Discovering the First Generation of Feminists in Kerala

There is a whole forgotten generation of defiant Malayali women from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What do we understand when we identify ourselves as feminist?

The Wire’s Histories of Feminisms project is an attempt to emphasise that there is no linear or one way of understanding and experiencing feminism. Through a series of articles, The Wire draws your attention to some of the different narratives and debates that, over the decades, have come to define feminism. For instance, we recall the first generation of feminists in Kerala, the first women lawyers who surmounted formidable challenges to claim their rightful place in the legal system. We shine a light on women authors who pushed the boundaries of feminism in literature, bring before you the perspectives and experiences of feminist Dalit and Muslim women. We talk about how protagonists of many radical movements and uprisings in public memory are usually male.

Side by side, we bring you important debates around 19th-century cultural nationalism and gender reform, the discussions around sexual violence, the law and the MeToo movement.


“She is headstrong, mannish, and full of the perfervid spirit that espouses lost causes.”
M.E. Watts, Dewan of Travancore, to C.W.E. Cotton, Agent of the Governor of Madras, about Lakshmikkutty Amma, 1929.

As I read this description shared by one exasperated British civil servant to another at the eve of yet another eruption of the national movement in India, it is hard to escape the eerie feeling that it lives on in contemporary Kerala. I can close my eyes and easily imagine, for example, the present minister of the Devaswom Department in Kerala, Kadakampally Surendran, use precisely these words in a conversation with the president of the Kerala State Devaswom Board, A. Padmakumar, to describe the headstrong women who insisted on attempting the Sabarimala pilgrimage despite Hindutva threats.

Feminism is still marginal, beleaguered and reviled in Malayali society like it was in Lakshmikkutty Amma’s times, but it continues to apply relentless pressure on the authorities, then and now.

This young woman, Watts thought, may be overexcited by politics in Europe (where she had gone after studying in London), but now she was returning to Thiruvananthapuram, the best place to cool her zeal. However, far from calming down, she became part of the national movement and came to be known later as Lakshmi N. Menon, well-known as a diplomat and minister close to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Even as her generation of ‘mannish women’ – which included the redoubtable Anna Chandy, Lalithambika Antharjanam, Parvati Ayyappan, Parvati Nenminimangalam, Dakshayani Velayudhan, K. Saraswathi Amma, M. Haleema Beevi and others – made strides in the world and trouble for patriarchy, modern and traditional, the constant devaluation of their presence and voice continued, through caricatures by literary men (like Sanjayan) and purveyors of popular literature (like P.K. Rajaraja Varma, the creator of the caricature Kunji Amma).

Nevertheless, as a young student of Kerala history in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1980s, I found no mention at all of this generation of women. We knew only of women who were Congress or communist activists, but of no one who had fought against patriarchy, especially the modern patriarchy that was taking shape in the early 20th century. At best we had heard of Anna Chandy in quiz competitions, as the first woman to become a lawyer and a munsiff.

In other words, it seemed that there was no critique of emergent modernity from women, save for literary authors like Lalitambika Antharjanam, but even her work was mostly presented as denouncing the lingering pre-modern forms of patriarchy. So it was no surprise that the feminism that was emerging in our circles, which had us all excited, seemed to have no antecedent whatsoever. And it also seemed that there could be no other fount that largely US and Europe-centred accounts of feminism to guide us – and the people best equipped to connect us to it were the radical Left men here.

Also read: Building a Feminism That Centres the Voices of the Oppressed

Imagine, then, my joy at stumbling upon a whole generation of defiant Malayali women from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the archives and libraries. This was a forgotten generation – or one erased by both liberal and Leftist historians. They all engaged fiercely with the emergent modern public, seeing in unfolding modernity new forms of patriarchal power. They all spoke on behalf of ‘Women’ as a collectivity – assuming that the members of this collectivity had much in common, but especially a common set of rights and demands to be secured from the modern state. They faced the worst kinds of ridicule and hostility from male peers but persisted.

