Second to None: The Role of Women in their Own Education


This is an extract of a paper I wrote in 2015 for my ‘History of Education’ assignment which is a part of my MA in Education course. I found it fascinating that women in India, as early 300 years ago, were so committed to learning to read and write. Not because they sought independence of any kind, or because they could have great careers. Such things did not exist at that time. Learning to read and write, in harsh conditions, against  all odds, simply because they wanted to, because they saw themselves as capable to learn and because they wanted to ‘see’ the world outside through books. This article chronicles the role of women’s own agency in educating themselves against all odds and opposition around early to late 20th century! I hope it leaves you inspired!


Azizunisa Begum was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s mother. Born in 1780, she was able to read difficult religious texts in Arabic and Persian through the strict confines of the purdah. (Basu, 2005). Moving up on the timeline, you find Rashundari Devi, born in 1809 in Bengal. She taught herself to read amidst stiff opposition and obstacles. (Basu, 2005). Moving further up the timeline, there was Parvatikunvar, born in 1828 in Gujarat, who was taught to read and write by her mother. (Basu, 2005). And Tarabai Shinde, born in Maharashtra in 1850, learnt to read and write at home from her father. (Sarkar, 1999).

These are but a few images, from the larger picture of women’s education in colonial India. Scattered and disparate as they may seem, these examples have in common the operative agency of women that was unwilling and unbending against the strictures of caste and gender that were dominant at that time. These and several other examples are signposts of a time that was replete with stories of women who defied norms and sought whatever means available to alter their pitiable state of bondage. Education was seen by many – women and men both, as one of the means to break free from oppressive practices and put an end to the ignominious state of affairs.

Whether through their own grit, or assistance from the educated, progressive and reformist gentry, women acquired the means to educate themselves and others in the wake of strong superstition and the imposed subservient positions.


Pre-colonial records of eighteenth century paint a bleak picture of women’s education. One may come across a reference of a learned woman in a vast span of time in history; like Gul-Badan Begum, daughter of Emperor Babur or Jehanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, (Acharya, 1978) or Hati Vidyalankar, a child widow of Kulin Brahmana family from Rarh who was proficient in Sanskrit literature, philosophy and law ran a chatuspathi (center of Sanskrit learning) in Banaras. (Chakrabarti & Chakrabarti, 2013). The idea that women’s education was alien and unheard of.

In Bengal, most Brahmin women and those from lower castes were denied all forms of education except that one type which was closely associated with that of domesticity – vratas or bratas. (Acharya, 1978). Often cast as playful, socio-religious rituals, it involved rote learning of epics and ritual text that ‘taught’ women to undergo penance in the form of fasting and praying for the well-being and longevity of their family, specifically their husbands and sons. The bratas were often enjoyably performed by little girls who were thus ready to be betrothed at an early age between five or ten years.

These instances are more exceptional in that they serve to prove the proposition that learning for women was severely restricted and if available it was reserved for women of nobility or elite class like that of rulers or Brahmins, usually at home under strict seclusion.

Women, however, were neither ignorant nor without knowledge. Women, more than men were responsible for the oral transmission of knowledge which usually came in the form of smriti literature, music, ballads and folklore. Women’s learning and their role in generational transmission was more crucial to cultural survival than maintenance of Vedic tradition by men.  (Sen, 2002). In that sense, writes Samita Sen, when colonial education spread across India, the shift was much bigger for women in terms of nature of learning, content and method. (Sen, 2002).


A review of the reasons for lack of education for women is appalling. It was believed that a woman who can read and write could ‘make secret assignations of illicit nature’. (Sen, 2002). Such a woman, who forgot her domestic place would invite the wrath of gods, which would eventually lead to her being a widow. Even if the gods would spare her husband, her own immorality would lead to her husband’s death. Superstitions like these resulted in educated or literate women being labelled as immoral. (Sen, 2002).

It was in social contexts as harsh as these that women needed to exercise their agency.


It was Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who in 1818 questioned some of the norms based on which education was denied to women. He rejected the idea that women were incapable of learning, hence denigrated to their life of domestic chores. He reversed the idea to say that because they were denied education, they were not learned and hence perceived as incapable of any intellectual or useful activities. This idea found affirmation when Mary Wollstonecraft, an advocate of women’s rights, wrote about the reversal of cause and effect with regard to women’s education and empowerment. (Sarkar, 1999).

Even though women’s education was deemed as un-necessary, it was found that it did find its uses acceptably in certain situations. In the case of widowhood, they were expected to manage family properties, know how to read land agreements and books of accounts. Rashundari Devi put her education to practical use by writing a plea in her husband’s absence. The low-caste boshtomis, a devotional sect, were literate and integral to women’s education in that they were assigned as teachers for upper caste households. (Sarkar, 1999)


The subject of women’s education, though largely subsumed under the nationalist discourse, was at the helm of the social enlightenment so desired by reformists. From a life behind the veil to being de rigueur, women’s educational journey marshalled support from various sections within society – mainly Missionaries, empathetic government establishments and national reformists looking at societal transformation. The biggest impetus however came from women their own agency.

Here are a few examples.

