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The Spread of Women’s Education in 19th Century India.

A major feature of education during the 19th century was the increased involvement of states in education. State-sponsored education gradually replaced the private arrangements for education of the preceding centuries.

Women, education, British Government, Nineteenth Century, Social Reform. During the 19th century, women were finding new ways to exert freedom and attempt to obtain power. One of the ways they found a voice was through education. Upon the creation of female schools, often called female seminaries or institutes, women finally had access to education.

উনিশ শতকের নারী শিক্ষা. In Bengali


The paper is on the process of development of women education in nineteenth century India. It brings to light the efforts initiated by the British Government, the Indian male social reformers and educated Indian women to promote women education. The paper will also discuss on the confusion prevailed in the nineteenth century that whether women would perform their primary duty of maintaining family and household and rearing their children perfectly after receiving the education. The paper will further deal with the debate regarding issues on women education in the nineteenth century India.

Objective of the Study

Women’s education in India and Bengal in the 19th century lagged significantly despite the great strides taking place in the period like the Bengal Renaissance and the opening of the universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. However, for women, society was mired in prejudices and superstitions. The girls were married off by the age twelve or thirteen as receiving an education was often considered an anathema or even a sin. Formal school education was inaccessible for the women from all the castes as girls were trained in childrearing practices, practical skills like cooking, sewing and other household arts. Muslim girls were taught to read the Quran and some women were taught accounting in order to tackle property-related issues.

In fact, the survey of indigenous education conducted by the British government in the Bombay presidency from 1823-1825 stated that there were no school for girls and the common schools catered only to boys. Similarly, the survey done by William Adam in Bengal Presidency from 1835-1838 showed that there was no formal female schooling except the home schools which taught household skills. But by the middle of the 19th century, liberal Indian minds (obviously men) imbued with western thoughts and values started feeling the serious deficiency and realised the need to spread women’s education. In fact, during this period the Zenana system of education existed mostly in the upper class Hindu families Muslim families.

Zenana meant women apartments within the house causing their segregation from the social and cultural aspects of the patriarchal family. The custom of Purdah restricted women from taking formal education outside home but the elite upper class men who received English education wanted their wives to be educated so that they could efficiently run the household and guide the children in education. These all constituted a strong reason for the need of home education for girls and the Zenana served this purpose.

In the 1840s, female Christian missionaries who came to India found that the Zenana system could be used to spread western beliefs in Indian society by training the women in English mannerism as desired by the western educated men. But they all gathered the reputation of wishing to convert girls. In 1821, the Church Missionary Society opened 30
schools for Hindu girls in Calcutta but could not interest the higher castes pupils because of the religious instruction being given, while some lower caste and Christian families got their children into these schools. It is in this context that J.E. Drinkwater Bethune opened the Hindu Balika Vidyalaya in Calcutta in 1849. It was a seminal institution with a strong

mandate for secular education. Although the medium of instruction was Bengali and the school was secular, it failed to attract pupils from upper castes. All these facts tell that female education was not widely accepted as old traditions and habits die hard. The government took it over in 1856 and renamed it the Bethune School in 1862-63 after the founder. Bethune College was started in 1879 with Kadambini Bose as the only student.

In fact, by the mid 19th Century, the attitude of Government and the Hindu society towards female education had started to change. The Wood’s Dispatch of 1854 considered the Zenana system of education as important for women’s education and recommended that it should be included in the formal schooling through grant-in-aid. Social reformers and organisations too initiated their first step towards promotion of female education.

Jyotirao Phule with his wife Savitribai Phule opened the first school for girls in Poona in 1848. It was realised that to make Zenana system of education work efficiently, female teachers were required and thus in 1862, schools for training female teachers were set up in Bombay, Poona and Ahmadabad by Mary Carpenter. She also established a normal school in Calcutta in 1872 with Keshub Chandra Sen and Annette Akroyd. The Jullundur Samaj established an elementary school (1890) and a high school (1892) for girls in Punjab.

Following this, many schools and colleges were established all over India with the number of girls in Universities increasing from 6 in 1881-1882 to 264 by the end of the 19th century. In 1896, Dondho Keshav Karve, a social reformer established a shelter for widows that later expanded in 1907 to become a girls’ high school in Poona. The history of women’s education in 19th century India and Bengal would be incomplete without mentioning two girls’ schools of a different genre and different perspective. One such school was the Mahakali Pathshala established in 1893 by Mataji Gangabai.

Mataji Gangabai was driven by the desire to “impart religious and moral education to Hindu girls on strictly orthodox Hindu principles.” This was surely in response to the western-based education in existing institutions that struck at the roots of conservatism prevalent in those days. The other school is the much more well-known ‘Sister Nivedita Girls School’. This unique school was inaugurated others on 13th November 1898. The school was the first school to have a significant number of young, married women.

