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Reimagining Asia: Indian and Australian women crossing borders


The decades from the 1940s to the 1960s were ones of increasing contacts between women of India and Australia. These were not built on a shared British colonial history, but on commitments to visions circulating globally of equality between races, sexes, and classes. Kapila Khandvala from Bombay and Lucy Woodcock from Sydney were two women who met during such campaigns. Interacting roughly on an equal footing, they were aware of each other's activism in the Second World War and the emerging Cold War. Khandvala and Woodcock both made major contributions to the women's movements of their countries, yet have been largely forgotten in recent histories, as have links between their countries. We analyse their interactions, views, and practices on issues to which they devoted their lives: women's rights, progressive education, and peace. Their beliefs and practices on each were shaped by their respective local contexts, although they shared ideologies that were circulating internationally. These kept them in contact over many years, during which Kapila built networks that brought Australians into the sphere of Indian women's awareness, while Lucy, in addition to her continuing contacts with Kapila, travelled to China and consolidated links between Australian and Chinese women in Sydney. Their activist world was centred not in Western Europe, but in a new Asia that linked Australia and India. Our comparative study of the work and interactions of these two activist women offers strategies for working on global histories, where collaborative research and analysis is conducted in both colonizing and colonized countries.

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We are grateful for the research assistance of Helen Randerson in Australia and Ajinkya Lele (Mumbai), Rindon Kundu (Kolkata), Subarta Singh, and Unnayan Kumar (both in Delhi) in India.

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1 Some European and settler women working in India had become more attentive to Indian women's concerns, as Margaret Allen demonstrated in her 2011 article about Eleanor Rivett. These women were, however, few in number. Margaret Allen, 2011: ‘Eleanor Rivett (1883–1972): Educationalist, Missionary and Internationalist’ in Fiona Davis, Nell Musgrove, and Judith Smart (eds), Women Leaders in Twentieth Century Australia, eScholarship Research Centre, University of Melbourne, pp. 45–63.

2 We have investigated the major impact of theosophy in conjunction with feminism and the emerging education movements of the early twentieth century in Goodall, Heather and Ghosh, Devleena, 2015: ‘Beyond the “Poison of Prejudice”: Indian and Australian Women Talk about the White Australia Policy’, History Australia, Vol. 12, No. 1, April: 116140.

3 The early names varied—women organizing for peace in Australia in 1915, for example, called themselves The Sisterhood of International Peace until 1919, when they adopted the more internationally recognized title, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

4 Confortini, Catia, 2012: Intelligent Compassion: Feminist Critical Methodology in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 5683.

5 Paisley, Fiona, 2009: Glamour in the Pacific: Cultural Internationalism and Race Politics in the Women's Pan-Pacific, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

6 Forbes, Geraldine, 1988: ‘The Politics of Respectability: Indian Women and the National Congress’ in Low, D. A. (ed.), The Indian National Congress: Centenary Highlights, Bombay: Oxford University Press, pp. 5497.

7 Jayawardina, Kumari, 1986: Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, London: Zed Books.

8 Confortini, Intelligent Compassion.

9 de Haan, Francisca, 2010: ‘Continuing Cold War Paradigms in Western Historiography of Transnational Women's Organisations: The Case of the Women's International Democratic Federation (WIDF)’, Women's History Review, Vol. 19, No. 4: 547573.

10 Chakravartty, Renu, 1980: Communists in Indian Women's Movement, 1940–1950, New Delhi: People's Publishing House; Chakravartty, Gargi and Chotani, Supriya, 2014: Charting a New Path: Early Years of National Federation of Indian Women, New Delhi: People's Publishing House; Sarla Sharma, transcript of interview, Old Delhi, 18 January 2014.

11 Including Rameshwari Nehru, interview with Sarla Sharma, Delhi, 18 January 2014; de Haan, ‘Continuing Cold War Paradigms’.

12 Betty Riley papers, N188, Noel Butlin Archive of Business and Labour (NBABL), Australian National University (ANU).

13 Winifred Mitchell, circa 1980: 50 Years of Feminist Achievement: A History of the United Associations of Women, Sydney: United Associations of Women, pp. 95–96.

14 Joyce Stevens, 1985: A History of International Women's Day, online: (accessed 24 October 2018); in India, many references in all NFIW literature, for example, Women's News, April 1954, 1:7, p. 2 and NFIW, Report of First Congress, June 1954, p. 7. All NFIW documents held in private holdings, now digitized by this project and available on application to the Research Centre for Women's Studies, SNDT University, Mumbai.

15 Zora Simic, 2007: ‘Butter Not Bombs: A Short History of the Union of Australian Women’, History Australia, Vol. 4, No. 1: 7.1–7.15.

