 2000b)
This version of Indian womanhood applied to m/c women – not lower caste or lower class women. But it had given m/c nationalist women legitimacy for political activity and support from nationalist men for emancipation.
Sinha concludes that, as a result of the actions and arguments of the women’s movement in this period, “The discursive figure of the modern Indian woman, once the signifier of national cultural difference, was now rearticulated in the discourse of liberal feminism as the model for the citizen of a new nation-state.”
Nationalist leaders had to accept some of Mayo’s criticisms. 'Her more serious nationalist critics recognized immediately that they could not afford to deny the prevalence of the backward social practices that Mayo had found in India. Many leading nationalists and social reformers in India, such as Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, and K.K. Natarajan, were thus careful to acknowledge the need for social reform in India even as they criticized Mayo's imperialist agenda' (Sinha 2000b).

1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act passed. Minimum age of marriage for 18 for women and 21 for men.
Sinha (2000b) says 'The unprecedented campaign orchestrated by the early women's movement for the passage of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, or the Sarda Act as it was popularly called after its sponsor Harbilas Sarda, constituted the most telling response of organized women to Mother India'.
But a great deal of the campaigning preceded the publication of Mother India.

1930 Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in the Presidential Address to the All-India Depressed Classes Congress said
‘ I am afraid that the British choose to advertise our unfortunate conditions, not with the object of removing them, but only because such a course serves well as an excuse for retarding the political progress of India’, (quoted in Liddle & Joshi 1986: 24).

Factory Acts

1881 Indian Factories Act child defined as under 12 – could not work until aged 7, limited to 9 hour day & given 4 days holiday a month – criticised as insufficient to protect children and no protection for women.
1891 Indian factories (Amendment) Act – applied to anyone under 14, minimum age for work now 9, 7-hour day (women 11) – women and children limited to working between 5am and 8pm.
1908 Indian Factory Commission Report said ‘On the woman rests the main responsibility of producing a healthy race.’ (Kumar 1993, p. 50)
From early C20th concern on part of government and loyalist groups about infant welfare & reducing high rate of infant mortality – antenatal care & supervision of pregnancy developed.
In 1920s, also agitation from women's associations for maternity benefits – provincial governments did so in the 1930s. But also period when women being laid off from mills & mines – Kumar (1993) says women were a reserve army.

Women collecting water, India, 1947 Women collecting water, India, 1947
Copyright of Hulton Getty Picture Collection

Women carrying water, India, 1947
Copyright of Hulton Getty Picture Collection
Women carrying water, India, 1947

British Feminists and Indian Women

For the majority of British feminists in the second half of the C19th and in the early C20th. Indian women were objects of pity & philanthropy and a point of comparison.
Burton (1990) explains that
‘While Victorian sexual ideology cast woman as the weaker sex, it endowed her at the same time with unquestionable moral superiority, rooted in the ostensible feminine virtues of nurturing, childcare, and purity.’ (p. 296)
Victorian feminists used this ideology as justification for their involvement in certain public activities (as earlier generation of women campaigners against the slave trade and slavery itself had done) – but could not be redeemers unless they had helpless and unfortunate people to rescue.
In the later part of the C19th, many British feminists shared prevailing views of British/White superiority. In response to critics who accused them of undermining the future of the ‘race’ by neglecting children’s health and education in their desire for a public role, they claimed that women deserved equal rights because they had equal responsibility for the future of the nation – they were ‘mothers of the race’.
Burton says that sense of female superiority and white superiority helped many Victorian feminists to claim the ‘Anglo-Saxon woman’ as the most evolved female type – many assumed a hierarchy of civilization according to perceived status of women within that culture – even if British women not fully emancipated, much nearer emancipation (and deserving of it?) than Indian women.
So Indian women had to be constructed as helpless, passive and degraded and the barbarism of Indian men blamed for this.