Rashundari Devi, born in 1809 in Calcutta, taught herself to read and write by scratching letters of the alphabet onto a corner of a blackened wall in the kitchen. She had the support of her mother-in-law which by itself is commendable given the popular myth of impending widowhood that awaited women who tried to study. She used her literacy to pen her autobiography in Bengali – ‘Amar Jiban’. Credited as the first Indian autobiography, the book chronicled her life of drudgery and monotony in great detail. It was praised immensely during those times for its crisp and beautiful, descriptive prose. Portraying things as they were, her book epitomizes the strength and determination shown by her in view of the times she lived in. (Tharu & Lalita, 1991)

Pandita Ramabai was a prolific social activist and educator and served as an inspiration for generations of women ahead of her. She was born in 1858 in the state of Karnataka. Her father taught her to read and write Sanskrit and interpret Vedic texts. She became a widow within two years of her marriage. In living up to her late husband’s desire to educate young widows, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune. She strived for the cause of women’s education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. In the years that followed she went on to establish many institutions like Mukti Sadan, Mukti Mission and wrote and translated several books including the Bible. One of her most important books was ‘The High Caste Hindu Woman’ in which she revealed the darkest aspects of the life of Hindu women.  (“Pandita Ramabai” 2015)

Swarnakumari Debi was born in 1855 and was among the first women writers in Bengal to gain prominence. She taught herself to read and write at home and participated creatively in the literary efforts of the household. She started the first all India Women’s Association that brought into focus women’s issues. (“Swarnakumari Debi” 2015)

Ramabai Ranade was born in Maharashtra, in 1863. Ramabai was a women’s rights activist and an educator. Married to Mahadev Govind Ranade, she soon started learning to read and write. She started the Hindu Ladies Social Club in Mumbai to develop public speaking skills amongst women. Distraught and desolate after her husband’s death she continued her work by establishing Seva Sadans and organizing the Bharat Mahila Parishad to educate and awaken women. (“Ramabai Ranade” 2015)

Lady Abala Bose, born in 1864 in Calcutta, was a social activist and educator known for her work in the betterment of the conditions and the upliftment of widows. She was also a feminist who wrote passionately about the status of women as ‘being a mind first and a physical body after’. She set up the Nari Shiksha Samiti in 1915 through which she established primary schools, prepare suitable textbooks and open child welfare centers. (“Lady Abala Bose” 2015)

Sarala Devi Chaudhrani was born in Calcutta in 1872. She studied at Calcutta University and completed her B.A., receiving a gold medal in English Literature.  She was the founder of the first women’s organization in India, the Bharat Stree Mahamandal in Allahabad. Promoting education among women was its primary goal. This organization went on to open several branches in Northern regions of India. (“Sarla Devi Chaudhrani” 2015)

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a remarkable Mulsim educationist. Born in 1880 in Calcutta, she strived for gender equality and other social issues. She set up a school for Muslim girls in 1911 in Calcutta. In addition to writing short novels, Sultana’s Dreams and Padmarag, she also founded Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam which was an organization that served as a prominent voice in issues related to women and their issues.

In 1893 in Calcutta, Mataji Tapaswini, a Sanskrit scholar, established the Mahakali Pathshala. The school educated young women from conservative families. To satisfy the conservatives, they developed a curricula dominated by home science and religious lore. She also set out to systematize traditional education girls received at home.  Her school flourished until the 1920s. (Sen 2002)

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was born in 1886 in Madras. Her life is memorable for that she aspired to be different from other women in her times. She studied till matriculation securing several gold medals. She continued her studies from home after being denied school when she turned older. Much against the wish of her father she went on to become a doctor and is credited today as being the first woman house surgeon in a government hospital. She was also the first woman legislator in India. (“Muthulakshmi Reddy” 2015)

Sister Subbulakshmi was born in 1886 in Madras. As was the practice then, she was married at the age of nine even though she had secured a first rank in the public examination of the Chingleput district in the Madras Presidency. Widowed at a young age she went on to become the first woman graduate in Madras Presidency with first class honors in 1911. She worked toward rehabilitating child widows and educating them. She started the Sarada Vidyalaya and was the principal of Lady Willingdon Training College and Practice School. She established several other associations for women and children. (“Sister Subbulakshmi” 2015)

Vidyagauri Nilakanth was born in Ahmedabad, and worked for women’s welfare. She started tailoring schools for women, edited a magazine on education with her husband. She conducted literacy classes for women and was awarded the MBE (Member of British Empire) and Star of India.

Sister Nivedita’s school in Calcutta was for girls from poor families. Inspired by Vivekananda to attempt the best in Eastern and Western literature, she sought to provide modern education in the context of Indian culture without making it academic.

Worth mentioning here, in addition to the above, are the multitude of associations and organizations founded by women who shared a vision about the common future of their gender. The three major associations that emerged after the end of the First World War are Women’s India Association, the Women’s India Association, the National Council of Women and the All India Women’s Conference.

These are but a few examples that underline the rise of women’s education in colonial India.Of the many who make it possible for us to read and write and learn whatever we want, let us also wave a thank you to them all today.


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