K. Saraswathi Amma, now acknowledged as one of the finest authors of her generation, was nicknamed ‘Vattu Saraswathi’ (Crazy Saraswathy) in college for speaking unabashedly with male students. As a 24-year-old newly-minted lawyer, Anna Chandy took on her own professor who opposed the entry of women into public service,  walking onstage uninvited into a debate in Thiruvananthapuram, and launching into a full-fledged attack on his position, which she presented as a ‘defence’ of the women who he had accused of stealing men’s jobs. He is afraid, she observed, that women will embarrass men by entering ‘lower jobs’ which involve menial labour. But then, she pointed out:

As long as all men are not daffedars, all women will not be peons. Just as the members of the male race range from emperors to sweepers, there will be members of the female race ranging from empresses to sweepers … Besides, when did this infamy provoked by the sight of female daffedars crop up? Indeed, a mind that was never outraged by the sorry sight of many thousands of women carrying loads of paddy to the Chala market for their daily bread, retuning oppressed, cowering at the dirty comments passed by some depraved men, how it has been inflamed by the box-carrying of the female daffedars of an imaginary world!

Born and raised in a society in which women’s issues were largely identified with national development and motherhood, and caught in intellectual circles of the early 1990s in which radical men had turned the use of post-modernism as a weapon to disarm and dismiss feminism into almost a fine art, these texts were startlingly luminous to me. For they showed how patriarchy could be exposed through the deployment of reason, rhetoric and humour.

Also read: The Indian Women Who Fought Their Way Into the Legal Profession

I was elated seeing that the sharpest exposure of the gendered politics of dowry was already made in 1923. Reflecting on why men did not find this an insulting practice, K. Padmavathy Amma noted: “What would you value more, something you buy at a price, or something that comes free? Which thing would you keep with utmost attention and care? Will you not be partial to the bought thing, and stay vigilant to keep it safe and sound? … Just think, who has the burden of taking care of the husband, if you buy him at a price?”

In the 1940s and ’50s, K. Saraswathi Amma attacked the persistence of endogamy in modern marriage, but she also thought that passion was too flimsy a basis for enduring union. Instead, she proposed ‘flirting’ – which she took care to define closely, remarking that it did not mean flippant romantic banter but the persistent interaction between women and men which would allow them to reveal their inner selves to each other and assess the suitability of the other as a spouse – an activity which was as serious as it was light-hearted.

It was also the same generation that fought in the legislatures of the princely states for women’s full entry into government service, including the police force, against the rule that married women could not keep their employment. Even though they entered these bodies as members of their respective caste-communities, most of them made it clear that they would step over such boundaries whenever necessary, and emphasised that their voice was indeed of the women of their communities.

While some of this generation turned towards nationalist and communist politics after the 1930s, the Indian nationalist women’s rejection of separate electorates did not find strong echo here. Their willingness to negotiate with the government of Travancore probably earned them the hostility of both nationalist and communist movements, and this is probably one reason why they were erased so thoroughly out of the historical record by both nationalist and communist historical scholarship.

Also read: How Cultural Nationalism and Women’s Rights Locked Horns in the 19th Century

Indeed, there is much in their writing that one would condemn today, and it is important to acknowledge the extent to which they shared the caste elitism and heteronormativity of the modern order of gender put in place against the pre-modern order of janmabhedam or difference-by-birth. The huge gap that divided them from most avarna and working-class women was never seriously bridged. Nevertheless this does not explain their erasure – because we do know that avarna women’s astounding anti-patriarchal struggles in 19th-century Kerala too, widely called the ‘upper-cloth struggle’, were largely erased or reduced to a gender-neutral resistance against Nair caste power in southern Kerala.

Today I find it to be the most potent source of resistance against Hindutva. The Channar women who kept provoking Nairs by insisting on wearing the upper-cloth (which was then a privilege enjoyed by upper-caste people alone) and refusing to be cowed down by even the most horrendous violence – that tenacity which sympathetic missionaries called sthreevaashi or ‘she-resolve’ – alone can stem Hindutva’s tide.

Yet one does connect to the first-generation of feminists, and I have often wondered how. The feminist historian Joan A. Scott’s answer, I think, is a convincing one. As she points out about the differences in time and space, “It was the shared jouissance, not the specific historical details, that provided common ground.” That however, does not mean that one should therefore renounce self-critique and reflexivity. The messy and ambiguous of the past cannot be wished away and must indeed be present to present-day anti-patriarchal politics mind if it is to get beyond those in the present.

J. Devika is a teacher and researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.