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.


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Anonymous said...

Very Interesting!
Thank You!

priya ram said...

Thanks to Smt.Padmini Srinivasan, we have a wonderful singer Gayathri Girish. A singer who sings with Bhaavam, whose concert lists are highly appreciated for being intellectual and interesting. thanks for this wonderful post.