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Position of Women: In Retrospect

The task of tracing the status of women in India in a historical

perspective is difficult, complex and cumbersome due to diversity of
civilization. The subordination of women preceded the formation of class
society and class oppression. It is difficult to ascertain women's situation
in pre-agricultural period because historians haven't been able to tap the
traces of happenings and operations during that period. This much is
evident that women played a leading role in economic life. But the
bondage imposed on women was terrible and had a devastating impact on
them. Menstruation, pregnancy and child birth reduce their capacity to
work for money and at times make them fully dependent upon men for
protection and food. In contrast to a woman, the man’s position was quite
different. From the beginning man had been an inventor. There has been
clear-cut demarcation between women and men’s world of work. Men’s
activities are always appreciated while women are undermined. Women’s
physical weakness constitutes to a glaring inferiority situation.1

Philosophers, religious preachers, political leaders, social reformers

and scientists all justified the inferior status of women in society. For
instance, the Greek philosopher Aristotle decreed that “the relation of the
male to female is by nature such that one is superior and the other is
dominated. This is because they do not possess a naturally dominating

1 Maya Majumdar (Ed). Encyclopaedia of Gender Equality through Women Empowerment.

Voi. 1 New Delhi. Samp & Sons, 2005, p. 91.

element.”2 The writers of the literary classics ©nofmettsfy-prejudiced
against women. Despite their genius, they treated women sordidly in their
works by depicting women as pretty, ornamental, idle, mindless and
vicious creatures.3 And, ever since the Bible fixed the blame on Eve,
women are held responsible for having led men on to their downfall.4 5

Indian society is probably one of the few where the women’s

position in 2000 B.C. was in an enviable one. She was given education
and if she wanted she could select her life partner and in domestic life she
was an equal partner to male. She had equal rights to property with her
husband. With the marriage a wife became co-owner of her husband’s
property. Her rights were fully recognized which is proved by the fact
that after marriage a husband could not give away any property without
his wife’s consent, for she was co-owner of it/

Further there are some references in the classical literature

regarding the position of women in Hindu society as follows:

“The wife should even treat her husband as God, though he is

characterless, sensual and devoid of good qualities”6

“Women should follow the word of their husbands. This is their

highest duty”.7

She who fasts and perform rituals while the husband lives, cuts off
the life of the husbands. She goes to hell. A women who is after sacred

2 ibid.2v>.92. y'' 't'

2 ibid. °
4 i/vyp.93. 7 (_
5 Kumar, A. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Woman in 21st centuir. Vol.il. Institute for sustainable Institute
for 2005). p. 141.
ibid., 5-154.
7 Yajnavalkasmirili, 1-18.

waters should wash the feet or the whole today of the husband and drink
the water; and she attains the highest place.8

Religions haven’t created the conditions in which women can

become aware of her. Neither have they provided her with enough
space for fulfillment. On the contrary, they have actively promoted her
subordination through injunctions devaluing her status.9

In the ancient Tamil Society, the women were placed in higher

position as seen in the Sangam Literature. Some of them served as guides
in the King’s courts some others served as warriors who were called as
“Moothin Mahalir’ (bravery women). They gave importance to their
country than their sons.10 Further in social life they were called as
“Thalaiv'C (Head) along with men who were called as “Thalaivan\u

During Sangam Age i.e. commencing from 3rd century B.C. the
literature depicted the women as the main character as in Chivaka
Chinthamani, Kundalakesi, Manimekalai, Valiyapcithi, etc. Further those
literature also revealed that all the high avenues of learning were open to
women. The traditions of highly educated women in early times are
conserved in classical literature.12

Barring the Vedic age the women were placed in a low status
through all ages. In most cases they were even prescribed which food to
eat, when and with whom, and which rituals and festivals to celebrate.

* Atfri 136-137
q Maya Majundar (Ed). Encyclopedia of Gender Equality, p,36.
w Mullaipamt, 15.
11 i bid.
12 Tholkappiam, 27.

Women under menstruation are treated as untouchables. They are
considered as a property of man, to be disposed of as the master pleases.13

The deterioration in the status women started from the post

Sangam period (i.e.) 3rd cAD. While the women of the Sangam Age were

treated as equal to men and were given a position of respectability, later

she was looked upon with contempt. Even during the subsequent period
from 5th cAD to 12th qAD, the condition of women became pitiable due to

the imposition of certain social customs. Bakthi movement still relegated

them to the secondary position and even some of the castes were
segregated from the main body of the society.14 Their position was
defined to clearly be subordination to men. Women were placed under
restriction in life and activities, though modesty was considered the
highest among their graces. It was believed that women were fit only for
household work and they were destined to live in kitchen and that is why
she is called as “///a/?/” or “Manaiyal ” (residing within house).

During medieval times their position deteriorated further due to

more seclusion and a closed life by the custom of ‘Purdah Since a
woman was always treated as a dependent minor, her right to property
was generally denied. However, a woman was allowed some personal
property (Sridhana) in the form of jewellery and clothing. In a joint
Hindu family father was the head of the family. Sons acquired rights in
the family property as soon as they are bom. Daughters had none and
were entitled only for maintenance but a widow without a son had a share
in the property until her remarriage or death. Women always remained a
property of their male masters and therefore came to be considered a
liability instead of an asset to the family. The constant subordination,

n K.K.Pillay, Social History of Tamils, Madras, 1970, p. 171.

