How India inspired American feminists
In the 1960s and 1970s, African Americans also looked to India as they campaigned against racial segregation. While civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. famously made Gandhian civil disobedience central to his work, India provided additional forms of inspiration to African-American women.
As an American historian living in India, I have been struck by the frequency with which India and Indian women appear in the history of the feminist movement in the US. Some people might be familiar with the ways in which the history of women’s rights in India garnered negative international attention: the anti-sati campaigns of 19th-century Britain; Christian missionaries’ lurid descriptions of female infanticide; and the American Katherine Mayo’s portrayal of child marriage in the inflammatory 1927 book Mother India. Yet history is also full of moments when American women looked to India for inspiration. As the US takes all of March to observe Women’s History Month, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which India has changed feminism in America for the better.
In the 19th century, the first wave of American feminists campaigned for the right to vote, agitated for placements in universities, and confronted numerous obstacles to employment. While American women began entering medical colleges in small numbers – the first graduating in 1849 – they faced significant challenges to practising medicine. Given these difficulties, it is all the more remarkable that two Indian women, Anandibai Joshee and Gurubai Karmarkar, successfully trained as doctors in the US in the 1880s and 1890s – a good 25 years before the founding of the first American medical association for female physicians. In the American biography that appeared after her death, Joshee was asked, “If not yourself, whom would you like to be?” Setting an example for women everywhere, she responded, “No one.”
Women in the US finally gained the right to vote in 1920, but they continued to struggle for autonomy in childbirth and family planning. In 1935, Margaret Sanger, pioneer of the American birth control movement, travelled to India to attend the All India Woman’s Conference to discuss overpopulation. Of the conference, Sanger wrote, it “will remain one of the outstanding inspirations of my life… I found among these women an outspoken directness of opinion, a fearlessness in facing issues as they are, that we in America would do well to follow.” In 1952, Sanger returned to India to witness the founding of the International Planned Parenthood Federation – which is still active today – under its first leader, Avabai Wadia, a leading campaigner for reproductive rights in India.
Five years after the federation’s founding, 22-year-old Gloria Steinem – who would become one of the US’ most outspoken feminist leaders – came to India on a student fellowship. During her two years here, she walked from village to village with the followers of non-violence advocate Vinoba Bhave, studied Gandhian activism, and befriended feminist economist Devaki Jain. After returning home, Steinem used what she had learned to bolster the early women’s liberation movement. She later reflected that in “My becoming an itinerant feminist organiser was just a Western version of walking in villages.” Steinem came to India again in the 1970s so that she and Jain could incorporate non-violent resistance into the women’s movement.
In the 1960s and 1970s, African Americans also looked to India as they campaigned against racial segregation. While civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. famously made Gandhian civil disobedience central to his work, India provided additional forms of inspiration to African-American women. Angela Davis, a radical black feminist and civil rights activist, saw a natural solidarity between African Americans and Dalits in their mutual struggle to fight against subjugation. While Davis acknowledged the real differences between caste and race, she also understood that Dalit women had to combat gender discrimination on top of other forms of oppression – not unlike African American women’s longstanding struggles against both racial and sexual discrimination. Moreover, Dalit women continued to galvanise Americans: after conducting their month-long Self-Respect March through India in 2014, Dalit women took their activism abroad, conducting a wave of marches in the US and uniting with Americans in their fight against violence towards women.
These marchers were onto something. Since the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election, women’s marches in the United States have gained ever more attention. As Americans continue to grapple with the issue of women’s political participation – and question when the US might be ready for its first female president – perhaps they will again turn to Indian women for inspiration. India adopted female suffrage upon Independence, soon saw women ascend to national office, and developed a system to bolster women’s representation in local politics.
Women in India continue to face significant challenges, including sexual violence and harassment, workforce discrimination, and a pervasive societal preference for boys. In the face of these challenges, however, Indian women have also provided inspiration for the global feminist movement. As activists in both India and the US continue to fight for the rights of women and girls, it is worth remembering how much we have already learned from one another.
Cassandra N Berman is a visiting fellow at Harvard University and a PhD candidate in History at Brandeis University
The views expressed are personal