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Changing Discourse on Women’s Work in Bengal

The Earning Bhadramahila and the ‘Endangered Race’

This paper attempts to document the changing attitude of sections of bhadralok in colonial Bengal towards middle-class women’s paid work. From the 1920s onwards, a number of journal editors and contributors, overcoming their earlier inhibitions, began to propagate middle-class women’s/widows’ economic independence. However, the nature and limits of the proposed economic independence of the new icon, the earning bhadramahila, were clearly defined by the new discourse on women and work. The same journals publicised a range of other issues including anxieties about the “declining number” as well as the “declining fortune” of Bengali Hindus.

The historiography of women’s work in Bengal has long been dominated by the marginalisation thesis. Historians have drawn our attention to the proverbially low work participation rate of women in colonial Bengal. They show how women who traditionally engaged in a number of gainful occupations were gradually pushed out by the partial modernisation of the colonial economy (Mukherjee 1995; Banerjee 1989). That women found only very limited entry into this modern economy and men became the principal bread earners were, according to some historians, largely due to a growing social attitude towards women’s paid work outside the home. It was the emergence of the ideology of the separate spheres and the growing cult of domesticity in the late 19th century (Sen 1999). However, there was some modification in this attitude later. Especially from the mid-1920s, a number of journal editors and contributors (both women and men), overcoming their earlier inhibitions, began to propagate middle-class Hindu women’s and widows’ economic self-reliance with unprecedented enthusiasm. A number of authors championed the cause of independent earning for those young women whose prospect of marriage, they thought, was becoming uncertain.

The same periodicals publicised with equal zeal a range of other issues. These expressed their anxieties about the “decreasing” number of Hindus and the “increasing” number of Muslims on the one hand and that of trailing behind men from outside Bengal in the competition over jobs and business on the other. Frequently discussed topics covered were the need to encourage widow remarriage, concerns and fear of abduction of Hindu women by Muslim men, middle-class male unemployment, overcrowding of the job market, decreasing prospect of marriage of girls, caste taboo on marriage, and other evils of casteism. The present article suggests that the advocacy of women’s economic self-reliance and anxieties about shrinking number as well as shrinking share in the economy were perhaps closely interconnected. It attempts to explore the missing links between these broad issues.

The hapless Hindu widows remained the focus of concern throughout the second half of the 19th century. Possibilities of training widows in self-help were sometimes considered. The leading periodical on women’s issues in Bangla during this period, the Bamabodhini Patrika, published a few articles proposing women’s independent livelihood and training centres. Dagmar Engels points (1999) out that it was the growing economic distress that led sections of middle-class women and men turn their attention to lower middle-class widows in particular. Inspired by the spirit of swadeshi and self-help, they tried to make education and skill development accessible to widows. Self-sufficient widows, it was argued, would ease the economic burden on the lower middle-class family budget.

However, as mentioned before, there was a marked increase in this preoccupation of sections of the intelligentsia, from the mid-1920s, much after the swadeshi spirit of self-help had waned. This was a period of continuing economic crisis and a changing sociopolitical climate. In the later period, some leading men—reformers, intellectuals, and journal editors—came forward to preach women’s economic independence. The deprived Hindu widows and the proposals of how to make them economically self-sufficient occupied more space in contemporary press till the late 1930s. Emphasis on women’s economic role was, however, not in contradiction with the belief in the justification of separate spheres of work for men and women. The widows, the deserted, and the spinster were targeted to be trained to teach in primary schools, serve as midwives and nurses, or produce and sell handicrafts. Training in self-help was publicised to be of utmost importance in a period perceived as one of unprecedented social and cultural crises.

The above-mentioned advocates of women’s employment at the same time seem to have suffered from another anxiety of competition between the sexes in the workforce. In a situation of severe middle-class male unemployment, they were faced with the challenge of how to ensure women’s entry into paid work without pushing out some men from the job market. Married women were not encouraged to take up paid jobs. Young, educated unmarried women, if they needed to pursue a career, were advised to choose strictly appropriate areas of work in order to avoid competition with men.