14 Farquhar. Modern Religious Reform Movement in India, New Delhi, 1970, p. 84.

ignorance and illiteracy of them had given birth to innumerable social
evils like sati (bright burning), child marriage, prohibition of widow
remarriage, dowry, devadasi system etc. As a result of child marriage,
and enforced widowhood of women education didn’t receive
encouragement either from the government or the public. The
conservative attitude of parents greatly hindered the progress of girl’s
education15. Strong opposition and apathy existed among people towards
it.16 It was a deep rooted belief for several years that women shouldn’t be
educated. Tamil proverb says “What is the necessity of education to
women who are confined to kitchen”, as Tamil proverb says “^guy.gjib
Gu655r&(6i5®<3j ui$uQu£5fB<9j”- They felt that it would bring misfortune to
families whose girls were educated. Also a feeling was prevalent that
female education was meant only for devadasi who had to learn the fine
arts in order to dance in temples and on public occasions. Women’s
education was also not very clearly defined during this period. The mutts
of Tamil Nadu, centre of Higher Education, permitted only men. Hence
the women were deprived of higher learning.17

The eighteenth century also witnessed a miserable condition of

women. Women lost their separate entity and their very existence was
merely a bare necessity and indispensable appendage to the male
population. Thus till the beginning of the nineteenth century women were
forcefully subjugated to male superiority in all respects. The birth of a
female child was not welcomed. Infanticide was very common in many
villages of India. Except the higher caste women, no woman was
permitted to cover her upper portion of her body.iS

v> Sargurudoss. History of Education in the Madras Presidency, p. 140.
1' Manuscript Records of Dhannapuram Adheenarn. Dharmapuram. Mutts Record Office
(File No. 45).
1S Hardgrave (Jr.), Nadars of Tamil Nadu, Macmillan Publishers. New Delhi. 1969, p.70.

Movement for Emancipation of women in society

In the 19th century the problems of women in India invited the

attention of Western humanitarian thinkers, Christian missionaries and
Indian socio-religious philosophers. Women’s participation in the work
assignments as well as in other activities increased during this century
due to the technological changes of the Industrial Revolution which
transformed the processes of production. Along with this the spread of
Western humanitarian idea in India made its impact on the clumsy social
traditions. The socio-religious philosophers protested those evil practices
such as sati, child marriage, prohibition of widow remarriage, polygamy,
dowry and devadasi system. Their views were strengthened when
Christian missionaries exposed evils of such social customs when these
customs stood as the stumbling block in their missionary activities.
Further, some of the enlightened British officials in India and England
also initiated measures to remove those social evils. They mobilized the
public opinion in support of the abolition of it against the stiff opposition
from the reactionary section of the Hindu Society. Educated women also
came forward to liberate the rest of women.

The Government expressed deep regret and asked the District

Collectors to prevent the practice of sati and punish all attempts to induce
or compel the unwilling women, to submit to it. It received the support of
social reformers like Raja Ramjvlohan Roy. He published three major
pamphlets described sati as nothing but murder against the orthodox
Hindus’ protest. The practice of sati was prohibited officially by the
“Regulation XVII” of 4th December 1829 in Bengal and then in Madras
on 2nd February 1830. Though this Act increased the wealth of a small

section of orthodox Hindus, the overall response was given.|l) The Hindu
Literary Society, Triplicane Literary Society, Progressive Citizen Society
of Madras, etc., welcomed it. The HLS’s journal the Crescent in its
publication on 15rl1 May 1833. praised the Government for passing this
Act, as it was a blessing to the Indian Women folk and hoped that it
would relieve hundreds of young women from the painful social evils.
The Triplicane Literary Society welcomed this as “a saviour to the
women folk of India since it would remove the social stigma perpetuated
on women from the ancient period”.20

On the other hand some of the orthodox Hindus submitted a

memorandum to the Governor-General of India, on 19th January 1830,
claiming that ‘sati’ practice was a agelong one and sanctioned by Manu
Dharmashastra and hence the Act was nothing but infringement on Hindu
Law and hence the Government should withdraw it immediately. A
memorandum was presented by them to the Governor of the Madras
Presidency on 7th February 1832, in which they pointed out that this Act
was against the ‘non-interference policy’ of the Government and this Act
would demoralize the Hindu social customs. They further pointed out
that the government through this Act seemed to convert Indians by way
of abolishing the Hindu Dharmah.21 The representation of the caste
Hindus didn’t gather much momentum and the Government took all out
measures to stop the practice of Sati. Because of Government's support
measures sati cases were reduced in the Madras Presidency yet total
prohibition become different. Thus a section of women were relieved
from such an inhumane practice.

14 Letter of the Collector of Tanjore to the Secretary, St. George Fort. Madras, No. 1416. Vol. V-1800-
1830, p. 1510.
Records of TLS.. 1830-1850. Office of the HLS Archives. Madras. File No. 154.
_l Despatch of the Governor of the Madras Presidency to the Board of Directors. London,
January - June. 1832. Vol. II. No. 173, p.366.

The reformers also felt that the practice of child marriage resulted
in the growth of young widowhood in Indian Society and further the
young girls were forced to be ‘childbearing machines’. They thought that
the solution for the abolition of child marriage was to raise the age of
marriage of girls. Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj stressed the need
for a special law to save child wife from physical suffering and
harassment at the hands of the husband. In 1860 the Indian Penal Code
prohibited the marriage of a girl of less than ten years old.22

Subsequent reformers like Keshab Chandra Sen and Behramji

Malabari considered this age was low. The members of the Veda Samaj
took a pledge to restrict the child marriage because it led to mental
degradation and physical deterioration of girls.23 Native Marriage Act
fixed 13 years as the year for girls and 16 years for boys.- The Madras
Native Association also mobilized the public support to raise the age of
the girls for marriage during 70s of the 19th century.2 ' 1 .