The Englishwoman’s Review, which was published in Britain between 1866 & 1905, printed many articles on Indian women, exhorting British women to uplift their ‘Eastern sisters’.
The Women’s Suffrage Journal (1870-1890) was edited by Lydia Becker and often included reports from women who had travelled to India & reproduced articles from Indian newspapers. Often covered both Turkish Muslim women and Indian women under term ‘Oriental Womanhood’.
Burton says ‘But since Indian women rarely spoke for themselves in these controlled textual spaces, British feminists defined them even as they silenced them. In the process, they underscored their own moral purity and legitimised themselves as the authority on Indian womanhood’ (pp. 303-4)
Votes for Women was the WSPU paper & was published from 1907-1918 – contained a great deal of coverage of Indian women.
Concept of British women as most deserving of full emancipation expressed by Christobel Pankhurst in VFW in 1903. She said that British women ‘feel it hard, that being the rightful heirs to the constitutional liberty built up by their foremothers and forefathers, they should have that inheritance withheld, while men of other races are suddenly and almost without preparation leaping into possession of constitutional power.’

Many of the feminists who wrote about and campaigned for education & health care for Indian women had never visited India or met any Indian women
Josephine Butler extended campaign against Contagious Diseases Acts to India in 1886 - started immediately after success of British campaign and lasted till 1915.
The Acts were still in effect in military areas in India – so Butler et al lobbied Parliament, sent agents to India to report, published pamphlets and held meetings in Britain – wanted to liberate Indian women from organised prostitution – also wanted to stop Acts being reinstated in Britain.
In lobbying British government, used threat to stability of Empire – ‘Nothing so surely produces a spirit of rebellion as trampling on the womanhood of a subject race by its conquerors.’ (LNA memorial to Lord Salisbury April 1888). Butler et al had very little direct contact with Indian women – relied on agents’ reports which were mainly about prostitutes or women assumed to be prostitutes.

Eleanor Rathbone, leader of National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (successor to NUWSS), was important figure in post-wW1 British feminism.
She believed, according to Sinha (2000a), that only fully-enfranchised British women could represent the cause of Indian women.
In 1927, Eleanor Rathbone argued that British women should be included in the Simon Commission - did not argue that Indian women should be on it - Indian feminists protested at the exclusion of Indian men, Indian women and British women.

1929, Eleanor Rathbone called a conference in response to Katherine Mayo’s book.
Criticised by Indian women for doing this with no reference to them
1932 visited India and met women from Indian women’s movement – wanted to find out how law on prevention of child marriage was being implemented.
1934 published Child Marriage: the Indian Minotaur – did not blame the Hindu religion & criticised the British for not doing enough to stop child marriage.

Eleanor Rathbone also supported British government's 1935 proposals (see above), even though Indian feminists opposed.
In 1932, Maya Devi Gangulee had written to her that 'There has not been one instance on record in which the women of any community have sought to disassociate themselves from being members of one great national sisterhood. The women of all communities, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Depressed Classes and Untouchables, have been working hand in hand in the nationalist movement without the least hint of communal disaffection. Election as representative of a communal group would prevent women to represent issues of concern to women as a group'. (Quoted in Sinha, 2000b)
Sinha goes on to say 'The universalist logic of liberal feminism thus reinforced nationalist objections against the political constitution that the imperial state offered India. When organized women in India, therefore, rejected the advice of the dominant wing of the British women's organization to accept the communal franchise for women, they did so less to assert cultural difference than to affirm the liberal feminist ideals of the underlying sisterhood of women”.

Chronology of Nationalist Movement and Women's Roles within it

1885 Indian National Congress formed.
1886 Swarna Kumari Devi started the Ladies Association.
1887 National Social Conference formed in parallel with Indian National Congress - merged into it in 1917.
In 1888 and again in 1892, Congress resolved to co-operate with English ‘well-wishers’ for the abolition of laws regulating prostitution, according to Kumar (1993)
1889 10 women delegates present at Indian National Congress meeting but women not allowed to speak or vote until 1890.
Kumar (1993) says that women more visible in the public sphere in the 1890s – in literary clubs, as preachers in Arya Samaj & Brahmo Samaj, as newly qualified doctors & as novelists.
1890 1600 ‘Hindu ladies’ sent petition to Queen Victoria asking for legislative reform on question of child marriage.
1891 age of consent for girls raised from 10 to 12.
1892 Pandita Ramabai started Sharda Sadan in 1892 to provide employment & education for women.
1902 Ramabai Ranade started Hindu Ladies Social & Literary Club
1904 National Social Conference set up a ladies section which attracted hundreds of women to its annual meetings.

