The Impossibility of ‘Women’s Politics’: A Clue to Why the Memory of the First-Wave Feminists in Kerala Was Erased

 [This is an excerpt from a historical chapter on women and politics in 20th century Kerala from J Devika and Binitha V Thampi,  New Lamps for Old? Gender Paradoxes of Political Decentralisation in Kerala, New Delhi: Zubaan)

…. From the early 20th century onwards, a clear divide is perceptible between the the Travancore government and the newly-educated male elite active in the nascent civil society on the question of women’s role in public politics. For the former, fostering women’s presence in this new domain was linked to the Travancore kingdom’s need to convince the British rulers of its ‘progressiveness’. For the latter, however, public politics was the arena for the modernising communities of Travancore to compete for resources and make demands for rights upon the state. Advancing the interests of women as a separate group was read as undermining the internal unity that communities required in these contests.1 In the discourse of the former, ‘women’ often referred to matrilineal women; in that of the latter, the same category was conceived of within the new patriarchy emergent in social and community reformism, in which secularised brahmanical patriarchy identified women with the ‘social’, rather than the ‘political’.

Thus, as far as the modern educated new elites in late 19th century Malayalee society was concerned, ‘politics’ was delineated, early enough, as a terrain unfit for women, in early discourses on modern gender ideals in Kerala. The first Malayalam magazine for women, Keraleeya Sugunabodhini (1892), stated this at the outset:

We will publish nothing related to politics. Principles of physiology, entertaining tales, writings that energise the moral conscience, stories, Womanly Duty, the science of cookery, biographies of ideal women, the history of nations, book-reviews and other such enlightening topics will be published…

(Raghavan 1985: 141)

This was also the case in Malabar, where the newly educated male elite discussed a range of issues pertaining to the public and the private, especially matrilineal family and inheritance. The well-known novel Indulekha authored by O. Chandu Menon (1889/1991), a keen participant in such debates and a civil servant in colonial government in Malalar, both emerged from and was an intervention in, such debates. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is precisely the two topics shunned by the Sugunabodhini, religion and politics, which figure in the all-male discussions in Indulekha. In the novel, both these discussions are conducted in a place far away from the community, region, and the wrangling of domestic relationships. Nor were the early attempts by women to organise associations treated kindly.  In Travancore, the efforts of Chellamma Raman Thampi to form a women’s association in Thiruvananthapuram in the early 20th century were greeted with contempt by the educated male elite, and its founder was lampooned mercilessly by the well-known novelist C. V. Raman Pillai in a farce, Kuruppillakkalari (Pillai 1973). However, by the 1920s, the scene had obviously changed. The pressure put on the Travancore government by women’s associations, journals like The Mahila (Saradamoni 1999: 132-33), and individual publicists, was enormous.

This was to a certain extent, a contrast to medieval notions of rulership in Kerala, in which political power in the major Swaroopams – the ruling houses — was not necessarily the preserve of men. For example, in the royal house of Attingal, senior women ruled in their own right. In this Swaroopam, the oldest woman held the senior position (moopu) and was referred to as ‘Rani’ by the Dutch and the English, and remained so until Attingal Swaroopam was annexed to the emergent kingdom of Travancore in 1730 by Marthanda Varma, the founder of the modern Travancore kingdom (Nair 2005: 161). According to Dutch sources, the Attingal Rani had enjoyed full control over a territory of some 15,000 acres, and negotiated independently with the English and the Dutch in the 17th century (Nair 2000: 138). Umayamma Rani of Attingal (1678- c.1700), who allowed the English East India Company to set up their first factory at Anjengo, is remembered for her spirited moves in the power struggles of the Swaroopams. The Dutch commander Van Rheede mentions her to have been a major player in the succession intrigues of the times and a powerful ruler2. The Ranis of Attingal could also reign as full potentates in the neighbouring Swaroopams of Deshinganad and Trippappur in the absence of male heirs; the Ranis did hold power there (Nair 2005: 120; Nair 2000: 144).   However, from the 18th century onward, the possibility of female members succeeding to full political power steadily receded, even though Travancore was ruled  in the early years of British dominance (early 19th century) by two ‘Regent-princesses’, Gauri Lakshmy Bai, and Gauri Parvathy Bai (Menon 1878/1983). Attempts to reassert the right of the senior female member of the Attingal royal house to succeed to the throne and undivided power after the demise of Maharajah Sree Mulam Tirunal in 1924 were unsuccessful, and the Rani was treated as a regent only (Editorials, Malayala Manorama 30 August 1924; 2 September 1924) And interestingly, in Umakeralam (1913), a fictional poetic rendering of the 18th century intrigues in south Kerala by a major Malayalam poet of early 20th century, Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, Umayamma Rani figures as not the “young Amazon” that the Dutch commander Van Rheede encountered but as a passive and pure tragic maternal heroine!

