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Grandmother, Mother and Daughter: Changing agency of Indian, middle-class women, 1908–2008*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2011

Associate Professor in Development Studies, Oslo University College, PO Box 4, St Olavs Plass, 0130 Oslo, Norway Email:


Covering one hundred years, this paper recounts the life stories of three generations of middle-class women of the New Delhi-based Kapoor family. By taking the methodological view that individuals born approximately at the same time, within the same class segment, and at the same cultural place will be shaped by the same historical structures so that their lives to some extent are synchronized into a gendered, generational experience, these three life stories are viewed as voices that reflect their respective generational class segments. In view of this, the paper uses the three life stories to discuss changes in women's agency within the urban, educated, upper middle-class. Agency is here understood as control over resources, and it is argued that in order to understand changes in women's agency, one should take into account the impact of both social, economic structures and cultural ideologies. When analysing the three life stories, the overall finding is that the granddaughter has had more control over her own life than her mother and grandmother. However, by acknowledging that cultural ideologies and social economic structures are not always synchronized, a nuanced and many-dimensional picture of twists and turns in these middle-class women's degree and type of agency over time emerges.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 I am very grateful to the three women, here called Kapoor, for sharing their family stories with me. In order to protect their anonymity, I have changed their names and in some cases changed minor details, such as names of places or description of jobs.

2 India has a large, growing, rather heterogenic middle class, and as has been noted by Fuller, C. J. and Narasimhan, H. (2007), Information Technology Professionals and the New-Rich Middle Class in Chennai (Madras), Modern Asian Studies, 41 (1): 121150, p. 121CrossRefGoogle Scholar, sound sociological and ethnographic information about India's growing middle-class is still sparse. In this paper, when I discuss changes in agency with reference to the three Kapoor women, I refer to a loosely defined segment of this middle class, which can be identified by the key terms ‘urban’, ‘educated’, and ‘upper’, and below include an explanation of what these characteristics entail.

3 Purdah is directly translated as ‘curtain’ and is, according to Papanek, ‘the word most commonly used for the system of secluding women and enforcing high standards of female modesty in much of South Asia’, Papanek, H. (1973), Purdah: Separate Worlds and Symbolic Shelter, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 15 (3): 289325, p. 289CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For analyses of purdah practices among Hindus in Northern India, see also: Chowdry, P. (2004), The Veiled Women: Shifting Gender Equations in Rural Haryana, New Delhi, Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar; and Jacobsen, D. (1982), ‘Purdah and the Hindu Family in Central India’, in Papanek, H. and Minault, G. (eds) Separate Worlds: Studies of Purdah in South Asia, Columbia, Missouri, South Asia Books, pp. 81110Google Scholar.

4 For a broad, general analysis of how the introduction of neo-liberal policies has affected the middle-classes in India, see: Fernandes, L. (2006), India's New Middle Class. Democratic Politics in an Era of Reform, Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota PressGoogle Scholar. For an ethnographical analysis of changes in middle-class women's experiences and practices in Calcutta, see: Donner, H. (2008), Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-Class Identity in Contemporary India, Aldershot and Burlington, AshgateGoogle Scholar.

5 See: Dewey, S. (2008), Making Miss India Miss World: Constructing Gender, Power, and the Nation in Postliberalization India, Syracuse, Syracuse University PressGoogle Scholar; Thapan., M. (2004), Embodiment and Identity in Contemporary Society: Femina and the ‘New’ Indian Woman, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 38 (3): 411444CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 For an analysis of how the introduction of neo-liberal policies has had an overall negative impact on poor women's education and employment in rural Tamil Nadu, see: Swaminathan, P. (2002), ‘The Violence of Gender Biased Development: Going Beyond Social and Demographic Indicators’, in Kapadia, K. (ed.) The Violence of Development: The Politics of Identity, Gender & Social Inequalities in India, New Delhi, Kali for Women, pp. 69141Google Scholar. And for the case of working-class women in New Delhi see: Mazumdar, I. (2007), Women Workers and Globalization: Emergent Contradictions in India, published by Kolkata, Stree (also published by the Centre for Women's Development Studies, Delhi, which is the reference used in this paper)Google Scholar. When it comes to the mixed impact of the neo-liberal policies on middle-class women and work, see Fernandes, India's New Middle Class, pp. 162–168. And for arguments about how neo-liberal policies strengthen already existing inequities of caste, class and gender, and how this generally implies that middle-class women benefit from these policies, see Banerjee, N. (2002), ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Sea: Shrinking Options for Women in Contemporary India’, in Kapadia, The Violence of Development, pp. 43–69, esp. 58; and Mazumdar, Women Workers, p. 35.

