Women’s Histography

Abstract :”Women’s Historiography”, T. K. Anandi assures, is not “history written by women”, but “history about women”. In a very interesting and rather “New-Historisque” reading of certain historical events in Kerala such as the widow remarriage, she ascertains how history views the historical incidents as authored by men to change the lives of women. She exhorts the women’s historiography to “establish equality in historical enterprises”.

Keywords: women’s reform struggle, objectification of women, feminist studies, women’s demand for social space, women’s invisibility in history, shaping of new self-attained social space

Women’s historiography does not imply history written by women. It is the history about women. It is not the life history of the acclaimed. The intention of this historiography is to reveal the extent of participation of women in the fights for reforms in life. It is evident that those who frowned at women’s writing cannot tolerate these enterprises as well. Nevertheless only healthy discussions and criticisms can bring such studies to the mainstream.

In the social science discipline, there is no division of opinion regarding the fact that society is subject to change. People themselves are the creators of the change. Women are not included in this term “people”. Historical studies do not heed their activities to bring about this change. Therefore what is usually seen is a tendency to hide women from history.

The recognition of feminist studies as a part of social sciences is a change that has come about in the course of the last two or three decades. Subjects like Economics and Anthropology do conduct studies about the low wages of women, sexual division of labour, the beginning of division of labour, and the social involvement of women in the days of yore. However, here too women shrink to a stature of statistical aggregates. While speaking about labour conflicts, social science studies display a tendency to connect them only to labour and wages and neglect factors like standard of living, productivity and sexual status in the productivity process. All these have a methodology which condones the patriarchal system. (It is not overlooked that people like E.P. Thompson are exceptions to this).

Social historiography is an area which can assist in women’s historiography. Social history possesses the implements that help in studying socialisation of men and women, how division in terms of sex come about, the changes that occur in day-to-day life, the family structure, marriage, health, culture and leisure. But it can be said that women’s social history has not been written. Man had already established supremacy in the government, the landlord tradition, war, trade, centres of authority, religion and growth of technology. Women had not taken leadership in any of these sections. Woman, poised in a passive position, came to be made invisible from history. The life of a common man / woman and their contribution to economic— social development have never enjoyed a pivotal position in historical studies. Traditional historic studies use birth-death statistics, assembly records and details from the archives as sources. These again are preserved in centres of authority. The “yesterdays” of history are reduced to records stored in these centres. The statistical details needed to create woman’s history are not available here today. Proofs and records of their areas of activity, their common areas, family systems and such other aspects have not been collected or compiled. Efforts to find them are also insufficient. There are a few rare women who have been recorded in history. These are the ones who have forced themselves into social spaces using their name and authority. They have not succeeded in creating a common sphere for women—
that is why the majority of women had to stand outside history.

The methodology of traditional historiography itself does not facilitate the study of women’s spaces in society. According to that methodology man stands in the active position, the position of the doer in history. Women are mere subjects in a patriarchal society. Their problems are only light matters in this total canvas. Conquering the public front, the patriarchs indulge in a wild dance which would undoubtedly wipe out the subjects. Or else they will remain inactive. This precisely is the position of women in the patriarchal historiography. Even in the areas where their social status is evidently seen, they are either studied in comparison with men or portrayed as images of men— this is the tendency seen in patriarchal historiography.

We have been acquainted with numerous historical men via the history of the national movement. History teaches us the life stories of cultural activists, working in relation to the reform movements, who have set apart their lives for solving the problems of women. Those who fought against Sati and child marriage, those who endeavoured to change the miserable position of women, were all men. Interestingly, the lessons of Jhansi Rani and Joan of Arc seem to send out the message that to fight for one’s country, one should wear men’s clothes. Gandhiji, Ambedkar, and Jyothibaphule were the ones who brought women to the national protest movement. Such contributions made by men for the nation are not belittled. Neither is it suggested that these should be neglected. However, the tendency of establishing the symbols of strong men throughout history and putting across the message that the shortcut to freedom for women is through men and by effectively imitating men, is wrong.

