Women movement



  • The women’s movement in India began as a social reform movement in the 19th century.
  • During the colonial period, women’s movements in India were born out of the same historical circumstances and social milieu as the earlier 19th century social reform movements, which provoked a new thinking about various social institutions, practices and social reform legislations.



  • The advent of the Europeans into India did not change the situation of women.
  • Like other Western powers, the primary objective of the British in the earlier days was trade.
  • The introduction of English education first started to train Indians for jobs under British administration. This created upper class elites who began to doubt the rationale of many of the existing practices in their society
  • The establishment and expansion of the British rule also encouraged British missionaries to enter their colonies and start schools, orphanages and destitute homes especially for widows.
    • They stood against sati, child marriage, purdah and polygamy.
    • The new Indian elite exposed to European liberalism of the 18rh century, through Western education, felt the urgency for reform of their own society.
  • These resulted in women movements, which produced tangible results in the subsequent periods.


Women Movement in Colonial Period

  • The women’s movements in the colonial period are mainly of two different concerns:
    1. Social reform movements
    2. Nationalist movements
  1. Social Reform Movement
  • The colonial intervention in the 19th century intruded into the areas of our culture and society and this affected transformation in our social fabric.
  • This potential threat was sensed by the Indian intellectual reformers, exposed to western ideas and values.
  • At this juncture, the Indian intellectual reformer sensitive to the power of colonial domination and responding to Western ideas of rationalism and liberalism sought ways and means of resisting this colonial hegemony.
  • This cultural defense resulted in a paradoxical situation.
    • Spurred by new European ideas of rationalism and progress, the reformers tried to create a new society, modern yet rooted in Indian tradition.
  • They began a critical appraisal of Indian society in an attempt to create a new ethos devoid of all overt social aberrations like polytheism, polygamy, casteism, sati, child marriage, illiteracy etc. all of which they believed were impediments to progress of women.
  • Also, Women were seen as passive recipients of a more humanitarian treatment to be given by Western educated elite men. There was thus an attempt to reform women rather than reform the social conditions which opposed them.
Issue/Causes that led to Women Movement Details and Developments
Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s initiation of Social Reforms for cause of Women
  • Roy’s attention was drawn towards the inhuman practice of sati
  • From 1818 onwards he began his active propaganda through speeches and writings against sati.
  • Largely because of his effort and persuasion, the East India Company declared the sati practice illegal and a punishable offence in 1829.
  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy also opposed other evils like early marriage, polygamy,etc.
  • He supported female education and widow and inter-caste marriage.
  • He wanted that women should have the right of inheritance and property.
  • Roy’s Brahmo Samaj played a significant role in the reform activities concerning women.
Widow Remarriage
  • Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagr worked towards propagating widow remarriage.
  • The child marriage evil resulted in large numbers of young girls ending up as widows whose lives were miserable due to the severe restrictions imposed on them.
  • He argued in favour of widow remarriage and published his work on “Widow Remarriage” in 1853.
  • The efforts of Vidya Sagar, Keshub Chandra Sen and D. K. Karve resulted in the enactment of widow remarriage act of 1856.
  • In the South Kandukuri Veeresalingam led the widow remarriage movement.
 Dayanand Saraswathi  and Compulsory education for Girls
  • Arya Samaj was established by him in 1875.
  • He emphasised compulsory education of both boys and girls.
  • A series of schools for women- Arya Kanya Patasalas – were the first concerted effort of the Samaj to promote women’s education in a systematic way.
  • Both Brahmo Samaj and Prarthana Samaj made forceful efforts to prove that Hindu religious tradition were not the source of legitimacy for the sorrowful condition of women in society.
  • Under the influence of the liberal thought of the west the two Samajs strove to restore to women their dignified status.
 Age of girls at marriage
  • In the 19th century the average age of marriage for girls was 8 or 9.
  • The extensive propaganda by Vidya Sagar and other reformers in this regard led the British government to legislate in order to improve the condition of minor girls and the age of consent bill was passed in 1860
  • Further social reformers like Mahadev Govind Ranade, Behramji Malabari and Tej Bahadur Sapru in their attempts to raise the age of marriage cited several cases of consummation at the age of 10 or 11 which led to serious physical and psychological disturbances.
  • Behramji, a Parsi journalist published his notes on infant marriage and enforced widowhood in 1884 suggesting certain reforms to be adopted in the educational institutions to discourage child marriage and also suggested some corrective measures to the Government.
  • At last due to the collective efforts of the reformers in 1891, the Bill known as the Age of Consent was passed, which rose the marriageable age for girls to 12 years
Female Education
  • The social reformers felt that through female education the social evils that were linked to the issue of preserving and strengthening basic family structure could be eliminated and good wives and mothers could emerge from the same.
  • Between 1855 and 1858 while he was inspector of schools, Vidya Sagar established 48 girls’ schools.
  • M. G. Ranado along with his wife propagated female education and started a girls’ high school in 1884.
  • The limited enforcement and practicability of legislations like widow remarriage act of 1856 and others in a tradition bound society was recognised by D. K. Karve, who, therefore, concentrated his efforts on promoting education among widows.
  • In 1896 Karve along with 15 of his colleagues founded the Ananth Balikashram for the education of widows
  • He also started Mahila Vidyalaya in 1907 and S.N. D. T. Women’s University in 1916 a separate educational institution for women so as to lessen the resistance of orthodox section with regard to women’s education.
Property rights for Hindu women
  • The existing practice was particularly harsh on the Hindu widow who had no claim on her husband’s property except the right at maintenance
  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy suggested that the government should enact and enforce laws to remove these disabilities and bring economic freedom and self-reliance.
  • As a result of such efforts, special marriage act of 1872 with its provision for divorce and succession to property to women was passed.
  • Thus the social reformers laid the foundation of the women’s movement in India.
    • Social reform movement was the first attempt to remove the obstacles in the life of women.
    • It created awareness among the people that women must be liberated and be made equal of men.