1905 Curzon partitioned Bengal – appeared to be partly to split Hindu and Muslim areas.
In this period, wives, sisters and daughters of nationalists began to form support groups and get involved in activities – e.g. boycott of British goods took place in protest against partition.
Violent revolutionary groups developed in this period.
Menon (1975) says that partition of Bengal 'turned incipient nationalism into a violent movement for freedom with terrorist proclivities.'(p. 21)
1909 The journal Stree Darpan started by Rameshwari Nehru – serious debate on women’s issues.
Also in 1909, Gribalakshmi set up – covered many of same issues but also had articles on traditional role of mother, sister & daughter-in-law – Stree Darpan didn’t – both challenged injustice towards and exploitation of women, according to Talwar (1990).

1914 Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) returned to India - supported home rule and became leader of the Indian National Congress.
1916 Annie Besant set up Home Rule League - subsequently interned by the British.
1916 All-India Muslim Women's Conference formed.
Voted in favour of the abolition of polygamy.
1917 Sarojini Naidu & Annie Besant lobbied British Government for women to be represented in the new legislatures being planned for India.
Argued for self rule, compulsory free education for boys and girls, training for women teachers, medical college for women, improved health care facilities for women & children to reduce mortality rates which were increasing.
Annie Besant became President of Calcutta Congress, December 1917.
Said 'The strength of the Home Rule movement was rendered tenfold greater by the adhesion to it of a large number of women who brought to its help the uncalculating heroism, the endurance, the self-sacrifice, of the feminine nature'. Quoted in Kumar, 1993, p. 55.

1917 Women's Indian Association (WIA) set up by 2 non-Indian women, Dorothy Graham Jinarajadassa & Margaret Cousins
WIA emphasized education for women, organised local classes and discussion groups and campaigned against child marriage and for inheritance and voting rights for women.
1918 Congress supported votes for women.
1918 700 women attended conference on literature in Hindi chaired by Gandhi
1919 Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur became Gandhi's secretary - later one of founders of the All India Women's Conference and its secretary for many years.
1919 Government of India act enfranchised 3% of Indian adults for the Provincial Assemblies & 0.06% for the Central Assembly
Provincial assemblies could enfranchise women if they wished – most did so, but most women could not meet the property qualifications.

Dumasia, member of Provincial Assembly said ‘It is gratifying to find that in a country where man are accused of treating women as chattels the political progress of women has been more rapid than in England'. Quoted in Liddle & Joshi (1986)

1919 Rowlatt Acts gave colonial authorities emergency powers to deal with revolutionaries - e.g. could detain those in possession of 'seditious literature' without trial.
Demonstrations against the Rowlatt Acts resulted in a massacre of Indians by British soldiers at Amritsar.

1920 Gandhi proclaimed an organized campaign of non-cooperation with the British - women actively recruited to the campaign.
Sarojini Naidu & others formed Rashtreeya Stree Sabha, devoted soley to nationalist activism – helped distribute khadi & ran classes for Harijans ('untouchables').
Nationalists resigned from public office, boycotted law courts and government schools. Satyagraha spread through India, gaining millions of followers.
Non-co-operation developed into civil disobedience e.g. sit down protests that blocked streets, nonpayment of taxes.
At the 1921 Congress, there were 144 women delegates.

‘Thus, by the 1920s, two quite different rationales for women’s rights were being expressed: the one that women’s rights should be recognized because of women’s socially useful role as mothers; the other that women, having the same needs, desires and capacities as men, were entitled to the same rights.’ (Kumar 1993, p. 66)

‘The 1920s also saw a shift in consciousness of and about working class women. Where formerly attempts to work amongst them were rare and strictly reformist, now reformist activities were expanded in both scope and scale: while within workers’ movements women began to be seen as a special category with distinct rights and a distinct role.’ (Kumar 1993, p. 66)

1920 Communist Party of India formed by M. N. Roy and others.
1922-24 Gandhi imprisoned.
When released, campaigned for the rights of untouchables and encouraged the development of Indian craft industries.

1922 The journal Chand set up – had even broader perspective than Stree Darpan or Gribalakshmi – in first year brought out 3 special issues on widow, education & child marriage – covered issues of health in each issue.