The present article discusses the debates on women’s remunerated work in Bengal during the 1920s and 1930s as published in some selected contemporary periodicals. The paper draws upon the evidence of three contemporary popular periodicals: PrabasiBangasri, and Bangalakshmi. Besides these three, it refers to some other contem­porary periodicals as well as those belonging to the previous decades. It is important to note that in spite of the different political and ideological inclinations of the editors all of them engaged in some specific social issues. It is possible to find out a broad consensus among the contributors to these periodicals on some popular issues. Articles were often reprinted in more than one periodical within a short span of time.

Supplementing Male Income, Saving the ‘Dying Race’

During the first two decades of the 20th century, the advocates and critics of women’s independent earning wrote in magazines like Bamabodhini Patrika, Bharat MahilaMahila, BharatiSaugat, and Prabasi. There was a lot of debate on the purpose of women’s education and whether women should pursue a career other than social service. While large sections of the intelligentsia rejected outright any proposal of women’s work for pay, some like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1903) argued even in favour of equal economic opportunities. Most advocates in favour of women’s economic self-reliance were, however, guided by the exigencies of economic impoverishment and the breakdown of the Hindu joint family. World War I and its impact on the western society inspired some to pursue the case for women’s responsibility in running the household, which it was believed would release men to perform other duties (Sen 1921).

Since the 1920s and especially since the middle of that decade, the Prabasi took the lead in the campaign for women’s economic self-reliance. Throughout most of its long span of life, Ramananda Chattopadhyay was the editor. In his editorials, he raised women’s issues with remarkable regularity. One gets a rare opportunity to observe and compare the changes with time in the periodical’s editorial stand on what constituted women’s well-being. From the mid-1920s, there is a sudden increase of editorials and articles in Prabasi that argued in favour of some sections of Hindu women’s special need to become self-sufficient. Other contemporary periodicals and special issues joined hands with Prabasi in advocating single women’s and widows’ entry into the world of independent earning with renewed vigour.

The editor of Prabasi (1922), while commenting on a report of torture by a husband on his minor wife, observed that such incidents would only come to an end when women would have enough education to earn their living. Abala Bose, the well-known Brahmo social reformer and wife of scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, in her 1922 talk on Vidyasagar Bani Bhavan argued in favour of teaching women, especially the dependent Bengali Hindu widows to earn their living, which she believed would secure their place in the family. Citing instances of economically independent European women after the war, she hoped that Bengali Hindu males would not be forced to stick to whatever job they got if women at least temporarily supplemented family income.

From 1924 onwards, the discourse on the Hindu widows’ plight took a different turn. The monthly issues of Prabasi reported a rise in the number of alleged cases of abduction of Hindu widows. Statistics on instances of remarriage of Hindu widows of different castes in different parts of Bengal as well as in India were also published.

Pradip Kumar Datta (1999) has drawn our attention to the perusal of Hindu communal agenda by popular dailies like the Amrita Bazar Patrika during the 1920s. He has shown how frequent news of alleged abduction of Hindu women by Muslim goons carried by the daily led to communalisation of the common Hindu mind during the period. Such news of abduction informed by the census enumeration of the decreasing number of Hindus in Bengal created a paranoia about the need to protect the Hindu woman—the would-be mother of the “dying race.” According to Datta, the issue of abduction and that of the Hindus being outnumbered by the Muslims served to connect two apparently separate concerns—gender and communalism—in 1920’s Bengal. In her study on the United Provinces, Charu Gupta (2001) has explored how, especially from the 1920s, gender and communal politics were intertwined in the campaigns by the “Hindu publicists who deployed the woman’s body to sharpen communal boundaries in more aggressive ways than before.”

Discourse of Fear

This paper argues that the heightened concern for women’s economic self-reliance in mid-1920’s Bengal was largely inspired by reports of abduction and the anxiety about the declining Hindus during the period under discussion. However, the relationship between the arguments in favour of the widows’ independent earning and the Hindu middle-class anxieties about their alleged loss to the Muslims was not always quite direct. When sections of the Hindu middle-class intelligentsia argued in favour of widow remarriage, there was a direct link between the alleged declining number of Hindus and the possible solution to arrest the process by aiding the birth of more Hindus. In contrast, only one or two pieces of writings in contemporary periodicals linked the two apparently distant issues of women’s earning and communal threat perception. Therefore, the argument is mostly a conjecture based on circumstantial evidence.