Because of the pressure given by the missionaries, the Government

created the Marriage Register by an Act for Marriage in India. This was
extended to the Madras Presidency by the Government of India in 1852.
Under this Act the marriage parties should give notice in writing to the
Marriage Registrar after finalizing the marriage proposals. The Act
No. XXV and Act No. V of 1865 was passed to regulate the Marriage
Register which was maintained in every missionary station.
The missionaries were not satisfied with these Acts, because part V of the
Act of 1865 stated that the persons who were intending to many should

22IPC. I860. Govt. Records in British Ad. In India, Sec. IV of Tamil Nadu Archives.
Nickolson. Tanjore District Gazetteer, Madras : Govt, of Madras. 1870. p. 196.
'4 ibid.
R.Sundralingam, Political Awakening in the Madras Presidency, New Delhi, 1968. p.215.

have attained the age of sixteen years in the case of male and thirteen
years in the case of female and such marriage might be certified without
any reference to the consent of the parents or guardians. Again the social
custom also prevented the married women to continue their education,
and hence girls couldn’t get education. All these defeated the aim of the
missionaries in getting lady workers in their missionarie field. So they
gave pressure to the Government to rectify this defect by raising the
marriageable age. The Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872 was
therefore passed. By this Act no marriage should be certified when either
of the parties intending to be married had not completed eighteen years,
unless the consent of father, or guardian or mother had been given to the
intended marriage. In Christian marriage consent of both parties was
made absolutely necessary. Because of this, the early marriages could
not be conducted among the Christians.26

The missionaries published pamphlets throughout Tamil country

advocating marriage after puberty. Slowly but steadily the effort of the
missionaries had its impact on those who were converted to Christianity
and they conducted marriages in the Church according to the norms of
Christianity. They gave their daughters in marriage only after the age of
eighteen and they registered their marriages. On the other hand, marrying ' 'W *

girls before attaining poverty was common among the majority ofyuWtTVj
> .J

The missionaries also tried to find ways and means to keep the
coverts from out of the hold of the family on them. They brought
pressure on the Government to pass an Act providing for the dissolution
of the marriage after conversion, if wife or husband was willing to part

26 The Mission Field, CMS, London, 1890.

with one another. This Act provided for the dissolution of a marriage,
when one of the parties had been deserted or repudiated by the other on
the ground of the farmer’s conversion to the religion of Christianity.
Divorce which was unknown to the Tamils slowly appeared among the
Tamil Christians.

Veerasalingam Pantulu, a social reformer of the Madras

Presidency, who worked for the uplift of women, also favoured the
abolition of child marriage. Behramji Malabari of Bombay, widely
known for his struggle against the custom of child marriage, considered
many consequences occur due to early marriage, such as boys have to
give up their studies at quite a young age, the girls gave birth to sickly
children and they had to face the difficulty of feeding too many months. It
was also a hindrance to female education and women’s progress. For
bringing about the reform changes he advocated the following:2, 1. The
formation of a National Association. 2. Introducing the lessons on the
subjects of the child marriage and the problems of widows in educational
books and 3. Enactment of a resolution by the University that after a
certain number of years who were not bachelors would be considered
eligible for university Degree. Hindu Worker’s Remarriage Association
solicited that every graduate should discourage child marriage.

Ranade another zealous reformers believed that the ‘Smriti ’ writers

tried to lower the age of marriage by three methods (a) By prohibiting
unmarried life to the girls, (b) By making it compulsory for parents to get
their daughters married before puberty, (c) By inventing new meaning of
the words like Kanyci (feminine) etc. Therefore he concluded that the
marriageable age was slowly brought down for the above said reasons.

27 ibid.

He fixed sixteen and twenty five as the age of consummation for girls and
boys respectively. He was in favour of governmental interference in these
social problems. Some reformers in South India like Raghunatha Rao,
S.Subramania Iyer and Chentsal Rao also argued that any interference of
the Government into the social customs might shake the confidence of the
people and neutrality of Government in religious matters.28 So the
Government of India was also reluctant about interfering with the native

Indian National Social Conference (INSC), the Triplicane Literary

Society, the Madras Mahajana Sabha, etc., also expressed concern over
the physiological impact on the young married girls.“ The journals in
India generally and Madras Presidency particularly viz., The Hindu,
Andhra Prakasika, Kerala Patrika, Kerala Sanchari and Madras Times
fought against the evil by exposing the demerits of the child marriage.

When the Supreme Legislative Council increased the age of

consent to twelve in 1891 the orthodox Hindus opposed it but ‘the
Madras Hindu Social Reform Association’ and ‘The Hindu’, the madras
based newspaper supported it because it would prevent the young girls
from going to school.' However, majority of the people did not give
effect to those efforts since they believed that religious customs should
not be disrespected.

However this movement continued in the 20th century also. Women

organisations like All India Women Conference, All India Women
Association, etc., mobilized its support for abolition of child marriage.

28 Sadasivam. P., Rise of Public opinion in the Madras Presidency, Madras : University of Madras
Publications. 1970. p. 110.
2y Sundaralingam, R., Political awakening in the Madras Presidency, p. 77.
30 The H indu. September 13. 1892.

Women’s organisations have contributed significantly to women’s
development in India. At the initiative of Margaret Cousin the All India
Women’s Conference which was established in 1927, brought together
women from different regions, religions and castes.31 Dr.Annie Besant in
her speeches, writings and journals strongly condemned the child
mam age.

Another social evil which degraded women is “prohibition of

widow remarriage”. The custom of child marriage and the problem of the
widows are intimately related. Due to the practice of child marriage
hundreds and thousands of young girls became widows in their young
age. Socially many restrictions were put on their movements and hence
they were ill-treated. The miserable condition of widows and this cruel
and unnatural custom remained highly prejudicial to the interest of
morality. This induced the reformers to undertake movements against it,
in several parts of the country.

