- Indian Women in the History Profession:An Ambiguous Legacy
Linda Kerber's reminiscences of the time before women historians in the United States got a fair deal within the history profession reminded me of my brief acquaintance with the U.S. system as a graduate student and as a novice in the teaching profession. Even in the late 1980s, there was humorous indulgence of, if not indifference to, the presence of women in teaching departments. On a visiting appointment to Colgate University in 1991-92, where there were seven women in a department of fourteen, I was often asked whether that was the place dominated by women! Women were hyper-visible even when they were merely equal in number to the men.
Another U.S. memory is of the light weight accorded to women's history and journals devoted to it. I was thrilled as a graduate student when the Journal of Women's History accepted a paper of mine, and launched my academic career. But a senior intellectual historian at Syracuse cast a shadow on this by pointing out that it was, after all, a "new" journal! The implication was that standards were clearly lower: a student of his (needless to say, male) who had a paper accepted in an established (and I might add, European) and supposedly more demanding journal was singled out for praise.
In India, things are quite different and the historical reasons for the contrast are instructive. Gender discrimination is rampant in society generally and the university system does indeed reflect these harsh societal biases. Colleagues at the Calcutta University, among the largest and oldest of Indian universities, have told me of how the (non) provision of rest-rooms for women was ample indication of how departments simply ignored the needs of women faculty. Sexual grievance committees have only been recently constituted after repeated requests from the students and faculty; administrations are only now taking note of how maternity leave procedures can be adjusted to women's needs.
But the similarities with the situation in the United States end there. In India, the state runs most of the universities as well as a large number of Research Centres all over the country, and avenues for the advancement of women are strikingly different. For instance, one of the positive outcomes of state involvement in higher education is that active gender discrimination on the question of emoluments is impossible. Nor does the threat of tenure hang over the heads of appointees (though this could and does lead [End Page 137] to a certain complacency on the research front). I write this even as I hear the news that a woman historian from Delhi, Mridula Mukherjee, has been chosen to head the prestigious Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, in the midst of much contention about appointments made by the previous (right-wing) government.
By no means does this add up to a level playing field for women historians. Indeed, the presence of the state (and as in West Bengal, where I live, the overwhelming presence of the party in power), which has its own agendas for redressing social imbalances or responding to party pressures through positive discrimination, makes it much more difficult to prove active gender discrimination in decision-making, whether in recruitment or promotion. Gender becomes difficult if not impossible to disentangle from other concerns.
Among the interesting recent changes that have occurred within the university system is the preponderance of women in the humanities and social science student bodies. History is no exception. University departments are now beginning to reflect the changing composition of the student body. Jadavpur University in Calcutta, for instance, has an equal proportion of men and women on its faculty. Women faculty at the Calcutta University history department similarly noted that the gender composition has improved and even tipped the scales in favor of women over the past ten years.
Does this translate into increasing power for women historians within these departments? Lakshmi Subramanian, who has taught economic history at Vishwabharati University for six years and at Calcutta University for thirteen, mentions that women are rarely allowed into leadership roles that involve decisions relating to the library, syllabus revision...