The target readership of Prabasi were mainly the elites—the upper-caste Hindus and a section of educated Muslims. Leading intellectuals of the day, namely Rabindranath Tagore, P C Ray Jagadish Chandra Bose, Jadunath Sarkar, and Kaji Abdul Odud contributed to the journal; some of them frequently. Quite expectedly, Prabasi tried to follow a balanced editorial policy on communal issues for a considerable period and developed a complicated cultural argument on women’s upliftment, intertwining a range of issues, including gender, caste, ethnicity, community, nationalism, and the economy. A step-by-step argument linked the statistics on the declining Hindus, the rising population of Muslims, alleged greater physical strength and sexuality of Muslims, abductions of Hindu widows/women, ill-treatment of women inside the Hindu homes, and practices of casteism leading to conversions with the urgent need to popularise either remarriage or engagement of Hindu widows in remunerated work. The same set of arguments was presented in long articles, short editorials, and comments on news reports.

Ray, the nationalist scientist, in his keynote address at the provincial conference of the Hindu Sabha in Faridpur (former East Bengal, now Bangladesh) skilfully linked the issues of the “increasing” number of Muslims, the “declining” number of Hindus, and casteism. Passages from the address were published in the Prabasi (1925) with detailed comments by the editor. Referring to the 1921 Census, Ray held that his friend, Upendranath Mukhopadhyay, had correctly described the Hindus to be a “dying race” 20 years back. Ray identified a number of reasons behind the decrease in the population of the Hindus in comparison with the Muslims in Bengal. According to him, due to the extensive caste taboo on marriages, many Hindu parents found it difficult to get suitable match for their daughters. This led to the extinction of some typical castes. Then Ray immediately moved on to identify Hindus with Bengalis and say that the manual labourers from other provinces had migrated to Bengal to fill up the void created by the extinction of some Bengali castes that traditionally performed some typical services. The second reason behind the Hindu–Muslim population gap, according to Ray, was the reluctance of Hindus to remarry their widows, while Muslims had no such taboo. To argue that Muslims were growing faster than Hindus because they practised widow remarriage, Ray depended on statistics provided by the census. He, however, either overlooked or did not care to explain the fact that, according to the same source of data, some regions of Bengal enumerated a higher rate of widows among both Hindus and Muslims, while other regions showed a lower rate of widows among both the communities. The rate of widowhood among the Hindus was higher than the Muslims in all regions though (Census 1911, 1921). In any case, Ray identified two impediments to the development of the Bengali Hindu man—the Muslims as well as those Hindus from outside Bengal. Many others followed in his footsteps.

The “decline” of Hindus was attributed to their ill-health, which was in turn linked with the reports of abduction. Several editorials in Prabasi (1924) on the activities of the Nari Raksha Samiti (Women’s Protection League) argued that the reluctance of the Hindus to take back abducted women into the family led such women either to become prostitutes or marry the abductor. In such cases when a mature Hindu woman married her abductor and bore his children, those children were bound to be physically stronger than the offspring of child mothers. And according to the editorials, as the abductors were mostly Muslims and the abducted mostly Hindu widows, the Hindus were the losers, while the Muslims were the gainers in both counts—in number as well as in physical strength. In order to stop the abuse of the Hindu womb, remarriage of widows was strongly recommended. The issue of remarriage was no longer important from the point of view of the deprived widow. However, at the same time, the advocates of widow remarriage knew that people were not going to pay much heed to them. They had to chalk out some alternative strategy.

Independent earning was thought to be such an alternative; an antidote to Hindu widows’ elopement with Muslim men. In a long interview published in a popular economic monthly Arthik Unnati, Abala Bose (1926) tried to bring home the issue. In an interview on the economic condition of Bengali women, she argued that destitute widows in the rural areas of Bengal were being converted to Islam in large numbers. According to her, it was sheer economic desperation that led the destitute widow, with dependent children, to marry a Muslim suitor of a Muslim suitor who was often a sympathetic neighbour. It is important to remember that Bose was the founder of Vidyasagar Bani Bhavan, one of the premier organisations that offered shelter and vocational training to needy widows and deserted women. This is not to argue that Bose and other social reformers like her were solely motivated by the anxiety about the elopement and marriage of Hindu widows with Muslim men. They were surely concerned about the generally vulnerable condition of the Hindu widow who had only limited entitlement to her deceased husband’s property and severely restricted access to gainful economic employment. In the same interview Bose pointed out that all the 22 inmates at the widows’ home run by her had come to seek shelter after being deserted both by their in-laws as well as their natal family. When asked why the family had abandoned such widows, Bose repeated the popular argument of the recent impoverishment of the lower middle class, which according to the propagandists of the theory, had shaken the basis of the traditional joint family. The interview was reprinted in Prabasi (1926).

