Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The First Generation

            For hundreds of years (presumably), middle-class women had not worked outside the home. My ancestors were mostly involved in religious, governmental, or professional work for several centuries, and my female ancestors probably did not do these jobs. It is only in the mid-20th century that they did. Beginning with my mother’s generation, women working outside the home not an anomaly; it was supported (with some qualifications) at home. Against the larger canvas of economic development and the spread of education, how did women make their way into the professional world? What were the consequences? This is the subject of the following two posts.

Based on the information my interviewees have given me, this story involves several elements: the spread of educational institutions; the flowering of women’s higher education; the desire to be recognized as being capable of intellectual work and financial independence; and the spectres of widowhood and abandonment by the husband. When women started working, their general circumstances differed markedly from men’s: to say “most women born after 1950 qualified themselves to work, and they were the first generation where many women worked” does not mean that they started living their lives just like men. For one thing, child-rearing and housework was still the province of women; they could only work once these two responsibilities were taken care of. A working woman faces problems and situations unique to women.
For another thing, as my aunts both told me, their generation was not really the first to start working—there were women before them who worked outside the home, and those women undoubtedly paved the way for their descendants to go out and work en masse. And, as I found out from my interviews, those women who did not work encouraged their daughters to study and to work, because they were frustrated with their own inability to do so. So, if we want to know why and how women of my mother’s and aunts’ started working outside the home, we need to take one step further into history: we need to speak to the generation that preceded them. This post is the first of two on this topic, and I have devoted it to two women of that generation: my grandmother, Rajeswari (b. 1937) and her sister-in-law, Padmini Srinivasan (b. 1948).
My grandmother studied until her 11th standard (called SSLC). She could not continue studying because the nearest college was in Coimbatore, and her family did not want her to study so far away from home. However, she continued with various activities: she took a tailoring class, learnt music, and wrote short stories. Though learning music ended with her marriage, she still attended concerts. She was inspired by the famous singer, M.L. Vasantakumari (, and wanted to sing like her. She also kept her sewing machine with her and continued to submit stories to magazines. They did not get published because, she said, she did not have enough knowledge about the world.
My mami-patti, Padmini mami, has involved herself with music since her childhood. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in music from Coimbatore in 1969. It was surprising to me that Padmini Mami went to a college away from home—for comparison, my mother, in 1978, was not allowed to attend any college too far away from home, even if it was in the same town; staying at a hostel and attending college would have been unthinkable) Of course, the circumstances were different: Mami’s hostel, according to her, was actually “even safer than home!,” and my mother was staying away from her parents already (she was with her aunt and uncle). Mami’s great passion is music. She sang on All India Radio for several years. During the three years of relative freedom between college and marriage (1969-72), Mami painted, practised music, took a type-writing class, and learnt the basics of cookery. “We never used to waste a single minute those days,” she said. But her passion is music: Mami was very interested in theory and in building a wide repertoire of songs.
They had greater exposure to the world than their own mothers thanks to radio and print media. My grandmother believes that the stories she wrote would have been better if she had possessed more knowledge of the world, but that she submitted those stories indicates and the opening up of mentalities and the avenues of expression for women. Her aunt used to read a lot, especially about religious philosophy, but also fiction, and she and her sisters picked up that habit. Further, the age of marriage was growing greater: whereas their mothers would, as a ruler, have been married at the age of 15 or 16, women of their generation usually at least finished secondary school, and some of them entered college. Many of them also took classes—typing, tailoring, language, and so on—which gave them the confidence of having certified and officially recognized skills. A natural confidence in their abilities and a wish to put them to use could not have been far away. Frustration at not being able to achieve those aims was more or less inevitable, as their families did not like their working outside.
Mami puts a lot of value on the fact that she was able to help her daughter, Gayathri Girish (, rise to prominence as a musician. By teaching Gayathri songs, by giving her exposure to public performance by entering her in contests and having Gayathri sing devotional songs with her on the radio, and by still helping her, Mami feels she has ensured that her own education has been useful. Mami helps her grand-daughter, Vishruthi, with her music and with her arts. If Vishruthi takes up a career in either of those fields, Mami’s efforts will have paid off very well in the long run. And, I learned, that isn’t all: as I was leaving her apartment, she caught up with me to add one more thing: because she was the only one in the family who knew typing, she worked as a ‘secretary’ (I don’t think she had an official job title) in the business he founded. She thus did justice to time and money she spent on her typing class. She was telling me this, she said, to show that she tried not to let any of her knowledge go to waste. Similarly, my mother told me that Paati (who is my mother’s mother-in-law) had encouraged her to study further and work, and when I asked paati about this, she told me, “I had the frustration of not being able to study and not being able to sing. So I encouraged those at home who could [i.e. for whom that option was available].”
Why did they encourage their daughters/daughters-in-law to work? Certainly, one reason, as outlined above, was certainly that they wanted their daughters and other young family members to put their education to good use—to show the world that they too had intelligent and useful minds. My great-aunt and my grandmother both told me they felt that women did not get respect if they were not well-educated and capable of carrying on a profession, and they wanted to ensure that their own generation got that. The other reason was the possibility of widowhood or abandonment: women who did not have a husband to depend on needed to work, and a college degree and work experience were crucial if something happened to upset married life. These twin impulses—the desire to exercise one’s independent intellectual capacity and the drive to ensure one’s financial survival in the event of misfortune—seemed to be the desires that motivated the next generation of women—that is, those born roughly between 1955 and 1970.
This naturally leads us to that next generation of women, but that is the subject of the next post. Let me conclude by saying only that though this first generation of women was constrained by tradition and could not study/work to the extent that they wanted, that is not the end of the story: a longer historical view will also take into account the fact of the education and skills they did receive as perhaps the crucial stimulant that enabled their daughters to start working.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Women and work

