In recent years, historians have looked to the diverse perspectives of Indian and Anglo-Indian women to understand the female experience under the British Raj. While the period of the British Raj is defined as 1858-1947, British, and European, influence in India began long before, starting with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company. Particularly, British educational and medical programs were essential to shaping conceptions of femininity in colonial India. Tim Allender’s book Learning Femininity in Colonial India: 1820-1932 examines “the changing influences and networks that operated around the female education dynamic in India, including those that applied to medical training” to understand the interaction of education, gender, and empire in colonial India (Allender 2-3). Methodologically, Allender traces continuity and change over time in these approaches to education, both in academics and medical education. The book is divided into nine chapters, tracing the evolution of these systems from 1820 to 1932. Allender asserts that throughout this 112-year period, under the “strong race and class agenda” of the British raj, “official gender articulation became a complex but powerful conduit for attempted enculturation from the West” (297). Ultimately, Allender argues that “the interaction between state and schoolgirl created a powerful and distinctive symbiosis that evolved over time” (3). Particularly, by conducting this temporal analysis, Allender seeks to “demonstrate that the colonial project remained capable of evolution, producing broader outcomes that both accentuated and reconfigured race and class and gender boundaries as they related to women and girls in India” (3).
Dr. Tim Allender is a professor at the University of Sydney specializing in the study of history, gender, and empire. For the past twenty years, Allender’s research has focused on education in India specifically, and Learning Femininity in Colonial India is one of several monographs on female education he has recently published. Allender is an acclaimed scholar, and Learning Feminity is the recipient of the “Anne Bloomfield book prize awarded by the HES (UK) for best history of education book published between 2014 and 2017.” More broadly, his research falls at the intersection of the disciplines of history, gender and sexuality studies, education, and postcolonialism. For this reason, Allender’s work is valuable in understanding the reciprocal relationship between education and conceptions of race and gender. 19th-century colonial India is an excellent setting for this type of study, because it witnessed tremendous cross-cultural exchange between the colonizers and colonized, and these interactions were also informed by global social movements, like first-wave feminism.
The book is organized chronologically and thematically, with each chapter covering a different period from the early 19th to early 20th centuries. Allender incorporates existing secondary scholarship on each topic with primary source material, like letters from government officials or Anglo-Indian women’s personal writings. He describes the intention behind this methodology, writing, “the book’s illustrative approach gives voice to the rich experiences of many of these women, and to groups of women living in colonial India through the strong documentary record that remains”(34). By using a variety of primary sources, located “in the dispersed depositories still available to scholars of gender in India and Pakistan, and at the old metropole, and in depositories located in other former colonies of empire,” Allender shows the diverse perspectives of women, both from the imperialist and Indian female point of view (34). This produces a more well-rounded and nuanced narrative of state-sponsored education in India, unlike previous scholarship, especially in the twentieth century, which focused on the British perspective without acknowledging the personal experiences of Indian women in their own words.
Chapter one, titled “Finding Feminine Scholars, 1820-65” starts with a brief overview of Indian female education prior to British occupation. Allender then goes on to describe the British authorization of evangelical education missions in 1813, and how these programs developed until 1865 (48). The chapter describes “how fledgling Western education endeavours began to take hold” in India, with Allender concluding that this “sporadic evangelical mission engagement” established a “Christian stereotype about the emotional deficits of Indian women, requiring remedy by the metropole” (27).Chapter two, “Shaping a New Eurasian Moral Body 1840-67,” expands upon the first chapter, stating that between 1840 and 1867, education moved away from the missionary model established in the 1820s, and reflected British anxieties about Indian female morality (71). He states that in this period, the purpose of female education in India shifted to become a “mediator of English middle-class moral norms”(88). As a result, education sought to separate the Indian student from the “cultural benefits of her own traditional Indian education,” in favor of an education that taught middle-class, British values (88). This shift encouraged more European women to enter into the Indian education system, which Allender elaborates on in chapter three.
