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

‘Headstrong, Mannish, Perfervid’: The First-Generation Malayali Feminist and Her Times

(This introductory essay first appeared in the book Her-Self (Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005), a collection of  (translated) essays by Malayali women written between the 1890s and 1940, compiled and translated by J Devika. This was written soon after the first flush of discovery; I have grown more critical of this legacy now! )


Writing to C.W.E. Cotton, Agent to the Governor of Madras in response to his inquiries regarding a certain Lakshmikutty Amma from Tiruvitamkoor, M. E. Watts, the Dewan of Tiruvitamkoor remarked:  “This clever young Nair lady has got on by her own efforts. She is headstrong, mannish and full of the perfervid spirit that espouses lost causes”. The young lady in question was the daughter of a retired senior official in the Tiruvitamkoor Education Department, and had taught at Queen Mary’s College, Madras, before she proceeded on leave to London for studies in 1926. There she is said to have completed studies in a year and then set off all by herself on a tour of Europe, with the help of friends, she claimed. Watts observed that Lakshmikutty had made friends with K. M. Panikkar and the “Strickland crowd”, and her antecedents made her rather suspect. Watts had been informed that early in the 1920s, as a schoolteacher in Thiruvananthapuram, she was deeply interested in Gandhi and non-cooperation, and even tried to popularise these subjects among her pupils. He, however, remarked that now she      was on her way back to Thiruvananthapuram, the best place to cool her ardour. 1 Continue reading “‘Headstrong, Mannish, Perfervid’: The First-Generation Malayali Feminist and Her Times”