7 Lovell (2000), Thinking Feminism With and Against Bourdieu, Feminist Theory, 1(1): 11–32. Lovell refers to several works by Bourdieu and Butler. In this argument, the following three books are specifically relevant: Bourdieu, P. (1998), La Domination Masculine, Paris, Seuil; Butler, J. (1990), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York and London, Routledge; Butler, J. (1993), Bodies That Matter, New York and London, Routledge.

8 Lovell, Thinking Feminism, p. 15.

9 The cultural emphasis on individual action versus collectivism varies from society to society, and this again will affect how individual agency is valued. See: Arnold, D. and Blackburn, S. (2004), ‘Introduction: Life Histories in India’, in Arnold, and Blackburn, (eds) Telling Lives in India. Biography, Autobiography, and Life History, Delhi, Permanent Black, pp. 128Google Scholar.

10 Derné, S. (2008), Globalization on the Ground: Media and the Transformation of Culture, Class, and Gender in India, New Delhi and London, Sage, 2008CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See: Derné, Globalization, pp. 58–59, where he refers to Swidler, A. (2001), Talk of Love: How Culture Matters, Chicago, University of Chicago PressGoogle Scholar. See also: Swidler, A. (1986), Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies, American Sociological Review, 51 (2): 273286CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Derné, Globalization, p. 78.

13 From a different, psychological point of view, a similar argument about generational change of gender practices has been made. Bjerrum Nielsen and Rudberg argue that it is only when parents raise their children in accordance with current cultural and social possibilities that these will be inscribed into the gendered subjectivity and gender identity of their children and will over time affect their practices: BjerrumNielsen, H. Nielsen, H. and Rudberg, M. (1994), ‘“Hallo Fatty!”—Continuity and Change in Psychological Gender’, in Psychological Gender and Modernity, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Scandinavian University Press, pp. 85115Google Scholar.

14 I first got to know the Kapoor family when I came to New Delhi in 1992 to work for the United Nations Development Programme. When I came back to New Delhi for a nine-month period in 1997, to do fieldwork for my Dr Polit project on the established, English-speaking middle-class in New Delhi, India, they helped me to find a flat to rent and became my neighbours. It was during this period that I conducted the life-story interviews with Kamla and Sheila. I have kept in contact with the family since, and touch base with them whenever I am in New Delhi. The interview with Lata was conducted during one such later visit in 2006, after she had married and established herself professionally.

15 Elder, G. H. Jr and Hareven, T. (1992), ‘Rising Above Life's Disadvantages: From the Great Depression to Global War’, in Elder, G. H. Jr, Modell, J. and Parke, R. D. eds) Children in Time and Place, New York, Cambridge University Press, pp. 4773Google Scholar.

16 For portrayals that shed light on the varied experiences of North Indian women within the standardized life-course, see for instance: Jacobsen, D. (1992), ‘The Women of North and Central India: Goddesses and Wives’ in Jacobsen, D. and Wadley, S. Women in India. Two Perspectives, Columbia, South Asia Publications; Jeffery, P. and Jeffery, R. (1996), Don't Marry Me to a Plowman: Women's Everyday Lives in Rural North India, Boulder, Colorado, Westview PressGoogle Scholar; Seymour, S. C. (1999), Women, Family, and Child Care in India: A World in Transition, Cambridge, Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar; Sharma, U. (1980), Women, Work, and Property in North-West India, London and New York, Tavistock PublicationsGoogle Scholar; Donner, Domestic Goddesses.