The first quarter of the 19th century it became the centre of reform
activity. The reformers reinterpreted the Sashtras in favour of widow
remarriage. In 1855 Ishwar Chandra Vidhyasagar started a vigorous
campaign in favour of widow remarriage. But the orthodox group led by
Radhakant Deo submitted a petition to the Government against this

Despite severe opposition Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General

of India, passed the Widow Remarriage Act of XV of 1856 legalizing the
marriage of Hindu widows.33 The reformers used this Act to elevate the
young widows. The missionaries worked hard to give relief to the

31 Margaret Cousins Letters. Theosophical Society Archives, Adayar (Madras), File No. 174.
32 Farquhar. Modern Religious reform movement in India, p.200.

widows. Many widow homes were established and they were give
shelter and protection. Associations were formed in various missionary
stations and Christian villages. The missionaries established Widow
Remarriage Funds. They carried vigorous propaganda for the support of
widow remarriage. They tried to build the public opinion by publishing
literature in support of widow remarriages. Generally the widows were
not considered as unworthy persons in the Christian society as in the
Hindu community.'’4 To save the widow of a mission worker after the
death of the husband, the missionaries deducted some nominal amount /"
from his salary monthly. The collected amount was disbursed to the
respective widows, as monthly pension. The widows were also trained in
the industrial schools to learn soap making, tailoring, embroidery etc.
They were also trained as nurses, Ayaahs, Teachers, etc. The mission
workers were encouraged to marry the widows and promotional chances
were offered to the persons who married the widows. But such widow
remarriages met with opposition from the people and only slowly the
practice of widow remarriage came to be accepted. ■'’When the norms of
marriage men taken up for debate, other prevailing age old practices were
also questioned and debated.

The marriage of maternal uncle and niece was not uncommon

among the Hindus. The missionaries found that the converts to
Christianities also continued their earlier practice of marriage and viewed
this with disfavour as that wouldn’t help the extension of Christianity
beyond the family or community. Further they considered that it would
scientifically affect physical and mental health of children. They took
measures to avoid this in the Christian community-intermarriage between
blood relations on either side was prohibited. This stringent rule
34 The Missionary Gleaner, CMS, London, 1890.
35 Annual Report, American Arcot Mission, Vellore. 1891-92, UTC Archives, Bangalore.

interposed unnecessary difficulty to the caste Christian in the way of
finding suitable alliance. They never liked the marriage alliance with the
inferior castes also. If they found that a Christian married his own niece,
he would be immediately expelled from the Christian community.36All
such thoughts and actions attempted to change the system of marriage but
in a very slow process. Yet the change in the system of marriage had a
direct impact on the social system more particularly the status of women.

The missionaries propagated the evils of the improper marriage

alliances to build up public opinion. A publication “on marriage” (29 pp)
was published and circulated by the Madras Religious Tract Society.
Tract society of American Mission issued a pamphlet entitled “Improper
Marriage Alliance of the Apostate”. This pamphlet was circulated in the
Tamil country by the Madura Missionaries. It was appealed to the
Christians not to have marriage alliances among their own close

The Christian missionaries formed associations and established

institutions to give relief to the widows. There efforts had been looked
with displeasure and suspicion by the majority of the people, mostly the
Hindus. Veerasalingam took more vigorous and practical campaign in
support of the widow remarriage, by starting the Widow Remarriage
Association in 1874 at Madras with a view to offering financial help and
advice to those who wished to arrange for widow remarriages.3* The
“Hindu Remarriage Society” was formed in Nagarkoil in 1873. Leaders
like G.Subramania Iyer, Rao Bahadur P. Anandacharlu and others
advocated the need for the widow remarriage. G. Subramania Iyer not

36 ibid.
}1 Annual Report of United American Missions in Foreign Parts, Madurai, 1892-93, UTC. Bangalore.
18 Sadhasivam, Rise ofpublic opinion in the Madras Presidency, p. 174.

only advocated widow remarriage but also set an example by arranging
marriage for his own daughter who had become a widow.39 The absence
of right to own a property had a telling effect upon the widow remarriage
because nobody came forward to spend on second marriage of their girls.
Hence with the purpose of getting property right to young widows and
thereby to execute the Widow Remarriage Act effectively the elite
citizens organized a new association called Hindu Women’s Remarriage
Association in 1882 at Madras. This association celebrated its first widow
remarriage on 7th June 1883. Vadalur Ramalingam Pillai asked the
women not to wear white sarees after the death of their husbands and
urged them to take up their own profession for their livelihood. The
novels written in Tamil language reflected the concern of the reformers
on the status of women. Vedanayagam Pillai’s novels “Prathaba
Mudaliar Charitram” and “Suguna Sundari”, “Padmavathi Charithiram",
“Kaincdambal Charithiram”, etc., condemned the degraded position of
women and appealed the society to give equal status to women.40

In spite of all these efforts, it must be admitted that widow

remarriage was not popular among people. The strongest opponents were
women themselves whose orthodoxy might be summed up in these
words, “we bom once, we die once and we marry once”. It must also be
admitted that Hindu public opinion did not look kindly on widow re­
marriage and many who sympathized with it did not dare to express their
sympathy in positive action.41

' The Hindu. October 14. 1895.

40 ibid.

Economic welfare measures

It is felt that the miserable economic position of women was due to

the denial of property right to women. Hence the progressives thought of
getting property right to women would alleviate the sufferings of women.

The Married Women’s Property Act was enacted in 1874. Under

the Act, the separate property of the women was included as follows:42

1. Wages and earnings of married women in any employment,

occupation or trade earned on by law.
2. Money acquired through literacy, artistic and scientific skill.
3. All savings from and investment of such wages and
4. A policy of insurance effected on her own behalf should be deemed
to her separate property over which she should have absolute right.
This was against the Hindu custom since the girls were not
permitted to acquire wealth by getting education or by working.