1925 Sarojini Naidu became the first Indian woman to be President of the Indian National Congress.
1925 National Council of Women in India (NCWI) founded - affiliated to International Council of Women.
1925 Bengal Congress Committee organised some women prostitutes – Gandhi objected vigorously – had to give up profession first.
Gandhi also expected married and unmarried followers to remain chaste.
1926 Gandhi spoke out about double standards of sexual morality for men and women.
1926 All India Women’s Conference for Educational Reform set up
1927 Developed into All Indian Women's Conference.
Participants recognised that the development of educational opportunities for girls was held back by purdah and child marriage - became more political and associated with nationalist movement.

"Their concerns were 'women's issues' but these could not be separated from a concern with freedom from foreign dominance and exploitation' (Forbes 1982: p. 529).
Geraldine Forbes goes on to say that women's education, suffrage, employment, employment protection and improvement in the position of widows were not controversial within the nationalist movement but child marriage, purdah, and issues of property rights within the family were.
Purdah was controversial because some Hindu feminists blamed Muslims for introducing it.
1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act

1929 Lahore Congress demanded total independence

1930 Gandhi gave 11 point ultimatum to Lord Irwin including release of political prisoners, textile protection, abolition of the salt tax & the government monopoly of salt making.
March 1930 Salt March to Dandi
Campaign against British government's monopoly of the production and sale of salt appealed to Indians from all regions, ethnic groups and classes - salt was a basic commodity and essential to life.
Gandhi did not include women in the first Salt March - believed that British would be reluctant to use force against women and so Indian men could be accused of cowardice if women were included in the march.
Nationalist women protested at their exclusion - included subsequently.
Thousands of women joined the salt satyagraha, manufacturing & selling salt illegally. This was the first time the mass of Indian women got involved in the nationalist movement.
British government imprisoned over eighty thousand people including Gandhi, as a result of the illegal production of salt. 17,000 of those imprisoned were women, including Sarojini Naidu.
More details on Salt March to Dandi http://www.ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/people/pst_gandhi.html (accessed 14 December 2015).

The Congress-led nationalist movement took part in Widespread civil disobedience.
women’s organisations to co-ordinate women’s participation were set up e.g. Ladies Picketing Board in Bengal
Women's activities included

  • Boycott of foreign goods
  • Popularising home industries & developing cottage industries especially spinning & weaving khadi
  • Arranging processions & meetings
  • Making speeches about the need to remove untouchability
  • Recruiting for Congress
Government confiscated land & possessions of those who refused to pay taxes. Women organised boycotts of subsequent auctions and picketed homes of those who bought goods until they were returned to original owners.
By the 1930s, police used violent tactics against processions of women as much as against men.
9 months imprisonment not unusual for selling khadi.
1930-31 20,000 women satyagrahis arrested & imprisoned
1931 Indian National Congress committed itself to the political equality of women.
In 1932-33, Congress issued calls to court arrest. In campaigning & in prison nationalist women met others from different class & caste backgrounds.
1934 AIWC demanded Hindu Code which reformed marriage, divorce and inheritance.
1935 Government of India Act enfranchised 10% of men and 0.06% of women - also proposed that wives and widows of propertied men should be able to vote and that seats should be reserved for women along communal lines.
Indian women rejected both proposals.

'The universalist logic of liberal feminism thus reinforced nationalist objections against the political constitution that the imperial state offered India. When organized women in India, therefore, rejected the advice of the dominant wing of the British women's organization to accept the communal franchise for women, they did so less to assert cultural difference than to affirm the liberal feminist ideals of the underlying sisterhood of women' (Sinha 2000b).
Women’s movement also opposed limited women’s franchise. Muthlakshmi Reddi explained the position of the women's movement thus (in a letter to Eleanor Rathbone) ‘[T]he only way to bring the Brahmans, the women and the pariahs together on a common platform is by enfranchising the women and the depressed classes on equal terms with others. If the women and the depressed classes are given freedom, power and responsibility, I am sure that they would very soon learn how to rectify the present social evil’. (Sinha 2000b)

There were other nationalist groups who did not follow the non-violent strategy - e.g. Subhas Chandra Bose advocated armed struggle and set up the Rani Jhansi Regiment as the women's wing of the Indian National Army.