17 Abu-Lughod, L. (1993), Writing Women's World: Bedouin Stories, Berkeley, University of California Press, p. 29Google Scholar.

18 Arnold and Blackburn, ‘Introduction, Life Histories’, p. 4.

19 Hagestad, G. ‘Social Perspectives on the Life Course’ in Binstock, R. H. and George, L. K., Aging and the Social Sciences, third edition, San Diego and London, Academic Press, pp. 151168, esp. 152Google Scholar.

20 In an analysis of how the two historical events of the Great Depression and World War Two affected the life courses of two different cohorts on the East Coast and on the West Coast of the USA, it was found that the two historical events affected individuals depending both on when and on where they were born. This implies that individuals born at the same cultural place, belonging to the same social class, were affected rather similarly by the same historical event. See: Elder and Hareven, ‘Rising Above’ pp. 47–73; and Elder Jr. (1998), Children of the Great Depression, Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press. For an analysis of how larger economic structural transformations in America at large have affected women in the same Navajo family differently, depending on their age, see Lamphere, L. (2007), Weaving Women's Lives: Three Generations in a Navajo Family, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico PressGoogle Scholar.

21 This is in line with Arnold and Blackburn, Telling Lives, p. 6, when they argue that ‘life histories reveal insights not just into the experiences and attitudes of the individuals directly concerned, but also of the wider society, or social segment, of which they are a part’.

22 Fuller and Narasimhan, ‘Information Technology’, p. 121.[17]

23 Many authors prefer to use the plural form and write about ‘the middle classes’, rather than ‘one middle class’. See for example, Misra, B. B. (1961), The Indian Middle Classes: Their Growth in Modern Times, London, Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar; Beteille, A. (2001), ‘The Social Character of the Middle Class’ in Ahmad, I. and Reifeld, H. (eds), Middle Class Values in India & Western Europe, New Delhi, Social Science Press, pp. 7386Google Scholar; and Markovits, C. (2001), ‘Merchants, Entrepreneurs and the Middle Classes in India in the Twentieth Century’, in Middle Class Values, pp. 42–56.

24 See Srinivas, M. N. (1977), The Dual Cultures of India, Gandhi Memorial Lecture, Bangalore, Raman Research InstituteGoogle Scholar.

25 See Misra, The Indian Middle Classes; and Bardhan, P. (1984), The Political Economy of Development in India, New York and Oxford, BlackwellGoogle Scholar. The latter divides the ruling classes in India—or ‘the dominant propriety classes’—into three segments: (1) rural landholders/rich farmers, (2) urban industrial bourgeoisie, and (3) urban, class of white-collar government employees/professionals.

26 For analyses of the colonial middle-class as middlemen in a double sense—in the middle between classes and in the middle between colonialists and Indians—see for example, Bhatia, B. M. (1994) India's Middle Class. Role in Nation Building, New Delhi, Konark PublishersGoogle Scholar; Chatterjee, P. (1994), The Nation and Its Fragments. Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Delhi, Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar; Joshi, S. (2001), Fractured Modernity. Making of a Middle Class in Colonial North India, New Delhi, Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar; and Varma, P. (1998), The Great Indian Middle Class, New Delhi, VikingGoogle Scholar. For an argument about how middle-classness overrides regional culture when it comes to the position of women, see Poggendorf-Kakar, K. (2001), ‘Middle-class Formation and the Cultural Construction of Gender in Urban India’ in Ahmad and Reifeld (eds), Middle Class Values, pp. 125–141.

