ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Earning Bhadramahila and the ‘Endangered Race’

Changing Discourse on Women’s Work in Bengal

This paper attempts to document the changing attitude of sections of bhadralok in colonial Bengal towards middle-class women’s paid work. From the 1920s onwards, a number of journal editors and contributors, overcoming their earlier inhibitions, began to propagate middle-class women’s/widows’ economic independence. However, the nature and limits of the proposed economic independence of the new icon, the earning bhadramahila, were clearly defined by the new discourse on women and work. The same journals publicised a range of other issues including anxieties about the “declining number” as well as the “declining fortune” of Bengali Hindus.

The historiography of women’s work in Bengal has long been dominated by the marginalisation thesis. Historians have drawn our attention to the proverbially low work participation rate of women in colonial Bengal. They show how women who traditionally engaged in a number of gainful occupations were gradually pushed out by the partial modernisation of the colonial economy (Mukherjee 1995; Banerjee 1989). That women found only very limited entry into this modern economy and men became the principal bread earners were, according to some historians, largely due to a growing social attitude towards women’s paid work outside the home. It was the emergence of the ideology of the separate spheres and the growing cult of domesticity in the late 19th century (Sen 1999). However, there was some modification in this attitude later. Especially from the mid-1920s, a number of journal editors and contributors (both women and men), overcoming their earlier inhibitions, began to propagate middle-class Hindu women’s and widows’ economic self-reliance with unprecedented enthusiasm. A number of authors championed the cause of independent earning for those young women whose prospect of marriage, they thought, was becoming uncertain.

The same periodicals publicised with equal zeal a range of other issues. These expressed their anxieties about the “decreasing” number of Hindus and the “increasing” number of Muslims on the one hand and that of trailing behind men from outside Bengal in the competition over jobs and business on the other. Frequently discussed topics covered were the need to encourage widow remarriage, concerns and fear of abduction of Hindu women by Muslim men, middle-class male unemployment, overcrowding of the job market, decreasing prospect of marriage of girls, caste taboo on marriage, and other evils of casteism. The present article suggests that the advocacy of women’s economic self-reliance and anxieties about shrinking number as well as shrinking share in the economy were perhaps closely interconnected. It attempts to explore the missing links between these broad issues.

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Updated On : 8th Aug, 2022
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