I recently found a copy of my mother’s PhD thesis, and the key terms there matched those of my B.A. thesis proposal exactly: family, motherhood, women's subjectivity, patriarchy. I was surprised at the nearly word-to-word match, but I really shouldn’t have been. From the topic of research to the choice of subjects and profession, my mother’s intellectual interests have been an (often unconscious) influence on mine. Amma wrote her dissertation on Fay Weldon and Anne Tyler; I'm writing my B.A. thesis on Ashapurna Debi. I suppose the irony is that my mother wrote her dissertation on  American and British novelists; I'm writing mine on an Indian writer though I'm studying at Chicago. I became interested in Debi because my mother had a book of hers lying around at home for her own studies. Amma is a teacher; I want to be a teacher (though she feels teaching isn't a suitable profession for a man, because a teacher's salary can't support a family).
Now that I think about it, my topic of work and family is heavily influenced by things my mother has told me about her own experiences. A lot of the tensions, associations, and discursive features I expected to document in this inquiry into work and the family are, I feel, ones that flowed from the historical experience of women in my family beginning to go out to work. Of course, both men and women have to balance work and family, and both men and women work not just for money, but also to fulfill their personal interests and ambitions; I am not saying that only women feel these. But I do feel, though I find it difficult to express why exactly, that it is only with the end of the strong identification of men with work and women with the home that we can perceive that the spheres of work and home/family are, in reality, intertwined and interactive in each individual’s life. If my own experience is more widely shared, it would seem that women’s experiences leading up to and at work have contributed to the shaping of both women’s and men’s attitudes to education and work. My mother and my aunt may have become teachers because teaching is a profession compatible with child-raising (similar schedules as children and such), but I think their experiences have become a fund for us all, men and women, to draw on. In that sense, it isn’t just that women have attained (though not yet completely) their place alongside men in the professional world, but also that their historically-specific experiences have become important influences for men and women: they’ve become everybody’s historical past. My cousin is flirting with the idea of becoming a chef. He's still young, and he has some other interests, too. I have yet to see him go near the kitchen to make anything, but if he does, then I'm sure he will turn to his mother, grandmothers, and aunts for help if he's in a pinch. And newspapers and magazines seem to be printing a flurry of 'traditional' recipes, household management tips, and so on--domestic skills and knowledge that have been seen traditionally as the opposite of professional experience may have some demand in the market, it seems!
All this is to say that if a division between work and family has existed and still does to some extent, and if it correlates strongly with the gender divide, our present times are moving us to a point where we can see, in the recent past, the breaks and cross-overs that worked against and over that divide, and it enables us to see that our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers have a place in the history of work, even if they themselves did not do 'work' in the standard sense. The most interesting questions are, what are those 'women-specific' experiences, and whose experiences are they, exactly?
This will be the topic of my next few posts. I hate to cut off this line of thinking here, but I want to post more regularly here, which means I need to have shorter posts and sometimes continue a topic across 2 or 3 posts. So expect the next one soon!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Interview with my grandfather

          This past week, I conducted two interviews, one with my aunt (my father’s younger brother’s wife), Padma Thyagarajan, on the 11th; and the other, with my mother’s father, Sri Viswanathan Somasundaram, on the 12th. These two interviews brought to light the circumstances surrounding two individuals’ path to higher education and work. Seen together, they were also extremely interesting because of the contrasts of gender and generational change. This post is about my grandfather, my thatha.
          My grandfather, now nearing 78, was a mechanical engineer and worked in steel plants. He was born in Sivaganga, a village close to the town of Madurai, in 1932. He had a strong inclination towards the mathematics and the sciences, and he studied his 2-year PUC in Madurai and completed his Bachelor’s degree in Coimbatore. After a three-year stint in the public sector in Chennai (called Madras then), he took up a job at Durgapur, West Bengal, at the British-owned steel plant which had just been built under the second 5-year plan ( He spent until 1980 in Durgapur.
          I asked him whether shifting to Durgapur, more than 1000kms away from Sivaganga, was a difficult decision for him and his family. After all, he was the first member of his family to leave his hometown in search of work (his father and brother worked in Sivaganga for a long time). Apparently, he, and the rest of his family, knew that an engineering student had to leave home for education and work after high school; opportunities were only available in a few places. “Once you choose this engineering…you will have to get out of your moorings,” he stated. So, they were all prepared for this from the beginning. But I kept pressing: even if it was a fait accompli that he would go away, wasn’t it still painful to for them to let you go? I wanted to know if they were categorically supportive. My thatha’s matter-of-fact answer: “They were all supportive, because I was young, and nobody was depending on me, so they…could spare me.”