Chapter 3, “Mary Carpenter and Feminine ‘Rescue’ from Europe 1866-77,” focuses on the influx of European women to India, and their impact on educational efforts for Indian women and girls (91). Allender uses the work and life of Mary Carpenter, a prominent British educational reformist, to frame this chapter. He concludes that the European, female intervention in education during this period “was made possible” when “the newly established relationship between statecraft and female education was taken over by a novel narrative concerning the teacher ‘training’ of women” (28-9). Chapter four, “Both sides of the Mission Wall 1875-84,” describes the work of female missionaries beyond the walls of the missionary compound, especially education within the zenana, a space in some Indian homes reserved exclusively for women. However, he also recognizes that despite moving outside of the physical mission “the actions of women missionaries…remained bounded by the co-imperatives of piety and conversion,” which framed their motivations in conducting these missionary efforts (154). Allender transitions to the next section of the book, stating that “such female missionary work also set up new avenues of female learning for Indian females…this time concerning Indian female medical care” (154).
In chapters five and six, Allender shifts his focus to medical education. Chapter five, “Female Medical Care: A New Professional Learning Space” examines the evolution of women’s medicine in India between 1865 and 1890 (30). Sanitation was a major concern for medical professionals in this time period, and Allender relates ideas of cleanliness with the British moral purity mission, writing how, for example, “the white starched uniforms of its practitioners suggested a fierce conformity to European propriety and procedure” (159). Chapter six, “Feminine Missionary Medical Professionalism and Secular Medical Feminists 1880-1927,” explores similar themes, but focuses on the consolidation and formalization of medical practices by the end of the nineteenth century. He writes that this effort “was at the hands of Indian, Eurasian and European women working both inside and outside these race and class divides and also with the broader Indian population in view” (178). In particular, he focuses on the Lady Dufferin medical fund as an example of the streamlining and operation of hospitals in India.
In chapter seven, “Code School Accomplishments and Froebel: Race and Pedagogy 1888-1903,” Allender returns to the issue of education, this time in the late nineteenth century. He writes that, the “ earlier endeavour of female missionaries concerning medicine had inconveniently blurred raj race and class agendas,” so it was determined that the “teacher training of women: could be used to “stem this racial and class shifting in policy application” (31). This emphasized the importance of bringing white, female teachers to India to teach the native population, solidifying differences across racial lines. However, this was difficult for British, female teachers, who were expected to “satisfy market demand in India for British middle-class credentials in a way that was also sensitive to India’s socio-cultural realities concerning females” (32). Chapter eight, “‘Better Mothers’: Feminine and Feminist Educators and Thresholds of Indian Female Interaction, 1870-1932,” examines the ways European teachers engaged with Indian culture to effectively engage their students. Specifically, Allender speaks about “the emerging receptiveness of leading European females to the increasingly recognisable, to them, veracity of Indian cultural and intellectual educational spaces” (233) It was difficult to reconcile these cultural differences, because this period witnessed greater Indian opposition to British rule, intensifying tensions between the two groups. Finally, chapter nine “Loreto and the Paradigm of Piety 1890-1932,” describes education reform in India at the turn of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. The educational effort in India was impacted by Britain’s involvement in WWI, during which Catholic nuns dominated the Indian education system (271). Allender finishes the chapter by describing the longevity of some of these Catholic missionaries, like Loreto schooling for girls, which has changed over time but remains active in India today (294).
Overall, Learning Femininity in Colonial India: 1820-1932 provides a thorough and well-rounded analysis of medical and educational systems in colonial India, and how they shaped ideas of womanhood. Allender uses a copious amount of primary sources to back up his claims, and effectively demonstrates the continuity and changes within these systems over time, using a narrative thread to connect each chapter to the previous one. However, India is a huge and diverse country, and a 112 year span is a large amount of time to cover in a single monograph. Allender’s focus was to show the evolution of education in India over time, but it limited the extent he could dive into each time period. Each chapter of the book could be made into a monograph, so Allender’s study is limited by the span and scope of his project.
In the conclusion, Allender summarizes his longitudinal study. He then speaks about the legacy of the educational programs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Indian schools today. Finally, Allender briefly puts his research in conversation with scholarship on education in post-colonial India. In doing so, he proposes new avenues for historical inquiry building off of his established work.