The missionaries utilized this Act to weaken the joint family

system and get relief to a good number of girls. After conversion, the
girls were permitted to work either in schools or in mission stations, or in
hospitals and earn money. The influence of the elders on the Christian
girls began to decline and the development of individualism reduced the
influence of the joint family system.43 This enhanced the empowerment
of Christian women but on the other hand the women of other section
continued their traditional life.

42 B.S .Baliga Manual of the Administration of Madras Presidency. 1857-1900 AD. TN

Archives . Madras.
43 The Missionary Herald. June - July, 1890.

Dowry is the economic based social stigma that daunted the
society. It has been fairly prevalent among all the castes and communities
in Tamil country in the past two centuries. The amount of dowry is
depended mainly on the social status, education, occupation and wealth of
the proposed bridegroom. The amount is paid either in cash or in the
form of gold jewellery or property.

The missionaries condemned the dowry system also. They forced

the Christians to refrain from this practice. Since the Christians failed to
accept the advice of missionaries for dowry practice, they modified it and
gifted house hold articles couple. The Anti Dowry League was started in
the first session of the Madras Students Convention. Many unmarried
members took pledge not to accept dowry.44 /

Similar leagues were formed in northern India in 1914.

Veerasalingam condemned the evil in his Vivekavcirdhani and also in his
satires and in public lectures. His lectures on Kanyasidkam (Dowry) were
based on the Shastras which according to him never sanctioned this
practice.45 Though the reformers and associations took effort to remove
this custom, it is invigorated with the spread of education.

Another social evil is ‘deva-dasi’ system (Institutionalized

prostitution). Abbe Dubois stated, “Next to sacrifices the most important
persons in the temples are the dancing girls, who call themselves ‘deva-
dasi \ servants or slaves of the Gods; their profession requires of them to
be open to the embraces of persons of all castes. They are taken from any
caste and are frequently of respectable birth. It is nothing uncommon to r
hear of pregnant women, in the belief that it will tend to their happy

44 ibid.
45 The Extract of Native News Papers report- Vivekavcirdhani, - July - December, 1915. Voi. VIII,

delivery, making a vow, with the consent of their husbands, to devote the
child then in the womb, if it should turn out a girl to the service of God.
And, in doing so, they imagine they are performing a meritorious duty.46
According to the Census of Madras State 1881, the number of female
dancers in the Madras Presidency was 11,573.

Missionaries had long protested in the name of morality and

decency against the devadasi system. They petitioned to the Government
about the devasasi and their indecent activities.47 The Secretary of State
to the Government of India in his despatch. In this dispatch he
condemned this practice and stated that he was thinking of passing a law
against this practice. He stated, “I desire to be informed of the probable
extent of the evils; how far the provisions of the Penal Code, Sections 372
and 373 are in themselves sufficient to deal with it effectually, and
whether, in your opinion, or that of the Local government; adequate steps
are being taken to enforce the law, as it at present stands, or whether any,
and if so, what amendments of the law are required to give reasonable
encouragement and support to these who are endeavoring to suppress the
grave abuse ”. Public opinion gradually turned against this system. Lord
Wenlock, Government of Madras (1891-96) was the first prominent
official who refused to countenance the devadasi on the basis of the
petition submitted by the missionaries.49

The relieved devadasi were educated in the mission schools. In the

Madura school which was conducted by the American Madura Mission,
nearly 35 such girls who were previously dancing girls of Madurai

46 Letters of Abbe Dubois, 1797, referred by Beucomp. Hindu Customs, Manners and
Ceremonies, p. 142.
47 The missionary Harvest, Dt, June, 1900, Madurai.
4S Despatches of Secretary of State to the Governor of Madras Presidency, January - December , 1840 ,
vol.v. No.l 14 . Tamil Nadu Archives . Madras.
49 ibid.

Meenakshi Amman temple, were admitted. They were trained in various
professions. Some of them became Bible women in the Zenana
Educational system conducted by the same mission at Dindigul and
Vathalagundu. In Tanjore the Society for propagation of Gospets in
Foreign parts missionaries educated nearly 46 girls, who were all dancers
of the Tanjore Prakatheeswara Temple and provided with facilities to get
training in lace work, embroidery, spinning, book-binding etc. After their
training they were given in marriage to the mission workers who worked
at Erungalore mission, Tanjore mission and a catechist of Kumbakonam.
The missionaries found that the conservative attitude of parents, child
marriage, inefficiency of the system of education, unsuitable curriculum
for girls, co-education, lack of women teachers, were some of the
hindrance in the way of progress of female education. '0

The Brahma Samajists also condemned this practice.

Venkataratnam (1862-1939), the President of the Metropolitan
Temperance and Purity Association, and the leader of the Social Purity
Movement in Madras and Andhra region was instrumental in starting the
Anti-nautch movement in Madras which made quick progress and spread
to other towns in the Presidency. Associated with the editorial boards of
the journals, “The People’s Friend”, ‘The Fellow Worker’ and the
“Brahma Pracacica” at Madras, he consistently wrote in their columns
about the “Social purity movement”. The basis of the Anti-nautch
movement, he declared, is not in fine manners but in good morals; its aim
is not mere elegant breeding, but pure living.51

Veeresalingam condemned the evil practice of devadasi. Columns

of his journal “ Vivekavardhani”, were used to condemn this evil practice.

50 Annual Report of SPGFP, 1901-02, Tanjore, UTC Archives, Bangalore.

51 The Extract of Native News Papers Report - 1903-04, Vol. XI, Tamil Nadu Archives, Madras.

To educate people on this he used his creative talent and wrote a satire
“ Vesyapriya Prahasanamu” in which he ably met all the arguments of the
reform, for example the possible damage to music and fine arts if the
nautch was abolished. In 1881 he started a movement against nautch
parties at Madras. They convened a meeting in 1893 to sign the
memorials sent by the Madras Association to be submitted to the
Governor of Madras on this issue.52

When the Madras Hindu Social Reform Association, the

Metropolitan Association and the Missionaries opposed it, the movement
against the nautch girl gained strength and momentum. Resolution XI of
Twenty - Second Conference of Indian National Social Conference
(INSC) held at Madras in 1908 stated that the conference cordially
supported the movement and ready to protect young women from being
dedicated to temple. Supporting the ‘Purity Movement’ the Indian
National Social Conference (INSC) collected an anti nautch pledges from
adults.53 The Dravidian parties viz., Justice Party and Dravida Kazhagam /^ a
also played dominant role in abolishing the devadasi system.54 This evil
practice was finally banned by the Act of Abolition of prostitution in the
year 1929 because of the efforts of Dr.Muthulakhshmi Reddi.

Polygamy is another evil practice. The custom of Polygamy was

vehemently condemned by the social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan
Roy, Dayananda Saraswati and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasakar. Though
there was a movement against it but nothing substantial was done to curb
it. By the Brahmo Marriage Act of 1872 the polygamy was made

52 Sadhasivam. Rise ofpublic opinion in the Madras Presidency, p.261.

22nd Annual Report of INSC. 1908. dt. January 1909. Social Reform Movement File. TN Archives.
'4 Kudiyarasu. January 15. 1939. Erode.

impossible. The ‘Indian Christian Marriage Act of 1872’ prevented the
Christians from entertaining the polygamous marriages.

The social reformers thought that the lack of female education was
the cause for all social evils like sati, child marriage, widowhood,
devadasi system, dowry, etc. So they took effort to educate girls in order
to remove these evils and raise the status of women.

The Christian missionaries are the pioneers in the filed of women’s

education. They invariably reported that they were not able to get more
under their fold because their message did not reach the Indian women
folk who were not allowed to cross the doors of their houses. The gross
ignorance of the women folk was due to the absence of women education.
Realising this fact the missionaries set upon them to build confidence
among them by bringing the knowledge to their door steps. This paved
the way not only for the diffusion of knowledge among the women folk
but also the need for the establishment of Teacher Training Institutes for
women. This proved to be a great stimulus because it opened a useful
career for women. The government amended grants-in-aid system in
favour of the qualified female teachers working in private schools. But
however, the progress of female education was confined to the primary
stage. The demand for upper secondary education hardly existed since
the girls were not permitted to go to schools after the age of ten A'1

A great stimulus had been given to Collegiate education of women

in the last two decades of the 19th century. By 1904 the Madras
Presidency had three second grade colleges for women namely Sarah
Tucker Institution for Girls, Palayamcottah (Tthirunelvely), Presentation

^ Hunter Commission Report on Education, 1884, p. 174.

Convent College, Madras, and St Mary’s Presentation Convent College,

Government as well as some philanthropists and Christian

Missionaries worked for the education of females. Veerasalingam who
held the view that the progress of nation is depended much upon the
education of its women, found Day School for adult women. Women
teachers were employed in this school; here women tailors and drawing
mistresses were also appointed to teach tailoring and drawing to the
inmates of Widow Homes.56 Ramakrishna Mission and Theosophieal
Society also opined that education would transform them into the “lights
of the Home” and hence schools for girls were instituted.
The South Indian Conference held at Madras in December 1884 passed
resolutions favouring female education. Through its resolutions passed
in the Tenth Conference held at Calcutta in 1895, Indian National Social
Conference (INSC) stressed that a) Female teachers should be employed
in female schools, b) Training schools for women to secure sufficient
number of qualified female teachers, should be established c) Home
classes for grown up ladies should be conducted d) Text books for female
schools should be published and (e) Instruction in needle work, hygiene,
culinary art, domestic economy should be impart to the females.57

Many journals were-broughCout in support of women’s liberation.

Those magazines and journals also played an important role in promoting
public opinion in support of elevation of women. Amirthavarsani brought
out by Christian mission society, is considered as the first women
magazine which championed the cause for elevation of women in India.

Biography of Veeresalingam, 1904, p. 44.

57 10th Annual Report of Indian National Social Conference. 1895, Calcutta. Tamil Nadu Archives

From 1865 onwards it stressed the need for women’s education.
Siigunabothini, established in 1887, was brought out only for Hindu
women. It also worked hard to raise the public opinion in support of
education of women. Maharani was started in 1887. This journal insisted
the young women to learn embroidery and other crafts for their own
benefit to earn livelihood. Mathar Mitri which was established in 1887 to
spread Christian principles and teachings also emphasized the need for
the liberation of women form their age long customs. Penmathi Bothini’s
main aim was to teach good things to the women folk and enlighten them
on the benefit of education. Matharmanoranjani was started in 1901, The
main principle of its was to improve the status of women. Chakravarthini
and Mathar Bothini joined the band wagon of the women liberation
movement in 1911. It brought out many articles on reforming the society.