          I was highly amused. Hopefully I didn’t laugh out loud—the interview tape, at least, has no record of it. The budding ethnologist in me was sure of uncovering stories of pain and fear attendant on separation. The concept of a family ‘sparing’ one of its young members to move away and take part in historic developments like industrialization and migration towards industrial/commerical centres was unexpected, to say the least. My grandfather, who I imagined had left his hometown like a modern hero, well-educated and setting out to earn his living in strange lands, amidst mixed feelings of joy and fear, hope and sorrow, etc., painted me a pastel picture of the same event!
          Of course, if I had pressed him further on the point, he might have given me a more complex picture. Perhaps he still can--one of the advantages of interviewing your own family members is that they can leave comments on your blog with additions or corections! Still, his comment did make me realize that the relationship between family and work manifests in three different ways in an individual's life: constraints, ambitions, and responsibilities. So far, I have been thinking about how familial situations constrain individual's work options/choices and how they shape or further their ambitions. Responsibility/obligation is a new factor for me. It's pretty obvious that people work to support their families, until you bring in the question of which family--the nuclear family or the extended one? Did the move towards a nuclear family come not so much because families were torn apart against their will, but because they could afford to 'spare' some of their young? It also raises the interesting question of who was the agent in bringing about the break-up of joint families--is thatha, the second son of his parents, unique in being being relatively free of responsibilities towards his joint family, or was that the case of many people?
          My family offers only a small sample; I cannot hope to answer that question convincingly. But I do want to do on this blog and through my project is to look at interesting questions that appear from interviews.
I am also thinking about women of my grandfather's and his daughters' generations working: at least in my family, their work was often considered something they did for themselves, rather than to support their family. The next post will be from my chitthi's interview about that topic!
P.S. Whoops! That one blog-post a day plan did not pan out. These posts take me a little longer to think about than I thought they would. But I will post as often as possible.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sub-Project I: Work and Family

          My first research question is here. You can see the whole thing if you'd like, but here's a short summary: I am going to start this project by studying the relationship between the individual, family, and work. How, my question goes, have individuals managed and negotiated the complicated relationship between work and the family?
          At first glance, involving work in a project on family is odd. Work is in many ways the 'opposite' of family: the distinction between work and family is analogous to the other distinctions--work and play, and public and private, professional and personal--by which we divide our lives. So why talk about work and family?
          Firstly, several of the major changes in family life in the 20th century have been brought about by changes and developments in the sphere of work; trying to understand changes in family life without looking at work is to miss out on many important clues and explanations that the world of work can offer.
          Secondly, from the standpoint of the individual, family and work together shape, further, and frustrate ambitions and desires. It is the combination of influences and pressures that makes each individual unique and offers us a varied palette from which we can paint the portrait of a family and its people. It is to understand how each individual has faced a unique set of challenges and responded in his or her unique way that I plan to launch this study.
          I intend to complete this project through a series of interviews with 3 generations of family members, paying attention 1. to differences between the experiences of men and women. and 2. to changes over time.
          How far have I got? So far, I have conducted 5 interviews: with my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my grandfather. I hope to conduct 2 or 3 more within the week. My plan is to have one blog entry a day, with short excerpts or analyses of each interview.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


I am a University of Chicago student who has taken the summer to study my family’s history. Fueled by a passion for social history and the University of Chicago’s Seidel grant, I have come to Chennai, India, to understand my family’s history in the 20th century.

What do I mean by family history? As a history student, I have always been interested in social history. A central question in social history, including the study of families, is how long-term social and political developments change our everyday lives. These long-term developments include urbanization, industrialization, the rise of the professions, and the spread of higher education, especially for women. Our homes and our families and our relationships with our loved ones are deeply affected by these developments (and, of course, our family lives and personal relationships in turn impact on society and politics, but that is a different project). The question is, what is the relationship between our experiences as members of a family and these larger social developments? My purpose in taking on this project is to understand what changes my family underwent—in terms of structure, living arrangements, and individuals' identities—in the 20th century, and how the results of those changes were perceived by the members of my family.

I arrived in Chennai on July 4th to begin collecting my sources, and I will be back in Chicago in September, when I will synthesize my findings. This blog will contain regular updates and reflections as I carry out my project.