She pointed out that most inmates of her widows’ shelter and training centre had come from traditional Hindu families outside Calcutta. Brahmo women were not admitted into the shelter because, according to Bose, they already had some basic training in earning one’s living. She did not give any clue as to the caste composition of the shelter-seekers. Bose as well as many of her contemporaries were concerned about the condition of the not-so-well-off sections of the middle class in the small towns and villages, including sections of the intermediary and lower castes aspiring upward social mobility. Chances of elopement and remarriage outside the community were apprehended among these social sections as the incidence of widowhood was high and the rate of participation of women in wage work was low among these communities (Census 1911, 1921). Long before the modern social scientists, it was Ray who had observed the trend of an upward mobility and consequent imposition of restrictions on women among certain castes in the early 20th-century Bengal (Prabasi 1925). He lamented that the Namasudras in East Bengal had stopped remarrying their widows. It is important to note that the Prabasi (1927a, 1927b) took special care to mention the number of Namasudra couples in its regular reports on the remarriage of widows in different districts of Bengal. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2004) has shown how the Bengali upper-caste intelligentsia tried to ensure the support of the lower castes and Dalits in their attempts to build a Hindu nation—a process in which the issues of gender and caste became entwined.

The new generation of propagandists and supporters of widow remarriage realised that their efforts had not borne much fruit and therefore tried to popularise an alternative strategy of training the widows to earn their living so that they did not “fall prey” to their suitors or abductors. But most of them abstained from clearly stating so. An editorial in Prabasi (1924) argued that the large number of cases of assault on women in Bengal was directly related to the numerical majority of the Muslims in the province. The remedy suggested was the participation of women in gainful social and economic role in the model of the English women who had assumed the “responsibility of reconstructing a nation” devastated by the war. Three years later, another editorial (Prabasi 1927c) solely focused on the relationship between the abduction of women in Bengal and the absence of women’s participation in public role. The unsigned author argued that women’s independent earning ensured lesser chances of being violated. In an attempt to generalise the issue, the editorial pointed out that the incidents of assault on women and their abduction whether by a lone goon or a gang were hardly known in Europe as women enjoyed the access to education and opportunities of skill development. In Europe, women were no longer perceived as “objects of lust” but known by their professional identities. The issue of Prabasi that published this article carried at least a couple of reports and commentaries on the alleged abduction of Hindu women by Muslim goons.

This study suggests that the unsigned author and many others could not be more explicit on the relationship between Hindu women’s earning abilities and their lesser chances of being “abducted” because that would demand a recognition of the fact that at least some Hindu women/widows were voluntarily leaving home with their Muslim suitors. Bose stated in no uncertain terms the relationship between the Hindu widow’s economic insecurity and her willingness to turn to her Muslim suitor, especially when the man was her acquaintance. But many of her contemporaries must have found such explanations based on hard reality not suitable for cooking up incidents of abduction. In an appendix to the census report on Bengal (1901) incidents and the causes of conversion to Islam in the province were described. Hindu women from a range of castes were reported to have left home, married to their Muslim suitors and converted. Although some families registered complaints of “enticement,” most cases were described as acts of “falling in love” followed by elopement. Hardly anybody made much hue and cry about such reports during the time. But in the changed atmosphere of communal tension two decades later, almost all cases of Hindu women’s conversion to Islam were reported in the Hindu media as an outcome of coercion following abduction.

