- The Lateral Spread of Indian Feminist Historiography
There is no doubt that history is among the disciplines that have been richly fertilized by the political insights and intellectual inquiries of Indian feminism. Over the last three decades, Indian historians have not only uncovered new archives, but have plundered with impunity the methods of other disciplines to arrive at a fuller, richer account of the past. A further and unusual sign of this success is the impressive lateral spread of the historical method among a wide range of fields. Indeed, some of the pioneering contributions to Indian feminist historiography have come from literary scholars, political scientists, and social anthropologists. Two of the books discussed in this review essay, for instance, are by sociologists who wish to trace the presence of the past in the building of community identity and history.
The extraordinary hospitability of mainstream and specialized presses, journals, and departments to writings on women has led to a luxuriant growth of works ranging from those that wish to permanently remove women from the large list of people without history to those using more ambitious theoretical frames. For instance, even after two decades of sophisticated feminist scholarship, opportunities are found for retrieving yet another group of women from the “enormous condescension of history.” Thus Suruchi Thapar-Bjorkert’s book on women in the national movement, [End Page 177] a well-trawled field in Indian historiography, frankly admits the modesty of her enterprise: “The intention is not to construct a new story of the nationalist movement but to address issues which would enrich the excellent existing work on different faces of the movement” (26). Her explorations are confined to “the Hindi speaking heartland . . . a relatively unexplored area in relation to women’s participation in the nationalist movement in the 1930s and 1940s” (21). Hers is thus a work of contributory history, illustrating for another region of India the now well-acknowledged role of Gandhian nationalism, from the 1920s, in bringing large numbers of women into the realm of nationalist politics, reforming, though without radically recasting, the patriarchal order of the family. Thapar-Bjorkert’s focus is, moreover, on middle-class women. Her work fleshes out, through the experiences of these women in the public and the private spheres, the familiar argument about the twin processes by which women emerged into a safely domesticated public sphere, and the simultaneous politicization of the domestic sphere. Thapar-Bjorkert thus builds on the richly documented and closely argued thesis of nationalism’s success in harnessing maternal and familial ideologies to its cause. About this kind of historiographical enterprise, Christine Fauré once remarked: “A certain kind of women’s history is typified by a historian’s searching, card index or notebook in hand, for texts or daily practices that come from the depths of social experience which most of the time reflects only mutilations . . . the mine will undoubtedly be a rich one, but in thus following the straight path of ghettoized female space, what remains of that freedom so long and so loudly demanded? Only the illusion of conquest where there is, in fact, mere docility.”1 The additive mode of writing history, of which Thapar-Bjorkert’s work is an example, certainly adds new information to our existing knowledge of women’s participation in political movements, and this is no slight contribution. Yet if the singular achievement of feminist historiography has been its reconceptualization of Indian nationalism, the merely additive history falls short of a strictly feminist reading.