The history of women’s education in the 19th century is incomplete without the mention of two pioneering women, Chandramukhi Bose and Kadambini Ganguly. Chandramukhi had to be given special permission to appear for the F.A. examination. As the only girl to appear that year, she ranked first. Knowledgeable of this fact, the university held a series of meetings to decide whether her results could be published. Only the university’s changed resolution in 1878 allowed her to study further. She then moved to Bethune College for the degree course. After her graduation, she was the first woman to pass MA from the University of Calcutta and from the British Empire in 1884. Chandramukhi Bose became the first Principal of Bethune College in 1888, retiring in 1901 due to ill health.

The life of Kadambini Ganguly (nee Bose) was even more eventful. After obtaining a B.A. degree in 1883, she married Dwarkanath Ganguli. She also entered the Calcutta Medical College the same year. In 1886, she qualified as a medical doctor, one of the first two Indian women doctors qualified to practice western medicine the other being Anandi Gopal Joshi. Finally, as far as Muslim women were concerned the classic work “Sultana’s Dream” written by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain is an illustration of women’s realisation about men’s unjust oppression in the society and it also reflects that women were aware of the power of education and its efficient use for a progressive life.

To conclude, women’s education in the 19th century made substantial progress as Geraldine Forbes has pointed out many schools and colleges were established all over India with the number of girls in Universities increasing from 6 in 1881-1882 to 264 by the end of the 19th century.


But if we look at the condition of girls in the present century we will see that in rural Bengal a large number of girls are not going to schools. To avoid school drop out of female students different schemes (Kanyashree, Sikhashree etc) are taken by the government to encourage the girls to attend schools. Thus in the nineteenth century various grants and awards were given to the girls to encourage their families to send themselves to schools and in the present century also the government has to publicize different projects to create interest among the people especially of rural areas so that they can send their girls to
schools. Today in every girls’ and boys’ school there is a class of physical education or physical activity. Moreover, many girls are taking lesions of karate privately. But these are the activities of urban areas. Still now in villages, many girls cannot go to the schools and they have to marry even before they become adult. Thus a clear division has been created between rural India and urban India regarding education.

People also ask

Q. How did women’s education change in the 19th century ?
A. During the 19th century, women were finding new ways to exert freedom and attempt to obtain power. One of the ways they found a voice was through education. Upon the creation of female schools, often called female seminaries or institutes, women finally had access to education.

Q. How was education in the 19th century in India ?
A. In 19th century India, “English education” meant “modern education”. Most taught a curriculum similar to public schools. Britain at the time through English as a medium of instruction, especially those sponsored by missionaries. Some taught the curriculum through vernacular languages with English as a second language.

Q. Who fought for women’s education in India ?
A. Savitribai Phule, the first female teacher at India’s first women’s school completes 191. The Life And Times Of Dnyanjyoti Krantijyoti Savitribai PhuleSavitribai Phule was a trailblazer as the first female teacher at India’s first women’s school.

Q. How has women’s education changed over the years in India ?
A. Female education rose to 39percent in 1991. However,-compared to male literacy, female literacy lags behind, in 1991 male literacy was 64 per cent. As per the last census the literacy rate of women rose to 65percent as compared to male literacy of 82 percent.

Q. What is the main problem of women’s education in India ?
A. Parental attitude, lack of infrastructure, lack of security, superstations related to girls, socio-economic condition of parents are the major challenges for promoting girls’ education in India.

Q. What is women’s education in India ?
A. The Indian government has expressed a strong commitment towards education for all, however, India still has one of the lowest female literacy rates in Asia. In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means today there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.

Q. Why women’s education is important in India ?
A. Women education in India plays a very important role in the overall development of the country. It not only helps in the development of half of the human resources, but in improving the quality of life at home and outside. 1 If it is said that education is the key to all problems, then it won’t be improper.

Q. What was the 19th century view of a woman’s role ?
A. Women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands. Their occupational choices were also extremely limited. Middle- and upper-class women generally remained home, caring for their children and running the household.

Q. What was the people’s view on education of girl child in the 19th century ?
A. Education of girl child in 19th century was not so mendatory. some of them do not educate girl due to their low wages and beleive to educate only boy so that he can earn money and this will be profit for them . some of them discriminate their child for their gender.

Q. What was taught in schools in the 19th century ?
A. They learned reading, writing, math, geography, and history. Teachers would call a group of students to the front of the classroom for their lesson, while other grades worked at their seats. Sometimes older kids helped teach the younger pupils.

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