The Prabasi played a particularly leading role in reporting the cases of alleged abduction. But there were other contemporary popular periodicals too. In an article published in Bangasri, Jatindramohun Datta (1934), argued that those found guilty in abduction cases could not be taken to task because of two reasons. He blamed that the jury members (mainly Hindus) in abduction cases took it for granted that the abducted women had actually eloped and hence were ready to let the accused go free on the condition of marriage with the abducted woman. Datta also argued that there had been a recent decline in the quality of the police force as a result of the policy of more recruitment of Muslim officers in charge. He wrote that as most abductors were Muslims, they could not be booked due to the reluctance of the police.

Should Women Replace Men?

Chattopadhyay and his comrades were more explicit in linking women’s need to join paid work with their decreasing chances of getting married than they were in the case of widows. On 5 February 1936, four unmarried daughters of a middle-class Hindu Bengali family in Calcutta were reported to have attempted mass suicide to save their parents from the disgrace of not being able to provide for their dowry. One of them died on the way to the hospital, while two others succumbed later. The girls were 24, 22, 20, and 18 years of age, respectively, and the fact that they were still unmarried was an evidence of the high demand for dowry. Reporting the incident, the Prabasi (1936) editor reminded the need to enable women to become economically self-sufficient as chances of marriage were decreasing. Earlier, the noted anthropologist Ramaprasad Chanda (1934) expressed his worries in Prabasi that many Hindu middle-class parents in Bengal would not find suitable matches for their daughters because of severe unemployment problem. He felt, as a result, the Hindu middle class will gradually become extinct. A year later, Chanda (1935) wrote that the Hindu Bengali bhadralok was facing unemployment because political leadership as well as prominent role in the economy had been taken over by people from outside Bengal. A decade earlier Ray warned against the implications of competition with the migrants in the job market. Another writer, Lalgopal Mukhopadhyay (1934), shared the same worries that many middle-class girls would have to remain single in the coming future. As a remedy Chanda had suggested inter-caste marriages as well as training of girls to earn for themselves in the eventuality of being unmarried. Mukhopadhyay recommended proper education and skill-based training for girls with more enthusiasm. Thus, a second group of girls whose parents would not be able to marry them off were added to the group of the widows and the deserted that according to the advocates of women’s economic independence, needed special training. But what would be the curricula of the training programme? Chattopadhyay knew that for most of the colonised women, the dream of choosing a profession would never come true; such efforts would at most lead to “undesirable” competition between the sexes. But women needed to earn. Therefore, a separate sphere of economic activities for women was to be drawn up that included developing some typical “feminine” skills such as embroidery, teaching girl students in primary schools, and assisting in childbirth. Chattopadhyay’s daughter and a renowned writer, Shanta Debi, in a long essay in Prabasi (1923) on the possible vocations of women, warned against undesirable competition with men. She argued that women should try to earn only when there was economic distress, and competition over jobs between the sexes should be strictly avoided.

Politics of Advocacy

We find an extremely illuminating debate on the question among three well-known literary figures in three subsequent issues of Bangalakshmi. It was the mouthpiece of the Saroj Nalini Datta Memorial Association, a leading centre for the training of women in self-help. Indira Debi Chowdhurani initiated the debate in 1931 that the purpose and therefore the curricula of education for boys and girls should be different. She argued that the man would become the bread earner and the woman, a good housewife or a good mother. She, however, felt like many of her contemporaries that teaching girls some lessons in self-reliance would help them “save their lives, their children, and protect their honour” in the eventuality of a misfortune. Debi Radhacharan Chakravarty (1931) joined the debate in support of Indira Debi and strongly discouraged women to enter into competition with men. Parimal Goswami (1931) argued in the same year that the ideal of education should never be compromised, and if any woman wished to dedicate her life to learning and work, she should not be forced to become a mother. However, for average men and women, Goswami (1931) too subscribed to the theory of separate spheres of work:

If there are any lessons that should be taught to women only, those are: stitching, cooking, midwifery and nursing ... similarly there are some areas of work such as engineering and the armed forces which are appropriate for men.

In an article titled “Jagrihi” (Awake) in Bangalakshmi author Ila Debi (1931) argued that the scope of women’s work should include everything under the sun, including the medical profession, law, acting, agriculture, peacekeeping as well as engineering. She was keenly aware about the possible outcome of her scheme: increased competition for decreasing number of jobs and the consequent fall in the wage rate. She hoped that these hurdles would be overcome in “the long run” with the progress of the country and the increase in job opportunities.