27 High caste, middle-class ideals in the analysis of the life stories is discussed below.

28 Fernandes, India's New Middle Class.

29 Kamla Kapoor does not remember dates very specifically, so I'm not sure of her exact age. She told me that she remembered the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre and that it happened while she was a young girl in Amritsar. Since that was in 1919, and she later told me that she got married in 1930 at the age of 22, I assume that she was born around 1908.

30 The first wife could not bear children, and within the educated, high caste, middle-class at that time this was regarded as grounds for divorce, or grounds for the husband to take a second wife. From what I was told by other family members, Kamla Kapoor's husband-to-be never divorced his first wife, but married Kamla as a second wife and lived with her. I do not know whether he continued to support his first wife economically or had any other contact with her.

31 Chapattis are a flat kind of bread made in the frying pan, and it requires training to make them thin and fluffy. Since they are a Punjabi speciality, eaten instead of rice, one could not expect the South Indian cook to be able to make them properly.

32 See footnote 3 above.

33 See for example, Fernandes, India's New Middle Class; Khilnani, S. (1997), The Idea of India, Hamish Hamilton; Joshi, Fractured Modernity; Liddle, J. and Joshi, R. (1986), Daughters of Independence, London, Zed BooksGoogle Scholar; and Varma, Great Indian.

34 The three women's organizations that came to be most influential in Indian politics were started within ten years of one another. They were: The Women's Indian Association (WIA), started in 1917; The National Council of Women in India, started in 1925; and the All India Women's Conference (AIWC), started in 1927. See for example, Forbes, G. (1981), Women in Modern India, Cambridge, Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar; Liddle and Joshi, Daughters.

35 For debates about and descriptions of how the high caste, emerging bhadralok responded to colonialism and dealt with ‘the women's question’, as Chatterjee has termed it, see Chatterjee, P. 2006 (first published 1989), ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question’, in Sangari, K. and Vaid, S.Recasting Women, New Delhi, Zubaan, pp. 233253Google Scholar; and Sarkar, T. (2001), Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism, Delhi, Permanent BlackGoogle Scholar. For an analysis of this in the case of Punjab, see Malhotra, A. (2002), Gender, Caste, and Religious Identities: Restructuring Class in Colonial Punjab, New Delhi, Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar. For a descriptive analysis of Hindu Bengali womanhood of upper-middle class families, see Roy, M. (1992), Bengali Women, Chicago and London, University of Chicago PressCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Chatterjee, ‘Nationalist Resolution’, pp. 233–253.

37 See: Hancock, M. (2001), Home Science and the Nationalization of Domesticity in Colonial India, Modern Asian Studies, 35:1, pp. 871903CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Malhotra, Gender, Caste and Religious Identities, pp. 116–164.

38 Shimla was a so-called hill-station, which was the term used for the summer-retreats that British colonizers created in the Himalayas. As a hill-station, it had good English language schools.

39 For the case of the United States, see for example Gluck, S. B. (1987), Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, The War, and Social Change, Boston, Twayne PublishersGoogle Scholar; Hartmann, S. (1982), The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s, Boston, Twayne PublishersGoogle Scholar; and Milkman, R. (1987), Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex During World War II, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois PressGoogle Scholar.

40 Not much has been written about the effects of the Second World War on gender roles in India. There are, however, several factors that together indicate that Kamla Kapoor is not a single case and that Indian middle-class women's general agency temporarily increased in India during the war: (1) Women's organizations emerged as fully political participants, Forbes, Women in Modern India, p. 90; (2) during the war Indian middle-class women entered social and professional services that had been closed to them previously, Jackson, A. (2006), The British Empire and the Second World War, London, Hambledon, p. 357; and (3) the facts that during the war India became ‘the second pillar of the British Empire after Britain itself’, Jackson, The British, p. 353, and was a major supplier of food, material and manpower, Jackson, The British, pp. 353–363, show that the war had major implications for social and economic relations in India, which also most likely affected gender relations.