The situation in Kerala is not different. Recently our media are in the effort to make V.T. Bhattathirippad – who tried to comprehend the problems of widows and give them another lease of life, who tirelessly worked to ‘make their lives blossom’— superhuman. His effort to help and change, especially to eradicate the hellish pain experienced behind the marakkuta – the palm-leaf umbrella carried by namboothiri women— is not forgotten. On the other hand, the fact that he personally never made such claims, reveals his grace. In his autobiography Karmavipakam, the chapter ‘A widow’s life blossoms’ has to be subjected to a re-reading. His wife’s sister’s willingness to marry M.R.B. is decided in the conversation between Sridevi and Nangema.

. “The depression of the mind will shatter health. That depression has to be necessarily levelled through new experience. A painting is never complete without drawing and erasing. Nangema should prepare for a new step after comprehending the consequences. When I say this, I do not imply re-marriage.” (pp 246-247.)

It is a historical truth that though V.T. has told thus clearly and forcefully, widow re-marriage has been effected through V.T. That Sridevi and Nangema were instrumental in sowing the seeds for this idea, is another truth. But what traditional historiography does is, neglect the idea of widow remarriage, neglect the mental strength of the namboothiri woman Nangema, and make the performer of the marriage its hero. Therefore it does not become the remarriage of Nangema, but a widow remarriage that is conducted by the good-will of M.R.B.

Studies about all social activities discuss the changes brought about in the mental attitudes of women. These studies do not examine the extent to which the changes that have come in the mental attitude of women have influenced social activity. The miserable state of woman as visualised by man is that which appears in history. That the activities carried out by men has brought about changes in women, can be seen as Appendix. But what makes women partners in the efforts to change is woman’s own awareness of her state. It is not that men are lifting them up and leading them. An essential aspect of historiography, namely the consideration that partners in a common enterprise have to be given equal status, is very often forgotten. The primary aim of woman’s historiography is to establish equality in historical enterprises.

The historical research prevalent today is centred in statistical data. A historical fact is proved by the number of documentary evidence on which it is based. Besides, observations and premises on the basis of statistical details, is quite common. The material proofs for these are day-to-day newspaper reports, assembly records, diary notes, police records, autobiographies, family history and so on. The nature of these records is to display solely the ultimate performers of any occurrence. In a police record about a strike, details regarding the people arrested in the strike, those who were partners in decision-making, those who were leaders and such other information can be seen. However, no information can be obtained regarding those who had been partners in organising the strike or those who had given necessary assistance to help maintain it. Women do appear in these situations. The weaver women who worked in the province of Fauborg Saint Antoin played the most important part in the People’s Front which was part of the French Revolution. They were the ones who gave leadership to the food riots responsible for the revolution. The February Revolution of Russia was initiated by the strike of the women labourers. But history has not even recorded who they were.

In the Salt Satyagraha held at Kozhikode, seven or eight dictators were women. Among them, leaving aside A.V. Kuttimalu Amma, none became leaders and therefore went unnoticed. Moreover women who enter the public sector ought to have more awareness and put in more toil than men who are engaged in it. Quality wise therefore, partnership of women is more exalted than that of men. History often neglects this.

Since women very rarely obtain position and honour, the official records show a lesser number of women. But the welcome change that occurs in a woman newly acquiring power and honour is greater than that occurring in men who constantly achieve these. In the patriarchal system, even those who gain power and position are silenced. So their voice is not heard. Their role in opinion formation also does not come out. The duty of newspapers then and now has not changed very much and so they also maintain silence regarding the role played by women. Autobiographies of women are very limited in number. Even the few written have been done with extreme care, without causing pain or displeasure to husband, father, siblings and other family members. Due to women’s lack of time, discipline in life and the aura society has given them, diary notes made by women never came out. Therefore woman is invisible in the history written using traditional documentary details.