Another contemporary author advocated women’s (including married) need to engage in gainful economic occupations, addressed the issue of competition between the sexes. In an article published in 1934 in the “Antahpur” (inner domain of the household) section of the Bangasri, Sushil Kumar Basu (1934) wrote:

it is true that if women were free and joined the labour force, many men would remain unemployed. But the present financial condition of our families (which is the outcome of the joint efforts by employed men and unemployed women) would not change on an average if some men lose their jobs and are being replaced by the same number of women.

But was it a matter of numbers only? Basu assured that it was not. However revolutionary his concept of gender equality was, Basu seems to have shared the anxiety of his contemporaries about the alleged overcrowding of the job market by migrants. It is likely that Basu found women competitors preferable to men Bengal. Justifying women’s participation in the workforce he wrote: “women have not come from outside. They are from our country, our society and our own family” (1934: 508). Or perhaps he was trying to pacify the paranoia created over the issue of middle-class unemployment in contemporary Bengal. He knew that his proposals to include women in the workforce in equal numbers with men would face the most hostile opposition from the middle-class Bengali Hindu men lamenting their loss of jobs to such men who were outsiders “to their country, their own society and their own family.”

In the same issue of Bangasri, Debendranath Ghosh (1934) wrote on the unemployment problem of Bengal. He argued as many, including Ray, had before him that one of the main reasons behind the unemployment of the Bengali middle class was the stiff competition they had to face from migrants outside Bengal. The same issue carried, as noted before, an article on the role of the jury and the police in cases of abduction. It is important to note that Bangasri, much like Prabasi, published articles and reports on a range of issues of common concern of the day, which I argue were interlinked. Moreover, the frequent and immediate reprint of an article in several contemporary periodicals suggests that such writings formed part of a single cultural or social agenda shared by several editors, contributors, and readers.

During the late 1930s, the issue of women’s economic self-reliance surfaced prominently on the agenda of the Hindu communal organisations. In the 1939 session in Khulna (former East Bengal, now Bangladesh), the Bengal Hindu Conference (Bongiya Hindu Sammelan) called for unity among the various castes (jatis) and branches (shakhas) of Hinduism, describing the effort as a “desperate question of life and death.” As a step towards Hindu unity, the conference, presided over by V D Savarkar, the later ideologue of the extreme rightists, called for inter-caste marriages, granting lower castes the right to enter such temples where they were hitherto not allowed to enter, encourage remarriage of willing widows, restrict child marriage, and attempt to eradicate the dowry system. A set of special proposals for the upliftment of Hindu women included attempt to end the practice of purdah (seclusion) to help them acquire physical strength by pursuing fitness programme, to enable them to carry arms for self-defense, and, last but not least, to educate women in a way that they were able to earn. In a single list of programmes, almost every issue of concern to contemporary Hindu intellectuals—their threat perception, casteism, widow remarriage, the evils of male unemployment, dowry system, education and employment of women—were brought together, making their interconnection quite obvious. The report of the conference along with editorial comments was published in the Prabasi (1939) at length. Proposals for women’s economic and physical empowerment earned special compliments from the journal editor who frequently attended and presided over the Hindu Sabha conferences during this time. He felt that the implementation of the programmes adopted by the conference would lead to the empowerment not only of Hindu women but also of the Hindu nation.

Tanika Sarkar’s (2001) study shows how the domesticated Hindu wife was imagined to assist in the making of the Hindu nation during the closing years of the 19th century. At the end of colonial rule, the image of the earning woman replaced the earlier model with the same objective. As the earning widow or spinster were imagined to serve in the interest of nation-making, their limits of economic freedom were carefully designed.