41 BjerrumNielsen, H. Nielsen, H. and Rudberg, M. (2006), Moderne Jenter: Tre Generasjoner på Vei (Modern Girls: Three generations in the Making), Oslo, Universitetsforlaget, p. 16Google Scholar.

42 Defence Colony is today an upper middle-class neighbourhood, centrally located in New Delhi.

43 Khadi means ‘Hand-woven cloth. The term was used by Gandhi to refer to cloth that had been hand-woven using hand-spun yarn’, Tarlo, E. (1996), Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p. xiiGoogle Scholar.

44 Ayah is the Hindi term for nanny.

45 See for example, Donner, Domestic Goddesses; Seymour, Women, Family and Child Care; and Liddle and Joshi, Daughters.

46 In Central and North India one finds historically a strong concern with female chastity, which continues to inform parents’ socialization of daughters. See for example, Malhotra, Gender, Caste and Religious Identities; and Sarkar, Hindu Wife, for perspectives on the contradicting ideologies under colonialism of keeping high caste daughters chaste and making them into modern mothers. See also Jacobsen and Wadley, Women in India, for portrayals of women in rural areas; and Donner, Domestic Goddesses, for an analysis of how educated, high caste, middle-class parents deal with these dilemmas in contemporary Kolkata. See Dewey, Making Miss India, pp. 103–106, for an account of how the ideology of women's seclusion has been transformed into a discourse of protection by the Miss India organizers.

47 The second wave of the Indian Women's Movement came with full force in the late 1970s and affected middle-class gender ideologies in many ways. See for example, Sen, I. (2004), ‘Women's Politics in India’, in Chauduri, M. (ed.) Feminism in India, New Delhi, Kali for Women, pp. 187211Google Scholar; Sen, S. ‘Towards a Feminist Politics? The Indian Women's Movement in Historical Perspective’, in Kapadia, The Violence of Development, pp. 459–525.

48 See footnote 40.

49 See for example, Liddle and Joshi, Daughters; Chatterjee, The Nationalist Resolution, pp. 233–253.

50 Indira Gandhi is well known for not seeing herself as a feminist, which came out in her statement: ‘I do not regard myself as a woman. I am a person with a job to do’. The Asian Student, 23 November 1974, quoted in Sen, ‘Towards a Feminist Politics?’, p. 514.

51 See footnote 47.

52 Derné, Globalization, pp. 58–80, 162–172.

53 In his analysis, Derné looks mainly at local, lower middle-class men, and finds that within this group, ‘a second language of individualism seems to be strengthening, although collectivism remains salient. Derné, Globalization, p. 170. The urban, educated, upper middle-class that Lata and her husband belong to, has moved much further towards an individualist outlook than this non-elite group.

54 Derné, Globalization, pp. 74–78.

55 See for example Derné, Globalization, p. 65; Mazumdar, Women Workers, p. 35; and Banerjee, ‘Between the Devil’, p. 58.

56 It is important to remember here, that Lata started out as a model a couple of years after the twin victories in 1994 of the two Miss Indias, Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai as Miss Universe and Miss World. Furthermore, that when she started her own fashion business in 2000, Miss India Diana Hayden had won the Miss World contest three years before in 1997. See Dewey, Making Miss India, p. 20.

57 For a good discussion of different models for categorizing people in the United States as middle class, upper class, professional managerial class etc., see Ortner, S. (2003), New Jersey Dreaming: Capital, Culture, and the Class of '58, Durham and London, Duke University Press, pp. 269274CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In the case of Lata and her husband, one could argue that the old Marxist term ‘capitalist class’ would be most suitable, since they both own their own businesses and extract a profit from the work of their employees. Whatever term one chooses, my point is that Lata and her husband have more money and more power in terms of being employers of other people, than did Lata's parents and grandparents had.

58 Derné, Globalization, pp. 58–80, 162–172.

59 Bjerrum Nielsen and Rudberg, ‘Hello Fatty’, pp. 85–114.

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