Earlier this week, I watched the 2015 film Suffragette. I felt disturbed when watching the many ways in which women were exploited, abused and rendered helpless in their personal as well as work lives. It was a fresh reminder of the progress that has been won over the last century thanks to women like the ones in the film. Another film on the same theme is “Iron-Jawed Angels” which is set in the United States.
The women were agitating for the right to vote because they had come to realize that if they wanted to change their condition, they needed to have a say, and that meant having the right to vote.
But, what if one lives in a country where voting is simply not an option? For example, in a monarchy or a dictatorship, or in a country ruled by another? This was exactly the issue that was briefly touched upon in a couple of letters between Anandi and Theodocia.
The two women had established a highly engaged and mutually supportive pen-friendship. They wrote to each other about their everyday lives and about the customs and traditions of their communities. In a letter written in December 1880, Anandi wrote:
Your favor of 1st Nov just to hand. It gives me very interesting account of your national holidays & the election of President. We have no such institution in India.
It is clear that this is a response to a letter from Theodocia describing the 1880 election in which James Garfield was elected President. Unfortunately, that letter is not available and so it is not possible to know what Theodocia said about the election and what changes she hoped for in the new Administration.
Anandi was a citizen a country that was ruled by a foreign power. Therefore, she probably had no concept of a functioning democracy — a society in whose running she could have a say, a system consisting of duties and privileges of participation. Also, she was just fifteen at this time. As a result, her comment is that of someone who is merely noting the absence of a seemingly innocuous tradition and not that of someone who is aware of elections as an important underpinning of a free, developed and civilized society.
She could not feel a sense of loss about a custom that no one she knew could practice. Focused on a rather more urgent need — access to health care and education — the right to vote may have seemed to her like an abstract luxury.
The fight for women’s empowerment in India started much after it started in Europe and America. Also, as Anandi’s story demonstrates, progress during the early years was very slow due to staunch religious and social opposition. But, the pace of change, once set in motion, accelerated tremendously – at least on paper, and even if only for a certain segment of the female population.
The captions near the end of Suffragette mention that Indian women won the right to vote in 1949. However, that is not entirely accurate. Indian women were enfranchised on the same terms as men while still under British rule — under the Government of India Act of 1935. This was just twenty years after British women won the right to vote! And, Indian women received the same voting rights as men when the first constitution of independent India was adopted in 1949.