Many women participated in the armed struggle of Bengal.
In the group led by Surya Sen, they provided shelter and weapons, acted as messengers and took part in armed actions.
Pritilata Waddedar died while conducting a raid on a Railway Officers' Club, while Kalpana Dutt was arrested and tried along with Surya Sen and given a life sentence.
In December 1931, two school girls, Santi Ghosh and Suniti Chowdhury, shot dead the District Magistrate.
In February 1932, Bina Das fired point blank at the Governor while receiving her degree at the Convocation. online) Kamala Nehru, wife of Jawaharlal Nehru, organized processions, addressed meetings, led picketing of liquor and foreign cloth shops and helped organize the No Tax Campaign in United Provinces. Her daughter, Indira Gandhi was also active.
Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Nehru's sister, was active in the Non Cooperation Movement. She was arrested in 1932 and imprisoned for a year. She was arrested in 1940, and yet again during the Quit India Movement.
Pages from the history of the Indian sub-contine (no longer available online).

In late 1930s Gandhi became committed to the aim of complete independence for India
1939 On outbreak of war, Congress proposed full support for British is they agreed to post-war creation of a constituent assembly & immediate formation of representative government at the centre – rejected by Viceroy.
Congress boycotted the legislatures.

1941 Government committee on women's legal rights set up - AIWC had been campaigning for this for many years - but this clashed with the boycott.

‘By the 1940s there was a sense of seeing independence on the horizon, and the women’s movement was absorbed into the struggle for independence in such a way that the issue of women’s emancipation was felt to have been resolved.’ (Kumar 1993 pp. 93-94)

1943 Legislative Assembly commissioned a draft Hindu code – gave widow same share of husband’s property as son (daughter got half share), banned polygamy, legalised inter-caste marriage & legalised divorce under certain circumstances – opposed by many.
The proposals were discussed again after Independence and finally enacted after the first general election, largely through sponsorship of Nehru, according to Liddle & Joshi, 1986.

‘The social composition of the women’s movement meant that they could not articulate the particular oppressions of women of the lower castes and class, nor could they recognise that some aspects of their own oppression were not universal. On the question of divorce, for instance, the opposition’s argument could have been undermined had the women opened the discussion to a wider audience, since large numbers of the lower castes had neither religious objection nor customary prohibition against divorce.’ (Liddle & Joshi 1986: p. 39)

Europeans retreating from Burma, Malaya & Singapore commandeered all transport & left Indian migrants to walk.
Soldiers stationed in India molested and raped women, prices rose, food shortages.
Led to the 1942 Quit India resolution – called for mass non-violent struggle – occurred when Congress leaders arrested.

Arun Asaf Ali played a leading role in the Quit India Movement. She edited Inqulab a monthly journal of the Indian National Congress.
1942-44 Gandhi jailed by the British

"When the entire Congress leadership was put in jail in 1942, women leaders like Aruna Asaf Ali and Sucheta Kripalani emerged with Achyut Patwardhan and Ram Manohar Lohia and others to lead the underground resistance. Usha Mehta ran the Congress radio. Congress socialists, Forward Bloc members, and other armed resistance factions were active in this period, working through underground cells in Mumbai, Pune, Satara, Baroda, and other parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, UP, Bihar and Delhi."
Pages from the history of the Indian sub-continent (no longer available online).

Vilasini Devi Shenai argued against putting nationalism first.
'Today our men are clamouring for political rights at the hand of an alien government. Have they conceded their wives, their own sisters, their daughters, 'flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood' social equality and economic justice?'
AIWC Report 1944-45, All India Women's Conference Library, New Delhi.

1944 British government agreed to Indian independence on condition that the two contending nationalist groups, the Muslim League and the Congress party, should resolve their differences.
1947 Independence achieved.
India and Pakistan became separate states.
1948 Gandhi assassinated.


'Gandhi's insistence on non-violence as a revolutionary weapon contributed to creating favourable conditions for mass participation of people, especially women. ... women's traditional qualities, such as their lesser capacity for organised violence, were not downgraded but were held up as models of superior courage'(Kishwar 1986: 52).

'Associations like Womens' Indian Association, the National Council of Women in India and the All India Womens' Conference campaigned for suffrage, marriage reform, participation in municipal and legislative politics. The language of reform did not directly challenge the public/private divide, nor did it unambiguously speak about equality. Public activism of a few, however, strained against the domestic confines of most' (Sarkar 1997).

