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Indian society seems to have always been riddled with bewildering contrasts: the opulence and development of Mumbai and Bangalore with poverty in rural India; the high philosophy of the Vedanta with the pervasive idolatry, superstitions, and rampant caste prejudices; the widespread Islamophobia with our past two Muslim Presidents. The history of women’s education is another example.

Most of our grandmothers in the early parts of the twentieth century were married off by the age of twelve or thirteen, putting an end to their formal education. In sharp contrast, many of our grandfathers were college educated – some were lawyers or doctors. Yet, a generation before that, in 1882, Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Ganguly, passed the examination of the bachelor’s degree in arts from University of Calcutta in India. Their formal degrees were handed during the convocation of the University in 1883. They were the first two graduates of the entire British Empire, which includes the United Kingdom. (Some interesting facts on this issue are presented in the Appendix at the end of the article.) The first woman graduate from Bombay University was Cornelia Sorabjee in 1888.

Women’s education in Bengal and India lagged significantly behind the great strides taking place like the Bengali Renaissance and the opening of the universities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. However, for women, the mainstream Hindu society was mired in prejudices and superstitions. For girls to be married off by the age twelve or thirteen, receiving an education was often considered an anathema, sometimes even a sin. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, liberal Indian minds (obviously men) imbued with western thoughts and values started feeling the serious deficiency. Some of these men, among the British administrators, also felt the need to spread women’s education.

English men and women established several women’s schools. Surprisingly, they all gathered the reputation of wishing to convert girls. These girls were therefore made to stay away. Finally, a lawyer named John Drinkwater Bethune established possibly the first and most influential school for women’s education in Calcutta in 1849. It was a seminal institution with a strong mandate for secularism (meaning non-Christian).

But old traditions and habits die hard. There was still great resistance from orthodox quarters. As an example, a noted Bengali poet of the time named Ishwar Chandra Gupta well focused the spirit of public indignation. My rough translation of the poem is presented below:

All our lassies, smacking their fingers and books in their hands will spiral down to infamy;

With knowledge of ‘A, B’ and dressed like memsahibs, and surely muttering in their foreign lingo;

Wait a few more days my brothers, surely you will not miss the sight;

Of them driving their own carriages to GorerMath(1) for unrestricted fun and frolic

(1) The large open space in Calcutta, aka the “Maidan,” is a worthy counterpart of Hyde Park in London.

After time, the Brahmo families led the way towards a slowly broken down resistance. In 1888, the Bethune School of 136 students had 87 Brahmos, 44 Hindus, and 5 Christians. Bethune College was started in 1979 with Kadambini Bose as the only student. There was also a burst of publications of Bengali periodicals like Prabashi and Bharabarsha which contributed heavily to the enrichment of the Bengali women’s minds, if they were lettered. They could read them in the confines of their ‘shoshurbaris,’ often clandestinely.

Now back to Chandramukhi and Kadambini. Chandramukhi Bose was a Bengali Christian born in Dehra Dun in 1860. In 1876, because of the discriminatory official stances towards gender, she had to be given special permission to appear for the F.A. examination. As the only girl to appear that year, she had 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. Along with Kadambini Ganguly, she then moved to Bethune College for the degree course. After her graduation, she was the first woman to pass MA from theUniversity of Calcutta and from the British Empire in 1884. Beyond this feat, Chandramukhi Bose became the first Principal of Bethune College in 1888, retiring in 1901 due to ill health. She married Pandit Keswaranand Mamgayen in 1903, and died in Dehra Dun in 1940. Her two sisters, Bidhumukhi and Bindubasini, were two of the earliest graduates of Calcutta Medical College in 1890 and 1891, respectively.

The life of Kadambini Ganguly (nee Bose) was even more eventful. Kadambini was born in Bhagalpur, Bihar in 1861, the daughter of a Brahmo reformer. 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 was Anandi Gopal Joshi – more on her later). Kadambini went to the United Kingdom in 1892 and returned to India after qualifying in LRCP (Edinburgh), LRCS (Glasgow), and GFPS (Dublin). After working for a short period in Lady Dufferin Hospital, she started her own private practice. Astonishingly, she held the dual responsibility of raising eight children as well as a professional practice. In addition, she and her husband were actively involved in female emancipation and social movements. She was one of the six female delegates to the fifth session of the Indian National Congress in 1889 and even organized the Women’s Conference in Calcutta in 1906 in the aftermath of the partition of Bengal. Kadambini Ganguly died in 1923.

(I have read somewhere that the first ten female graduates of Calcutta University were all Brahmos or Christians – no mainstream Hindus) 

Anandi Gopal Joshi was born in an orthodox Marathi Brahmin family in 1865. She was married at the age of nine. At fourteen years old, Anandibai gave birth to a boy. But the child lived only ten days because necessary medical care was unavailable. This situation proved a turning point in Anandibai’s life and inspired her to become a physician. At the age of nineteen, with the help and inspiration of her liberal minded husband Gopalrao and some American benefactors, she could enroll in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. While in America, she contracted tuberculosis. Nevertheless, she graduated with an MD on March 11th, 1886. Anandibai returned to India in late 1886. She was appointed the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital in Kohlapur, Maharashtra. Anandibai died early next year on February 26th, 1887, before turning twenty-two.

The history of women’s education in Bengal would be incomplete without mentioning two girls schools of a different genre and different perspective. One such school is theMahakali Pathshala established in 1893 by Mataji Gangabai, a Maharashtrian ascetic and reputed cousin of the famous Jhansi Ki Rani. Mataji Gangabai was driven by the desire to ”impart religious and moral education ….to Hindu girls on strictly orthodox Hindu principles with the objects among others of regenerating Hindu society by educating Hindu girls in Hindu ways and infusing into them Hindu female etiquette…” This was surely in response to the western-biased education in existing institutions that struck at the roots of conservatism prevalent in those days, attracting younger generations who had no genuine idea of Hinduism and its rich heritage. The school was blessed with a visit from Swami Vivekananda in 1897; Vivekananda left with very favorable impressions of the school. Mahakali Pathshala (as Adi Mahakali Pathshala) is still in existence.

The other school is the much more well known Sister Nivedita Girls School. This unique school is the only educational institution for girls that was inaugurated by Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother, in the presence of Swami Vivekananda, Swami Brahmananda, and others on November 13th, 1898. The school, which has already received much praise, was the first school to have a significant number of young, married women. It seems they were very thankful for the unexpected opportunity. They looked forward to their classes by finishing their household chores in a hurry. Fortunately, the school is still in existence.


I have collected a few snippets from the internet regarding information on early female graduates from the universities of London, Oxford and Harvard, which I present below.

“University College London was the first to admit female students on the same grounds as men in 1878, while the first female graduate emerged from the University of Wales in 1896.”

“The university [Oxford] passed a statute in 1875 allowing its delegates to create examinations for women at roughly undergraduate level. The first four women’s colleges were established due to the activism of the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women (AEW). Lady Margaret Hall (1878)[32] was followed by Somerville College in 1879; the first 21 students from Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall attended lectures in rooms above an Oxford baker’s shop.”

“They turned to an innovative solution, developing an institution of their own, one located near Harvard that would offer female students instruction by Harvard professors, “the same courses they taught men in the Yard.” The “Harvard Annex” opened its doors in 1879. By 1890 more than 200 women were being taught by 70 men.”

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Partha Sircar

Partha Sircar is a retired Civil Engineer, currently residing in Concord, California. He has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering...