The male reformers of the 19th century treated women as subjects of their modernizing project and could not imagine them to be their conscious equals claiming agency for their own emancipation. Discuss. (15 Marks)

Mentors Comment:

  • The reform movement of 19th century played a prominent role in the social life of the 19th century. The highlight of these reforms were education of women and banning of various evil practices that were aimed at women only. But when looked closely, it can be seen that fell short of giving equality to women with respect to men in society. This last statement is the crux of the question. You have to discuss how reform movements failed to provide equal status to women.
  • Introduce the reform movements in the intro briefly and discuss its focus areas. And towards the end, in a single statement mention the shortcoming of the movement when it came to equality of women.
  • Then base the main body of the answer on the discussion on how the reform movement failed to see women as equal and how their thought process was confined to the four walls of households and the old concept of morality and purity of women. The inequality of women reflected in all parts of life like low wages for working women, less number of female reformers, opposition of work done by female reformers, idea of educated wife and mother, backseat in early freedom movement. Towards the end of the discussion do mention the reform movement did give women education and freedom from evil practices but it failed to launch the second stage where women could have claimed the equal status in society.
  • To score better, mention some female reformers who faced opposition from their fellow male reformers.
  • In the end, summarise the whole discussion but mention how the advent of Gandhi ji changed this whole condition and suddenly women found themselves on equal footing with men in the freedom movement.


India in the 19th century witnessed a series of reform movements undertaken in various parts of the country which were oriented toward a restructuring of the Indian society along modem lines. Thoughtful Indians began to look for the defects of their society and for ways and means of removing them. Early reformers were groping to find suitable answers for problems with women’s emancipation. But somewhere in the reform movement, they missed the opportunity to bring women to the equal footing as they were.

Reform movement and missing equal status of women:

  • Hunter commission of 1882 noted that 98% of women in India were illiterate and recommended special attention for their education. 
  • The degraded condition of women was often used as an attack on Indian culture, so reformers often imagined a golden past where women were treated with dignity and honor. 
  • As reformism gave way to revival, Hindu women became an ideal emblem of the moral order.
  • Through the movement of reformists in the 19th Century, middle-class women started getting an education and their number started rising steadily.
  • But the purpose of this education, meant for women, was different and never for the emancipation of women. 
  • The colonial government wanted educated wives so that the English speaking mothers could inculcate English taste in the children from the beginning which would lead to loyalty towards the government. 
  • In their educated wives, the educated Indian males dreamt of the western ideal of companionate marriage.
  • Wrongly educated or the over-educated women were considered a threat even by the liberals. 
  • Similarly, Muslims educators of women too wanted women who would be better wives, better mothers, and better Muslims. 
  • Even when the women worked, their reproductive role was considered primary and economically productive role secondary and their incomes were considered to be supplementary only. 
  • Thus they received low wages and were first to be fired and were not expected to take part in labor agitations. 
  • One Pandita Ramabai took the lead and started Arya Mahila Samaj in Maharashtra. She also started Mukti Mission and Sharda Sadan to uplift the condition of widows. She also defied many of the social practices like hypogamy, seclusion, conversion, etc. She was equally criticized by reformers and conservatives.
  • Thus even in the early revolutionary movement, there were a few women who participated but they were assigned secondary roles only and not the main roles. 
  • It is not as if the reform movement did nothing for women. The education they received and various peculiar customs were done away with, through these movements only. Job opportunities were created for women and their voices gained weight. 
  • But when it came to equality, the reform movement came short on that promise.

By the turn of the 19th century, whatever be said, the fact remains that a number of women in the middle-class Hindu households were educated. But this did not improve the conditions of their social existence very remarkably at that time. Eventually, it was Gandhi who changed this concept and shifted the emphasis from their reproductive power to their selfless sacrificing power. He always held men and women equal and he had already seen their capacity of sacrifice in SAF and he sought to harness it. Thus Basanti Devi, Urmilla Devi, and Suniti Devi shocked the nation by participating in an open demonstrations on the streets of Calcutta and courting arrest. 

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