While women were deemed less fit for politics in the emergent new elite –dominated public sphere, the government of Travancore, drawing upon the image of ‘progressive Travancore’ and the ‘Model State’ (Pillai 1940), and the fame of Travancore’s women who were projected as ‘more advanced’ than their sisters elsewhere, conceded women’s political rights more easily. Nomination was used to secure a spokesperson for a class or community which would otherwise go unrepresented (Kooiman 1995: 2128) – and Women and the ‘Depressed Classes’ (Dalits) gained access, most frequently, through nomination. In the 1920s, women were nominated to represent ‘Women’ in legislative bodies in Travancore and Cochin. Tottaikkattu Madhavi Amma was nominated to the Cochin Legislative Council in 1924 and Dr Mary Punnen Lukose, as Head of the Medical Department, to the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly – the appointment of the latter was described as ‘Feminism in Travancore’ by the Madras Mail (Malayala Manorama 4 October 1924). Appeals began to be made in the public to ‘Women’ as a separate group in the political public which could make legitimate claims to the state. The demand that ‘Women’ must be treated as a separate constituency with representation proportional to the numbers of voters along with other constituencies such as ‘Industry and Commerce’, ‘Jews’, or ‘Planters’, was made in Kochi in 1925 (Malayala Manorama 28 March 1925). In the wake of the elections to the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly in Travancore in 1927, the women’s magazine Vanitakusumam published an editorial, which exhorted the Travancore government to nominate a woman to represent ‘Women’. Specifically, the editorial identified ‘women’ as a separate and legitimate political constituency, responsible for pressurising the government for fulfilment of their demands.

The work of intrepid struggle and sound bargaining to secure legitimate rights is the responsibility of women themselves. Any complacency on their part, induced by the hope that the government – which has displayed its conservatism in all affairs – will concede their rights and authority in full recognition of justice, and the mood of these times, would be most foolish. In all the countries of the world, women have won their freedom and rights only through agitation. These struggles have made it evident that ‘only the infant that cries will have milk’… In these circumstances, all we can say to the women of Travancore is this: You must not while away anymore time in idle slumber. Open your eyes to the realities of the world, ascertain your needs, recognize your rights, and move to secure them.

(Editorial, Vanitakusumam 1927-28/2005: 109-11)

Elizabeth Kuruvila was nominated to represent ‘Women’ and in 1931, five women from five communities – representing Nair, Ezhava, Araya, Syrian Christian, and Protestant Christian — were nominated (Mrs G Sankara Pillai, Meenakshi, Rudrani, Anna Chandy, and Penina Moses). It is interesting to note that in the political field in Travancore of these decades was characterised by extreme competition between communities (Chiriyankandathu 1993). However the nomination of these five women was frequently interpreted not so much as heralding the entry of women into the political field, as an apolitical gesture towards ‘communal unity’. Women as group, it was hinted, are less disposed towards competitive politics than men — and perhaps more committed to defending the rights of ‘Women’ as a collectivity. Such a reading echoes, for instance, in the comment made by a leading women’s magazine, The Mahila: “If anyone was to opine that womankind as a community, being different from men, needed to speak only their needs and grievances and not make communal arguments, then one cannot but agree that this is a superior thought.” (‘Panchavarnakkilikalo?’, The Mahila 1931, 3-9)