Concluding Remarks

Beyond the periodicals focused in the present study, there were a number of others that shared the same concerns. Particularly interesting are the instances of the two periodicals Jayasri and Mandira, started by revolutionary nationalist and feminist women who at times leaned towards the left. Scholars have shown that though these magazines primarily concerned themselves with the political rights of the middle-class women, they focused on their economic rights (Datta Gupta 2010). However, both endorsed popular views, particularly in their initial years. Jayasri published pieces that typically identified abducted women, as Hindus and abductors as Muslims, described the conversion of Hindu women to Islam in the Bengal countryside to be a grave problem (Jayasri 1930) and traced the deterioration of Indian women’s condition from the beginning of “Islamic rule” (Jayasri 1934). That women’s role was primarily homemaking and mothering was emphasised (Debi 1934). Revolutionary women editors did not always reject the idea of separate spheres of work for women and men. Even as late as 1943, Supriti Sanyal in an article in Mandira on married women’s right to enter the workforce (an issue not much discussed previously) argued in favour of only limited choices based on gender. Commenting on the success of the Vidyasagar Bani Bhavan in arranging vocational training, Bose wrote in Jayasri (1939) that at least four lakh dependent Hindu women in Bengal, in the age group of 15–30 years, were living a life of misery and Vidyasagar Bani Bhavan was training some of them to earn by working as primary schoolteachers, nurses, and handicraft producers (Bose 1932). The special mention of the age group of 15–30 years (the reproductive age) underlines the fact that it was the sexuality of the widow, more than her misery, that most concerned the Hindu literati.

As late as 1939–40, while arguing in favour of protection of the rights of women primary schoolteachers, Hazra Begam (1939–40) lamented that after all said and done, women could be found engaged only two in areas: teaching and the medical service. However, it was only after partition and independence that middle-class women actually made their presence felt in the labour market. By then the Communist Party of India was busy organising men and women, primary schoolteachers, factory workers, plantation labourers, and peasants. Communist activist women wrote extensively on issues like equal wage for equal work, maternity benefits, necessity of childcare facilities for working mothers, and restricting hours of work, in the late 1950s and the 1960s in Ghare-Baire and Swadhinata (Datta Gupta 2010). But this was a different time. The focus of the debate on women and work had shifted from right to work to rights at work; from the middle-class woman to the toiling masses. Partition and its unprecedented economic hardship more than established middle-class women’s—married, unmarried, and widow alike—need to join paid work outside the home. However, when they stepped out to join the workforce in substantial numbers, the job market was ever more gender-segregated (Chakravarty 2016). Teaching in primary schools, selling some selected products, and paid domestic and care work were now considered to be the most appropriate areas for middle-class women. Their work was still considered and continues to be so as essentially supplementary; a survival strategy dictated by exigency—whether abduction, partition, absence of or a sudden fall in male income.


Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar (2004): “Caste and the Territorial Nation: The Hindu Mahasabha, Partition and the Dalit,” Caste, Culture and Hegemony Social Domination in Colonial Bengal, New Delhi: SAGE, pp 191–240.

Banerjee, Nirmala (1989): “Working Women in Colonial Bengal: Modernization and Marginalization,” Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, K Sangari and S Vaid (eds), New Delhi: Zubaan, pp 269–301.

Basu, Sushil Kumar (1934): “Amadernaripragati: Atit o Bartaman” (Our Women’s Progress: Then and Now), Bangasri, pp 503–10.

— (1935): “Meyedersikhsa o Jibansangramebardhitapratijogita” (Women’s Education and the Increasing Competition in Everyday Life), Bichitra, pp 406–07.

Begam, Hazra (1939–40): “On Whom Rests the Responsibility of Educating Women, (translated as Jader Hate Stree Sikshar Bhar by unknown), Mandira, pp 547–49.

Bose, Abala (1922): “Vidyasagar Bani Bhavan,” Prabasi, pp 749–51.

— (1926): “Bangalimeyerarthikabastha” (Economic Condition of Bengali Women) Interview, Arthik Unnati, pp 21–24, reprinted as “Swami-parityakta o Bidhabaderabastha” (Condition of the Deserted Women and the Widows), Prabasi, pp 549–51.

— (1932): “Nari-siksha Samiti” (Society for Women’s Education), Jayasri, pp 582–85.

Chakravarty, Deepita and Ishita Chakravarty (eds) (2016): Women, Labour and the Economy in India from Migrant Men Servants to Uprooted Girl-children Maids, London and New York: Routledge.

Chakravarty, Radhacharan (1931): “Bahirer Kar­ma­kshetra” (Workplace Outside the Home), Bangalakshmi, pp 709–13.

