Women, Nation-Building and Feminism in India

6 September 2018 - 7 September 2018

Wolfson College

Further details about this conference will be made available in the near future. 

Please email conferences@crassh.cam.ac.uk if you would like to be kept informed about the event, or have any other questions.



This two-day international workshop explores the myriad roles played by women - as volunteers, organisers, bureaucrats, politicians, writers and citizens - in shaping the emerging ideologies and structures of independent India. Although women played critical roles in different spheres of nation and state-building, ranging from participation in the constituent assembly to refugee rehabilitation, population control and education, their participation is both under-studied and inadequately theorised in existing scholarship. This workshop brings together close readings of women’s labour in various state-building projects. It focuses particularly on the period of transition from colony to nation-state and its immediate aftermath to illustrate the myriad ways in which feminist activism and ideologies developed during this period. Contrary to its characterisation as ‘the dead decade’ of feminism, during this time feminist activists and ideologies informed the ideologies and institutions of an emerging post- colonial state and society. However, the involvement of women and feminists did not necessarily contribute to anti-patriarchal state institutions or ideologies. As social workers and activists, women often drew upon, or were circumscribed by, gendered notions of labour, family, service and education. The results were contingent and frequently contradictory.

The goal of this workshop is to bring together scholars working on different aspects of this broad theme, and on different prominent women who were active in different aspects of imagining and building the new nation-state, in different regions of India. We hope to not only provide new insight into women’s agency in post-colonial India, but also to theorise the relationship between women’s agency, feminism and nation-building.


Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).

Day 1 Thursday 6 September


Tea and Registration



Ainjali Bhardwaj-Datta (University of Cambridge)


Welcome note

Joya Chatterji (University of Cambridge)


Panel 1: Crafting Selfhood

Chair: Uditi Sen (University of Nottingham


Tanika Sarkar (Jawahar Lal Nehru University)

'Communist Women: In Home and the World'


Humaira Chowdhury (University of Cambridge)

'The Life and Times of Begum Aizaz Rasul: A Political Testimony to Muslim Women's Activism'


DIscussant: Padma Anagol (Cardiff University)


Lunch Break


Panel 2: Serving the Nation

Chair: Mytheli Sreenivas (Ohio State University)


Uditi Sen (University of Nottingham)

'Practical Feminists or Handmaidens of Patriarchy? Lady Social Workers and the Rehabilitation of Refugee Women'


Abigail McGowan (University of Vermont)

'Rehabilitating Labour: Crafts in the Service of Family and Nation'


Discussant: Barbara Ramusack (University of Cinccinati)




Panel 3: Planning and Development

Chair: Anjali Bhardwaj-Datta (University of Cambridge)


Eleanor Newbigin (SOAS, University of London)

'Women's Role in the Planned Economy'


Mytheli Sreenivs (Ohio State University) 

'Feminism, Family Planning, and Development Regimes in 1950s India'


Discussant: Taylor Sherman (LSE)

Day 2 Friday 7 September


Panel 4: Women, Labour and Politics

Chair: Eleanor Newbigin (SOAS, University of London)


Samita Sen (Jadavpur University)

'Women and Trade Unions in India'


Wendy Singer (Kenyon College, Ohio)

'Women in the State: Elected Women and the Challenge of Politics in the 1950s'


Discussant: Partha Pratim Shil (University of Cambridge)


Morning Break


Panel 5: Gendered Citizenship


Chair: Taylor Sherman (LSE)


Anjali Bhardwaj-Datta (University of Cambridge)

'Alternate Economies: Women as Urban Citizens'


Emily Rook-Koepsel (University of Pitsburgh)

'Social Work Education and Gendered Citizenship in 1950s India'


Discussant: Wendy Singer (Kenyon College, Ohio)




Round Table

Mytheli Sreenivas, Samita Sen and Padma Anagol


Concluding Remarks

Uditi Sen