The above discussions make it clear that the pitiable condition of

women invited the reformers to decry and carry out propagation for the
upliftment of women for a long period. However only in the 19th century
very strong and practical steps were taken to mitigate the social sufferings
or women. The women talk had the realisation that their social sufferings
were intertwined with their economic dependence and joint family
system, yet, at the first wanted to remove their social disabilities and
enhance their health and social status. This kind of change made its
impact only in the urban areas that too only in the caste Hindu society.
The Christian missionaries on the other hand created awareness on the
necessity of elevation of women economically and then socially. The
sustained work of the missionaries their work resulted in the creation of
educated community even in the lower strata of the society of Tamil
Nadu. Particularly the women of marginalized groups became teachers,

nurses’ government officials and even missionary assistants58. But the
rest of Tamil society both in the rural area, or in the urban area continued
their traditional life being a silent-spectators of changes going on around

Thus the whole of public opinion for female education was set in
motion in the end of the 19th century. However the 19th centuiy social

reform movement continued with the new idea of rehabilitation of the

affected women in the 20th century.
I '• s

In Tamil Nadu “National Poet” Bharathiar is a staunch supporter of ^

women liberation as his poems titled, “Celebration for HouseWife”
(“m6»OT^606\)6)S]£6(5) sarTif^gj”) Liberation of woman (“Quasar
6)S(Bg>65)6\)”) Ballad on women liberation (“Qu6®st®6tt 6iSl@^ifflD6r)db@ijbu51”),
and Progressive women (L|§j65)LDLjQus5i3T). He ridiculed the ancient system
under which the women were suppressed. He stressed the equality of
women with men in the following stanzas of his poem59:
“<^ygpii> Qu6®5T§pii) fjlaQijsaia Qs&fTsfT6y^fT6\)

y,ap [56b6DfBaF> (Bi&fTiyiBKg) Qu6aai6pj<9E.(T)U

(BufTjBgj f^pugj ^ftuj Tl6Uff<sa5iUfTii;”

“If you considered men and women are equal

Universe will grow in science and technology
For a women to have a good family life
Goddess Sakthi is there”

58 Pariah , Journal of Pariah Mahajana Society . Extract from the Native News papers Report. 1898 -
1899, vol.v.
59 Collection of Bharathiar Poems.

advocated thatN^women should become entrepreneurs for the
economic liberation.60 Bharathidasan also in his poems condemned the
evil practice and asked the people to give equal status by giving property
right to them.61 Thiru.Vi.Kalyanasundaranar in his “Peiinin Perumai\
(the pride of women) said that without women the society could not live
peacefully. They are the “light of the house” as well as “nation”, as he

Periyar T.Y.Ramasamy spent his life time for the uplift of women ^
folk. He strongly believed that the Vedas and scriptures of Hinduism are
responsible for the degraded position of women. He commenced self-
respect conference for women and passed resolution to urge the
government to remove the social evils of women. He established
technical training centre for their economic liberation.6'' Movalur
Ramamirthammal, his disciple, started the antinautch movement to
relieve women, who were suffering under Devadasi system. She
established a rehabilitation centre for them to enable them to start normal
life.64 The Dravidian movement also attacked the degraded position of
women. The Justice party during its terms of office brought out several
reforms to give education to women and elevate them.65

In the 20th century the journals also continued its attacks on the
lower state of women. The journals Penkalvi (Women’s education) in
Tamil mainly concentrated on women education. It advocated very
strongly widow-remarriage. Another important women journal is
“LakshinT which brought out from 1923 onwards. It concentrated on

60 ibid
61 Collection of Bharathithasan Poems.
6" Biography ofThiru. V.Kalyanasundaranar. p. 91.
63 Kudiarasu, dated, 15th July 1942.
64 ibid.
65 Rajaraman.P. Justice Party-Administration ( Madras : 1980.). p. 171

enlightening of women on the need for the improvement of economic
status through its articles. Chinthamani is another journal which stressed
the necessity for the reform of social customs. Other journals like
Tamilmagal (1926), Tamilarasi (1929), Tamil Peru math i (1934) and
Grihamani (1936) also played an important role in promoting public
opinion on women liberation. Mathar- Manunanam (Widow-Resinous)
(1936) which was edited by a young widow gave a clarion call to the
young widows to come forward to have re-marriage and continue their
family life. Paved, Gathanathi, Grahalakshmi (1937), Pasarasu (1947),
Pathumaiplusakothari (all in Tamil) also propagated movement for
women liberation.66

Women claiming equal rights

As seen earlier the western liberal ideas affected a fringe of Indian

society that too the upper layer of the Indian society. The women already
enjoyed the benefit of wealth got education and liberal ideas. They raised
their voice for the liberty of the rest of women. They came forward to
serve for the welfare of the society. Associations such as All India
Women Association (1907) and All India Women conference (1917)
were started. Entry of Mrs. Margaret Cousins, Ms. Annie Besant, Mrs.
Sarojini Naidu, Ms. Vijayalakshmi Pandit activated the organizations and
conducted conferences in support of women’s liberation. They
represented their rights to the South Borough Committee which came to
India in 1932 in connection with the Royal Commission to consider for
addition of new elements in the future constitution of India.67 They also
took part in the freedom movement. They used this forum to work for the

66 Pillay, K.K ..Journals in Indian Languages. p. 90.

bl Report on South Borough Committee, Parliamentary Proceedings, 1933-34. London, copy of the
report at Tamil Nadu Archives. Madras.

liberation and rehabilitation of the depressed women. Gandhiji support
the programmes for employment of the worst hit women through cotta,
industries. Rajaji, the Chief lieutenant of Gandhiji also worked for the %r j>
liberation of women through his “Gandhi Ashram” of Thiruchengodu
( i- _
(near Salem) where he trained the destitute women soap making,
candle making, weaving, spinning etc.