'There has been considerable debate about whether the militant political activism that the Gandhian Congress offered to women empowered them in the long run. Gandhi himself espoused the ideology of separate spheres for men and women, although he was critical of specific abuses like women's seclusion. The urgent pressures of anticolonial protest made it difficult, in any case, to focus adequately on an agenda of social reform. In practice, however, Gandhi opened up forms of political activism to all women. During the Civil Disobedience movement, peasant women became `dictators' of underground Congress units at village level while Marwari women from deeply conservative families joined street demonstrations, picketed-shops and courted arrest. The principle of non-violence saw to it that women's political activism would not appear as too radically transgressive an act' (Sarkar 1997).

'But there is a way in which women, and women's bodies, become central to the process of nation-making. Normally relegated to the margins, at times of nationalist struggle women come to symbolize the honour and virtue of the nation. They become the icons, the mother-figures for whom men are willing to lay down their lives. It is on this notion of womanhood that the cultural identity of the community and the nation is staked'.
Urvashi Butalia Mother India http://www.newint.org/issue277/mother.htm

'Such a mass participation under Gandiji's leadership gave women a sense of equality with men, an equality which was unheard of in the traditon-bound Indian society'(Menon 1975).

'Gandhi wanted women to act as moral guardians of socieity, as social workers and do-gooders, without competing with men in the sphere of power and politics'(Kishwar 1986: 60).

'The benefits to women of participation in the nationalist movement ....were always limited by their responsibilities for 'women's work' in the home' (Thapar 1993: 88).

'Gandhi recognised the power of the women and the lower castes and contained it for the cause of Independence, uniting the nation behind the freedom struggle at the expense of injustices within caste, class and gender relations' (Liddle and Joshi 1986: 35).

Gandhi, 1947 Gandhi, 1947
Copyright of Hulton Getty Picture Collection

Useful Links

Global Studies of South Asia
Women of India

Printed Sources Used

Burton, A. (1990) 'British feminists and Indian Women 1865-1915', Women's Studies International Forum 13(4).
Carroll, L. (1989) 'Law, Custom and Statutory Social Reform: the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act of 1856' in J. Krishnamurty (ed.) Women in Colonial India: Essays on Survival, Work and the State.
Chakravartty, R. (1980) Communists in Indian Women's Movement, New Delhi: People's Publishing House.
Chatterjee, P. (1990) 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question' in K. Sangari and S. Vaid (eds) Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, New Brunswick: Rutger University Press.
Forbes, G. (1982) 'Caged Tigers: First Wave Feminists in India' in Women's Studies International Forum, 5(6).
Jayawardena, K. (1995) The White Woman's Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia during British Colonial Rule, New York & London: Routledge.
Kishwar, M. (1986) 'Gandhi on Women', Race and Class 28(1).
Kumar, R. (1993) A History of Doing: an Illustrated Account of Movements for Women's Rights and Feminist in India 1800-1990, London: Verso.
Liddle, J. and Joshi, R. (1986) Daughters of Independence. Gender, Caste and Class in India, London: Zed Books.
Menon, L. 'Women and the National Movement' in D. Jain (ed.) (1975) Indian Women, New Delhi.
Sarkar, T. (1997) Women in South Asia: the Raj and After. History Today September.
Sinha, M. (2000a) 'Suffragism and Internationalism: the Enfranchisement of British and Indian Women under an Imperial State' in I. Fletcher, L. Nym and P. Levine Women's Suffrage in the British Empire: Citizenship, Nation, Race, London and New York: Routledge,
Sinha, M. (2000b) 'Refashioning Mother India: Feminism and Nationalism in Late-Colonial India', Feminist Studies, 26(3).
Talwar. V. B. (1990) ‘Feminist Consciousness in Women’s Journals in Hindi 1910-20’, in K. Sangari and S. Vaid (eds) Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Thapar, S. (1993) 'Women as Activists, Women as Symbols: A study of the Indian Nationalist Movement' in Feminist Review 44.

URL: http://pers-www.wlv.ac.uk/~le1810/4GK005w15.htm
Page created by Penny Welch November 2004/last updated December 2015