An Alternative Vision for Women's Education: Jotiba Phule, Rajarshi Shahu Maharaj and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

Wandana Sonalkar

(Professor, TISS, Mumbai)


The question of women's education has been a central concern for liberal social reformers throughout the history of modern times. This has been true of countries in Europe and America as well as India in colonial times. But the ways in which education for women is envisaged, its justification and its prescribed content, have not been the same in all of these. 

In India, the dominant discourse regarding women's education was essentially a Brahminical discourse. Whether it was conservatives like B.G.Tilak, liberals like Agarkar or those, like D.D. Karve who actually put an agenda for women's education into practice, we find a hesitancy, if not total neglect, in considering education for girls and women of the “lower” castesIndia's enormous failure in bringing about universalisation of elementary education in almost 70 years after independence is surely related to this historical legacy.

We do however have an alternative vision for women's education which is seen firstly in the writings, and , even more so, in the praxis of Jotiba and Savitribai Phule. The schools that this couple started were inclusive , and provided education for a diversity of women and girls ranging from Brahmin widows to girls from the Matang caste like Muktabai, who is recognised as the author of an essay of trenchant social citicism while still a young schoolgirl. This vision was later adopted by Shahu Maharaj, the progressive ruler of Kolhapur state, in the early twentieth century. He also started schools which admitted both boys and girls belonging to all castes. Around this time, B.R. Ambedkar also explicated his programme for social change, in which he saw education as the first step for the the “untouchables” on a path that led to organisation and struggle. His call was inspirational for dalits all over India, but had the greatest impact in Maharashtra; the founding of the Rayat Shikshan Sanstha in Satara in 1918 was an outcome of these alternative visions. The Dalit community in the C. P. and Berar province, part of which later became the Vidarbha region of eastern Maharashtra, also promoted school education for girls in the early twentieth century.

This paper will base itself on an examination of the writings of Phule, Shahu Mharaj and Ambedkar on education as a whole as well as women's education in particular, and of some relevant historical records. There will also be a comparison with the writings of some well-known upper-caste social reformers. We attempt understand this alternative vision as a part of a project of social emancipation of women, together with the shudras and atishudras.

The final part of the paper will aim at bringing out the relevance of this vision for those who are concerned about education intwenty-first century India.