In 1932, women and men were given equal rights in voting and membership in the Council as part of electoral reform; two women were to be nominated to the Council. The rising numbers of women, mostly of the dominant communities, in higher education and increasingly, in government employment, was the backdrop against which the demands of ‘Women’ were framed and advanced. In 1928, women graduates in Travancore formed the ‘Travancore Lady Graduates’ Association’ with the intention of pressurising the government to end their unemployment through reservations (Devika 2007: 181). A furious debate on government jobs for women was raging in Travancore then, with prominent male intellectuals like T K Velu Pillai arguing against granting government employment to women, and first-generation feminists like Anna Chandy vigorously contesting him (Chandy 1929/2005: 113-129). The first-generation feminists also explicitly connected women’s political rights with other kinds of rights, for instance, legal and reproductive rights, an effort especially palpable in the writings of Anna Chandy. In 1935, for instance, Chandy was arguing for legal equality of women with men, which meant not just the removal of the exemption of women from the death penalty in Travancore law, but also the removal of brutish anti-woman provisions in the Travancore Civil Procedure such as the husband’s right to file for restoration of conjugal rights (Chandy 1935: 23-4). In the same year, she was also arguing for women’s reproductive rights as body-rights in a discussion on contraception:

Many of our sister-Malayalees have property rights; voting rights; employment and honours [from the state]; financial independence. But how many have control over their own bodies? How many women have been condemned to the depths of the feelings of inferiority because of the foolish idea that the woman’s body is but an instrument for the pleasure of men? (Chandy 1935a: 14-5)

Such advocates of women’s interests in the public, when they entered legislative bodies, worked actively to champion these causes. By 1932, nominated women legislators worked together to demand proportional reservation in government jobs, for better educational facilities and concessions, livelihood and better health care. Importantly, proposed marriage restrictions on employed women were stoutly challenged by members nominated to represent ‘Women’3. Indeed, it is interesting to see that the mandate to represent ‘Women’ was crucial here: when, in 1925, Dr Mary Punnen Lukose defended marriage restrictions on nurses as a ‘practical consideration’; in 1931, T. Narayani Amma, who represented ‘Women’, attacked the same restriction for Assistant Inspectresses of Girls’ Schools, pointing out that domestic responsibilities affected both married and unmarried women (Devika 2007: 198-99). Women legislators were also quick to defend themselves against the argument that women did not deserve reservations and special claims because they had not yet transformed themselves into a publicly-mobilised, homogenous group. They pointed out that the lack of public voice for any group cannot be used as an excuse to deny them social justice –making special provisions in employment, health care, and other government allocations for women was a matter of social justice, irrespective of whether or not they mobilised as a homogenous group in public. Responding to Dr N Kunjan Pillai in the discussion in the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly on the proposals of the report of the Public Service Recruitment Committee, T. Narayani Amma made this clear, arguing for the proportional representation for women in public services:

I am sorry that I cannot go all the way with them in the view that the communal principle should not be recognised in the matter of appointments of women in the public service. I grant that there is no communal spirit among women. But taking things as they are, I cannot see how, without some sort of communal representation for women, the claims of qualified candidates can be satisfactorily met.

(Proceedings of the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly Vol. II, 1935: 950)

Despite the fact their pleas were not often effective, women in the legislatures of Travancore and Cochin continued to make demands on the state on behalf of women both inside and outside legislative bodies – Anna Chandy was also the editor of the women’s periodical Shreemati, which campaigned for women’s status as a distinct group with special claims on the state, criticised the disadvantages to women arising from male-centred legal and administrative machinery, and male-centredness in emergent popular politics, and actively debated with proponents for community reservation, who argued that caste inequalities were primary4. In 1940, T. Narayani Amma successfully introduced and piloted legislation in the Sree Mulam Popular Assembly, the Travancore Child Marriage Restraint Act, the first in the history of that institution5. In the Cochin Legislative Assembly, a woman-member, Mrs Joshua, introduced a Dowry Prohibition Bill, which was staunchly opposed by the male members. In many of these debates the confrontation between ‘Women’ and the community-categories came to the fore. For example, in the discussion on the Cochin Child Marriage Restraint Act in the Cochin Legislative Council in 1940, the question whether a member representing ‘Women’ could rightfully introduce a bill affecting the lives of mostly Brahmin women was hotly debated. Many male members, including those who took an explicitly anti-caste stance, argued that the Bill should not be passed without the consent of Tamil Brahmin members, as they were most affected. However, Thankamma G. Menon, who introduced the Bill, argued that as the representative of ‘Women’ she had a right to introduce the bill since the deleterious effects of child marriage were borne largely by women, and since most women approved of the provisions of the bill6. Indeed, at the eve of the first universal adult franchise elections of 1944 in Travancore, T. N. Kalyanikutty Amma noted with regret that the prominent parties did not support women candidates wholeheartedly, and therefore their collective strength as voters did not count much. She continued:

Therefore we feel that no matter how unquestionable the personal greatness of women candidates for general seats may be, the support they receive is questionable. Even though the percentage of women voters is decisive enough to ensure victory for women candidates, we do not feel that they have been given enough information and encouragement beforehand to vote exclusively for women candidates. .. it must be said that the scarcity of vehicles and petrol since early this year and the relative vastness of general constituencies have made women candidates’ election campaigns almost impossible. (Amma 1944: 102-4)


She then went to articulate her own critique of the recent electoral reforms, which did not concede special electorates to women7. The article ends with requests to the Maharajah and the Dewan to increase the numbers of women nominees in the legislatures to represent ‘Women’ so that proportional representation will be attained.

Indeed, it appears that Kalyani Amma’s position maintains the same distance from both the emergent ‘progressive’ forces in the field of politics, and the entrenched powers. She placed her trust in the Travancore monarchy, which had persistently used nomination as a means for ensuring the representation of ‘Women’ in legislative bodies. No wonder, then, that the advocates of the rights of ‘Women’ were identified, with much hostility, as either ‘westernised’ or ‘elitist’, or both, by nationalists and communists, despite the fact that many (though not all) first-generation feminists pegged their arguments in favour of full citizenship on sexual complementarity, the importance of ‘Womanly’ capacities, and indeed, on ‘Indian Womanhood’ — and not on sameness (Devika 2007). Indeed, even when the argument foregrounding sexual complementarity within the family was less emphasized, demands for political rights were advanced not as conditions for full citizenship, but as means to fulfil ‘duties’ to society through the exercise of specifically gendered capabilities (see for instance, Amma 1924/2005:75-82)..

The defence of ‘women’s interests’, thus, ended up being doubly denied in its claim to be a politics. Its advocates saw in it a non-divisive agenda uniting all women around specific ‘feminine’ capacities that would direct women into non-competitive, non-political endeavours of social service. Its opponents perceived it as an unnecessary and divisive distraction that could weaken what they perceived to be politics – community competition over resources. This fear arose from the perception that the demands made on behalf of ‘Women’ implied a militant politicisation of women, the shaping of an independent women’s movement. And indeed, this seemed evident in some writing by women in the 1940s – for example in the exhortation by A. Bhageeraty Amma, a first-class Magistrate in Thiruvananthapuram, that “Women must get into the legislatures and Municipal Councils in large numbers to fight for their rights…Let us organise a women’s movement and chalk out our programme for progress in all directions. It is man, not God that tells you that you are intended for the kitchen. ” (Amma 1944: 208)

A key strand of thought that linked the champions of community politics, and their opponents — the nationalists and the communists who were, by the 1930s, overwhelmingly present in the political field – was their common rejection of a politics centred on ‘Women’. Besides the fact that women who made these demands were largely of the new elite and generally distanced from the working classes and marginalised communities (Devika 2006), the perceived sensitivity of the establishment to such demands was an important reason why the advocates of ‘Women’ were distanced from the nationalist and communist movements. Moreover, the insistence of the first-generation Malayalee feminists that women’s strategic needs were as important as their practical ones was often perceived as evidence for their (excessive) ‘Westernisation’. Added to this was the insistence on separate electorates for women by many first-generation feminists well into the 1940s. These are perhaps important reasons why they were wiped completely off the historical record unlike their peers in other parts of India whose memory has survived slightly better.

Thus despite the fact that not even formal representation was available to women in pre-independence legislatures in Travancore and Kochi, nominated women members did strive to advance what they perceived to be the group interests of women. In hindsight, T N Kalyanikkutty Amma’s plea for increased numbers of nominated women-members may be read not as support for the anti-democratic regime in Travancore, but as a call, made on behalf of ‘Women’, for measures that would lead to, if not directly enable, a ‘politics of presence’ (Phillips 1995). And this was a persistent thread of public demand made on behalf of women since the 1920s, echoing, for instance, from the plea made in 1925 in an article signed by “A Cochin Lady”, which protested at the unfairness of nominating just one woman to the Cochin Legislative Council even though women constituted half the population and could count 1500 voters among them. Yet in the context of heightening anti-colonial struggle, it could be read only as a ‘sectarian’ or ‘self-seeking’ demand that continued to repose faith in the oppressive monarchy in Travancore. Further, the communists did not endorse these demands because they were being made by new elite women; their adherence to the primacy of class struggle — as well as their commitment to masculinist Leninist vanguardism – led them to devalue the ‘politics of presence’ demanded by women intellectuals. This ensured that such a demand would never be repeated in post-independence Malayalee society until the late 1980s and 1990s.