  1. Nationalist Movement
  • As a result of the social reform movement of the 19th century, the social evils were eliminated and opportunities were provided to women for their education.
  • The expansion of women’s education and their admission to educational institutions had produced a sizable number of English educated middle class women by the late 19th century- and they made their presence felt in political activities
  • Till 1919, the national movement was limited to the urban upper class and it was later with Gandhi’s entrance into the national movement, participation of the masses began to take place.
  • In this phase, political developments and women’s participation in the National movement went hand in hand.
Nationalist Events Details of Women Participation
The partition of Bengal in 1905
  • This resulted in the launching of Swadeshi movement by the nationalists.
  • Though there was the absence of mass awakening amongst the women, but meetings were arranged and khadi spinnings were taken up by women.
  • Women contributed their bangles, nose rings and bracelets to the national fund.
  • In villages, women starte
  • The women workers of the Arya Samaj were also responsible for arousing national spirit among the people.
  • This Swadeshi period marked the formation of several women’s organisations.
  • Sarala Devi took steps to organise the women’s movement and its nucleus in the form of Bharat Stri Maha Mandal in Lahore in 1910.
  • Parvati Devi, the headmistress of a Hindu girls’ school at Kanchi a small town in the Madras presidency started Kanchi Mahila Parishad to equip women of Kanchi with knowledge to create public opinion over burning issues of the nation.
Setting up of Home Rule League
  • The period from 1911-18 is of great significance in the history of Indian national movement because for the first time a woman Annie Besant led the national movement as president of Indian National Congress. (Calcutta Session 1917)
  • It was due to women like Annie Besant that organised movement for the emancipation of women took place and the demand for political rights for women came to be firmly established on the political agenda.
Entry of Gandhiji
  • The entry of Mahatma Gandhi with his experience altered the national politics dramatically.
  • He realised the importance of mass base to Indian nationalism.
  • Gandhian style of mass mobilisation had implications for the Indian women’s movement in as much as increasing number of women were sought to be mobilised for participation in the independent movement.
  • When Gandhi launched an all India Satyagraha in 1919 against the provocative enactment of the Rowlat Act, Women took out processions, propagated the use of Khadi and even courted jail.
  • Further, the non-cooperation movement awakened the women of all sections and imparted first lessons in Satyagraha.
Struggle for Suffrage
  • From the beginning, the Indian women’s movement approached the suffrage campaign as a measure to achieve social reform.
  • The leaders believed that enfranchisement of women would mean additional support for reform legislation. After the struggle for franchise, for the first time, Indian women exercised their vote in the elections of 1926.
Dandi March 1930
  • A large number of women including Sarojini Naidu, actively took part in the Dandi March.
  • Women participated by breaking salt laws, forest laws taking out processions, picketing schools, colleges, legislative councils and clubs.
  • Further, In 1931 Sarojini Naidu attended the Second Round Table Conference as an official representative of the women of India.
Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930
  • During this phase, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya addressed meetings and picketed foreign cloth and liquor shops.
  • She was incharge of the women’s wing of the Hindustan Seva Dal
Government of India Act 1935
  • The inauguration of provincial autonomy under the India Act of 1935 gave women an opportunity to be elected to the state legislatures and also become administrators.
Quit India Movement 1942
  • During this phase, Men leaders were arrested in the first round up and in their absence women carried on the movement and bore the burnt of the British wrath
  • The women not only led processions and held demonstrations, but also organised camps in which they were given training in civil duties and first aid and were educated on democracy.
  • Women organised political prisoners’ relief fund while some women went underground and directed the movement secretly
Azad Hind Fauj
  • In the Indian National Army of Subhash Chandra Bose, Rani Jhansi Regiment was created for women.
  • Women were trained in nursing, social service and to use weapons.
  • Thus, it was primarily due to the efforts of women and their role in the freedom struggle that women got the right to vote and complete equality in the constitution of India.
  • However a great gap arose between the theoretical status of women and their rights and what existed in reality