But today the manner of historiography is changing. The numerous documentary material which were considered irrelevant before, are being popularly used now. For instance, the utilisation of the diary notes written by Kulin Brahmin girls turned prostitutes and those by women belonging to the Dasi tradition in the Bengal Renaissance as against the patriarchal interpretations— interpretations centred on Rajaram Mohan Roy and Vidya Sagar – can be taken as an example. Nowadays re-readings of traditional historiography are quite common. Tanika Sarkar, Kumkum Samkari, Uma Chakravorthy, Kumkum Roy, Lathamony and S.Anandi have revealed the unscientific nature of patriarchal methods of conventional historiography through such re readings. The writings of these women historians introduce a new methodology for women’s historiography.

The tremendous upheavals appearing in different corners of history are not the sole reason for social change. The fact that the oppressed populace are engaged in constant wars with the oppressors forms the foundation stone of this methodology. The weaker sections do not always wield weapons. They reveal their existence through fruitful rebellions. Records of these protests lie spread out from the landlord’s threshing floor and the factories to the inner yards of the kitchen. These need not necessarily appear in the official records. These lie scattered in proverbs, legends, songs, hearsay, old stories, grandma’s stories and traditions. The documentary methods of comprehensive historiography are of little assistance to them. Only the methodology of local historiography can be of any assistance here. For example the smarthavicaram (religious trial of namboothiri woman suspected of adultery) of Kuriyedath Thathri is well known. The question whether her revelations formed part of a kind of protest has not yet died down. The change that had come about in the mentality of Namboodiri women of this period is what is suggested through this smarthavicaram. An exact history can be obtained only by recording the oral narration of the namboothiri women who still carry those memories. Oral history is a mode of historiography which is yet not popular in India and Kerala.

”The usage ‘I’ is comparatively less in narratives by women. Personal activities are very often viewed as inferior. Discourses will be self-criticising. Personal authority is never eulogised.’ – G. Etter Louis remarks while speaking about the methodology of oral history. (Ref:- Black Women’s Life Stories – Reclaiming Self in Narrative Texts.) Similarly the French oral historiographer Paul Thomson remarks that in his study, while men used “I” women used “we”. Such a response is a consequence of identifying themselves with their families, as the historiographer Geiger S. observes. (Life Histories : Signs : 1986. p 398.) Women usually respond, linking social incidents with family areas. Such an incident has occurred in the experience of this writer too. When the husband says that it was after the wedding that she first started wearing a blouse, the responses “it was Unni’s first birthday” or “that was the day when Ittannuli delivered,” seem to lead women from “I” to “We, our family.”

Agricultural revolts, with the partnership of women is seen from the medieval period itself. Vanjeri Granthavari refers to Sitamma, a woman who burnt down the landlord’s haystack. Those who write the history of Kayyur revolt support the revolutionaries and forget Kamala, the woman who stood as their inspiration. Memories of women who voluntarily participated in protests like Paliyam satyagraha and such others are also important. Memories are a historical construct. These are created by factors such as the circumstances of growing up, political ideology, cultural standing and so on. Historiography succeeds because it can visualise the religious, caste, race, gender variants. The following aspects should be included in the methodology using memories, oral statements, folk tales, legends and fictitious stories:

1)A feminist re- reading of traditional historical material.

2) Historical study of the given statistics and inclusion of narratives showing quality changes.

3) Local collection of data regarding invisible women.

4) Discovering and studying forms which may be used as weapons of the weak.

5)A comprehensive study of oral narratives and ceremonial traditions.

These are only the beginnings of the new efforts to promote women’s historiography. Feminist reading / writing implies narratives showing how women as spectators and partners view each historical incident and change. This does not intend to insist that “this is how to view it “or interpret it according to prevalent political philosophy. New methods and implements are to be utilised to find out the mental occupation and activities of women.


T.K.ANANDI. Is a social scientist and she has done pioneering work on “Women freedom fighters of Kerala” – she is a regular contributor of scholarly articles to periodicals and research journals.

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Is a social scientist and she has done pioneering work on “Women freedom fighters of Kerala” - she is a regular contributor of scholarly articles to periodicals and research journals.

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