The most notable women organisation the Bharata Mahila parishad ^

was formed at the third meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1887
to provide a forum for the discussion on women social issues. One of the
earliest general associations for women known as Sakthi Samithy was
established in Bengal by Swarna Kumari Devi in 1886. In 1903 Hindu Tri
Mandar was started by Jannabai Sakki and Kalavatiben Motiwala. This
organisation took great interest in spreading education amongst the
Gujarat women. In 1920 Women’s India Association and the All India
Women’s conference came into existence to spread education among
women. In 1932, All Bengal Women’s Union was formed to prevent the
prostitution. The National Federations of Indian Women and hundreds of
other regional women’s organisations rendered excellent service for the
uplift of women.

In 1917, an All India Women’s deputation demanded Mr.

Montague, the Secretary of state for India, when he visited India, the
word The Indian People in the memorandum should include the Indian
women also. The Deputation said, “thus the voice of India approve of its
women being considered responsible and acknowledged citizens; and we
urgently claim that, in drawing up of all provisions regarding
representation, our sex shall not be made a disqualification for the

exercise of the franchise or for service in public life^’VThis Association
claimed that women should not be put on par with children, foreigners
and lunatics in any scheme of reforms to be given to the country69o

Though they failed in their attempt of getting franchise for women

from the central legislature, the provincial legislatures readily granted it.
The province of Madras was the pioneer in this matter when in 1921 its
legislature decided to extend the limited franchise to women on equal
terms with men. The central legislature also granted the women of India
the right to vote in 1923.7/)rjBy AIWC’s efforts Dn.Muthulakshmi Reddy i/7
was nominated as the first women legislator to the Madras provincial

In the Madras conference of the AIWC it was demanded the

provincial Governments, Municipal councils and local Boards to reserve
a proportionate number of nominated seats for women representatives.
The women and association were to be given the preference of electing
their representatives to be nominated by the government and demand that
atleast two women should be so be nominated in each assembly segment.
By 1929 all the provincial legislatures had given the women the right to
vote on the same terms as the men.71

Further the All India women conference held at Erode in 1929

demanded the complete adult franchise of women. Though the act of
1935 failed to comply with the request of the women organizations, in
1937 about 60 women became the members of provincial legislatures in
various provinces. In 1946 the All India Women’s conference placed

Annual Report of AIWC, New Delhi. 1918.

w ibid
70 Neera Desai. Women in modem India, Voral & Co.. Bombay. 1957. p.218
71 Stri Dharnia . Madras . January 1928 , p.38.

Charter of Rights and Duties to the Government when India was deeply
involved in the negotiations with England on the transfer of power and
the country seemed to be on the threshold of freedom72.) Thus the women iA
organizations fought for political rights and equality with men.

Though their attempt managed to get partial success, they

continued their movement for uplift of women. It created awareness
among the people of India. However the gender quality was not obtained
by them until the promulgation of the Constitution of India which was
declared in the year 1950.

Origin of Government Welfare Departments for Women

In the meantime the British Government took some steps towards

the welfare of women and children. Madras was the first State in India
which constituted a separate Department of Women’s Welfare.73 It had
brought about a profound change in the attitude of women both in rural
and urban areas and made them receptive to modern ideas. Women
govern the household and they are the real key to the progress of the
society. The promotion of their welfare is thus a prerequisite to the
advancement of the society at large. Further women have a vital role to.
- . ( yrf' /

play in the building of a new and resurgent India. The constitution of a

separate Department of Women’s Welfare by the Government of Madras,
is thus a timely recognition of the importance of the role of women for
social and economic development of the country.

The genesis of the Women’s Welfare Department may be traced to

the “Women’s Auxiliary A.R.P. Corps” started during the Second World

72 Kamaiadevi Chattopadhayay, Indian Women '.v Battle for Freedom (New Delhi, Abinav publications
1983), pp. 97,98.
72 Women’s Welfare in Madras State, Government of Madras. 1961, p. 30.

War in 1941. A band of voluntary women workers had organized
themselves to educate the ignorant and illiterate women who lived on the
pavements and in the slums. When the War was over in 1945 the
Government felt that the experience gained by the organization could be
profitably used for constructive social service work among women and
children. The organization was therefore re-constituted and designated as
“Indian Women’s Civil Corps.” It had a central organization and centres
both in the City and in the Districts. It rendered valuable service to the
poor women in the slums by holding classes in cooking, knitting and
handicrafts and also educated the women on sanitation, health, child
welfare and antenatal care. With the dawn of Independence, Government
felt the need for the further expansion of the scope and activities of the
organization. In the year 1947 the “Indian Women’s Civil Corps” was
reorganized and designated as the ‘Department of Women’s Welfare’. To
start with, the Department had a Women's Welfare Officer at its head and
a number of Assistant Women’s Welfare Officers and Women’s Welfare
Organizers in the districts. Thus a new chapter was written in the
upliftment of women of India in the 20th century. But however, the basic
belief of the society about the degraded position of women still stood as a
stumbling block in their progress.

When women are claiming equal rights with men the constitution
of India has tacitly conceded these rights and placed them on an equal
footing with men. Because of this women welfare assumes at once a
special importance. If it is admitted that the women have a vital role to
play in the building of New India, it should also be admitted that this can
be made possible only by improving alike the social, the economic and
the cultural position of women. The work being new and important, great
attention is being paid to the selection of right type of welfare workers

and to their training. Equal attention is also being paid to propaganda by
bringing out a new journal called the Women’s Welfare Journal.

As seen earlier the issues of women in the 19th century and in the
second half of the 20th century are mainly related to the social uplift of
women in Indian society. Though the question of gender disparity was
considered deeply, it was the basic expectation that the women should be
treated on non with men, so that social justice could be established. It
would be only then the real welfare society could be formed. Though
efforts were on to rehabilitate women, it was very much realized that the
issues on women could be settled down with a strong base of economic
self-reliance. Gradually efforts were made to strengthen the economic
base of women folk in India.