1               The only ‘group rights’ that women could possibly demand, then, came to be tied closely to modern notions of gender. The demand for maternity rights         would not be considered ‘divisive’, but a call for political representation would          be condemned.

2           The Dutch commander, Van Rheede, described  Aswathy Tirunal Umayamma            Rani thus: ‘..Along           with the old princess lives a younger one, but of such       noble and manly conduct that she is both    feared and respected by every one … she not only rules Attingal but also Travancore itself within whose bounds            no princess may set foot according to their laws, nor pass the river Karamana             on pain of forfeiting their rights, but this young Amazon has lately             violated those customs and made even the king fly before her.” (quoted in             Nair 2000: 144).

3           See for instance, Demands for Supplementary Grant – Education, November 15, 1933: 98-99; Demands for Grant – General Administration, 26 May 1934: 950-51;  Proceedings of the Shree Mulam Popular Assembly (Hence forth, PSMPA), Vol II, (Government Press: Trivandrum, 1935); also, see, T. Narayani Amma, Motion No 391, Demands for Grants, Cooperative Department, 3 August 1937,  PSMPA, Vol X, 1938: 862; Demands for Grant –Medical Department, 31 July, 1937, PSMPA, Vol X, 1938: 689.

4           The Shreemati was edited by a group which included V M Katherine, C.P. Saradamma, A.Vijayamma, and Bhagavaty Lakshmy Ammal, all graduates, besides Anna Chandy. For criticism of the argument that women will be less communal by the rationalist social activist Sahodaran K Ayappan,  see ‘Malayalarajyam Kanda Suvarnarekha’ (The Silver Lining Espied by Malayalarajyam) (1935), and qualified approval of reservation of jobs for women, see ‘Shreematiyude Vaadam’ (1935), (The Shreemati’s Argument) in Ayappan 1965, 11; 8.

5           27 January 1940, PSMPA, Vol XV,1940: 449.

6           Discussion of the Cochin Child Marriage Restraint Act, 5 April, 1940, Proceedings of the Cochin Legislative Council Vol IV, 1940: 1439.

7           It appears that compared to elsewhere in India, women activists in the national movement were much less directly involved in framing demands made on behalf of ‘Women’ in Travancore and Cochin. The Indian women’s movement’s reluctance to press for separate electorates in the early 1930s (Roy 2002) does not seem to have resonated strongly in Travancore.

8           Pitching the appeal for special provisions directly to the state was a strategy followed also by women of minority communities in Travancore. See Haleema Beevi (1938/2005).

9           For a sample of such veiled hostility, see the sarcastic response to an article in the Shreemati published by the ‘humour magazine’, the Naradar, which advised women not to heed Shreemati’s advise to ‘return to earlier ways’: “In the old days you had no bodice, no blouse, no jumper, no saree, no face powder, especially no hanging ear ornaments. You weren’t supposed to appear before brothers and heads of the household. You had to remain in the kitchen. Now there is freedom; you can go anywhere; you can wear a sleeveless jumper; you can hang ear ornaments on your earlobe, big or small; there are concessions and facilities for education; you have employment in every department, even in the police. Why should you return?” Naradar 1, 9, 1940:.4. Interestingly the perception that woman’s demands as a special interest group and equal citizenship were divisive of national or radical politics echoed elsewhere too. In Bengal, for instance, the cause of women’s suffrage was won in the 1920s mainly because a powerful political party, the Swarajists , offered staunch support. See, Barbara Southard 1993. The feeling that the advocates of women’s rights did not represent ‘poor women’ was also present elsewhere. See Roy 2002.

10          This again falls into a national pattern, in which women advocates of women’s suffrage internalized this formulation of ‘Indian Womanhood’, which served to both emphasize their ‘common cause’ with male nationalists, and as a rallying point to criticize conservative opposition to full political rights for women. See, Roy 2002. The negotiations between western feminism and first-generation feminists in India were similarly complex. See Mrinalini Sinha 1995.



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