Chanda, Ramaprasad (1934): “Hindu Bhadraloker Kartabya” (Duties of the Hindu Bhadralok), Prabasi, pp 449–53.

— (1935): “Bhadralok,” Prabasi, pp 214–15.

Datta, Pradip Kumar (1999): “‘Abductions’ and the Constellation of a Hindu Communal Bloc’,” Carving Blocs Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth Century Bengal, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 147–237.

Datta, Jatindramohun (1934): “Nariharan o Pulish” (Abduction of Women and the Police Force), Bangasri, pp 543–47.

Debi, Gouri (1930): “Banglainari-nirjyatan” (Assault on Women in Bengal), Jayasri, pp 386–90.

Debi, Ila (1931): “Jagrihi” (Awake), Bangalakshmi, pp 327–32.

Debi Chowdhurani, Indira (1931): “Streesikhhar Adarsha Ki?” (What is the Model of Women’s Education?), Bangalakshmi, pp 606–09.

Debi, Nistarini Saraswati (1934): “Narir Unnati Samandhe Du-chartikatha,” (Some Words about Women’s Uplift), Jayasri, pp 1157–62.

Debi, Shanta (1923): “Narisamasya” (Woman Problem), Prabasi, pp 403–12.

Dutta Gupta, Sarmistha (2010): “Identities and Histories Women’s Writings and Politics in Bengal,” Kolkata: STREE.

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Gait, E A (1902): Appendix II Extracts from District Reports Regarding Causes of Conversion to Muhamemmadanism, Census of India 1901, Vol VI, The Lower Provinces of Bengal and Their Feudatories, Part I: Report, Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press, pp x–xix.

Ghosh, Debendranath (1934): “Bangladesher Bekar Samasya,” Bangasri, pp 539–42.

Goswami, Parimal (1931): “Stree Sikshar Adarsha,” (The Model of Women’s Education), Bangalakshmi, pp 791–94.

Gupta, Charu (2001): Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India, Delhi: Palgrave.

Hossain, Rokeya Sakhawat (1903): “Alankar Na Badge of Slavery?” (Ornament or Badge of Slavery?); Ardhangi (The Other Half), serialized in Mahila.

Mukherjee, Mukul (1995): “Women’s Work in Bengal, 1880–1930: A Historical Analysis,” From the Seams of History: Essays on Indian Women, B Ray (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 219–52.

Mukhopadhyay, Lalgopal (1934): “Bangalir Putrakanyader Siksa” (Education of the Sons and Daughters of the Bengalis), Prabasi, pp 754–58.

O’ Malley, L S S (1913): “Census of India, 1911,” Vol V: Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and Sikkim, Part 1: Report, Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Book Depot.

Prabasi (1922): “Adhahpatita Hindusamaj” (Fallen Hindu Society), p 837.

— (1924): “Nari Raksha Samiti” (Women’s Protection League), pp 282–84.

— (1925): “Bibidha Prasanga: Acharya Prafulla Chandrer Abhbhashan (Address by Acharya Prafulla Chandra), pp 286–94.

— (1927): “Banglai Bidhababibaha” (Widow Marriage in Bengal), p 911.

— (1927): “Bonge Bidhababibaha” (Widow Marriage in Bengal), pp 411–12.

— (1927): “Bonge Nari Niryatan” (Assault on Women in Bengal), pp 274–79.

— (1936): “Bibahananahoar Sanginsamasya” (Acute Problem of Not Getting Married), pp 741–42.

— (1939): “Bongiya Hindu Sammelanersamajik Prastababali” (Social Resolutions of the Bengal Hindu Conference), pp 891–92.

Sanyal, Supriti (1943): “Uparjan Khetre Bibahita Nari” (Married Women in Workforce), Mandira, pp 363–64.

Sarkar, Tanika (2001): “Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Domesticity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Bengal,” Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism, Delhi: Permanent Black, pp 23–52.

Sen, Samita (1999): Women and Labour in Late Colonial India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, Satish Chandra (1921): “Narisamasyai America o Europe” (Women’s Problems in America and Europe), Prabasi, pp 79–81.

Thompson, W H (1923): “Census of India, 1921,” Vol V: Bengal, Part 1: Report, Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Book Depot.



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Updated On : 8th Aug, 2022
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