16 NFIW Congress Reports and newsletters, 1954 to present, held in NFIW offices.

17 Simic, ‘Butter Not Bullets’; Union of Australian Women (UAW) Annual Conference Reports and Newsletters, throughout, NBABL.

18 Simic, ‘Butter Not Bombs’, discusses the ‘peaceful mother’ trope throughout.

19 Some examples from many: Booklet, WIDF 1952: ‘For Their Rights as Mothers, Workers, Citizens’, Berlin; Booklet, WIDF, May 1954: ‘I Want To Live: Ban Atomic Weapons’, with image of child on cover; WIDF, 1958: ‘Protection of Motherhood, as a Right of Women and a Responsibility of Society’, Berlin; much literature discusses ‘maternalism’ in women's politics, including recently van der Klein, Marian, Plant, R. J., Sanders, N., and Weintrob, L. R. (eds), 2012: Maternalism Reconsidered: Motherhood, Welfare and Social Policy in the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

20 First coined by Spivak, Gayatri, 1987: In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, York: Methuen.

21 Their mutual friend, Jessie Street, left an archive of letters and diaries, MS 2683, held in the National Library of Australia (NLA), which show Kapila and Lucy to have been in mail communication. Lucy left no papers.

22 Autobiographical notes, Kapila Khandvala, in Jessie Street Papers, MS 2683/3/1211–1212, NLA; Interview notes, Jyotibhen Trivedi, 21 January 2015, Santa Cruz, Mumbai.

23 UAW, News Sheet, October 1955, State Library of NSW (SLNSW).

24 Bruce Mitchell, 1990: ‘Woodcock, Lucy Godiva (1889–1968)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, online: (accessed 24 October 2018); Mitchell, Bruce, 1975: Teachers, Education and Politics: A History of the Organisations of Public School Teachers in New South Wales, University of Queensland Press: St Lucia.

25 Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 1 January 1942, p. 6.

26 Sam Lewis, 1953: Testimonial Event on the Retirement of Lucy Woodcock, Teachers Federation, UAW files, Series Z236, Box 32, Folder 4, NBABL.

27 Bruce McFarlane (personal communication, letter, August 2015) arising from his interview with Lucy, late in her life, for his 1966 biography of R. F. Irvine, who had been her Sydney University Economics professor, and became a lifelong friend. Lucy's involvement with Bohemian culture is certainly supported by the photograph of Lucy in the 1920s with her close friend, the Jewish refugee Dr Lotte Fink. Lucy's clothing, her cigarette smoking, and her general demeanour suggest the Bohemian style more than any other—certainly more than that the CPA of the 1940s! (Photograph in Ruth Fink Latukefu family collection.) See Kirkpatrick, Peter, 1992: The Sea Coast of Bohemia: Literary Life in Sydney's Roaring Twenties, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

28 For example, the Australian Convention on Peace and War. Elsie convened its conference in September 1953, at which Lucy was presented with an award ‘for her sterling work on peace’. Press clipping in Australian Security and Intelligence File (ASIO) for Lucy Woodcock, Vol. 1: 120, National Archives of Australia (NAA), newspaper name unclear.

29 For CPI criticism of even committed members living unconventional lives, see Betty Reilly papers, NBABL, N188.

30 Jyotibhen Trivedi Interview notes, January 2015; Lewis, Reba, 1957: Three Faces has Bombay, Bombay: Popular Book Depot, pp. 112–113; Khandvala, Tuljaram Chunilal, 1941: My Life Story: Autobiography of T. C. Khandwala, Bombay: V. S. Sohoni, p. 30 and throughout.

31 Bombay Police Report, Head Office, 12 April 1930, No. 1661/H/3717; Forbes, ‘The Politics of Respectability’.

32 Autobiographical note by Kapila and dated 7 January 1946 in Bombay, and then attached to the draft of Kapila's plenary speech to the Second Australian Women's Charter Conference, August 1946, Jessie Street Papers, MS 2683/3/1211-2, NLA.

33 That is, a marriage chosen by the partners rather than by parental arrangement.

34 Indira Bharadwaj interview, 21 January 2014.

35 Forbes, ‘The Politics of Respectability’; this was a major issue in both Bombay and Calcutta.

36 Dymphna Cusack, ‘Foreword’ to Mitchell, 50 Years of Feminist Achievement, p. iv.

37 Johnson, Penelope, 1986: ‘Gender, Class and Work: The Council of Action for Equal Pay and the Equal Pay Campaign in Australia During World War II’, Labour History, Vol. 50, May: 132146.

38 Bruce Mitchell, 1990: ‘Lucy Godiva Woodcock’, ADB, for her key role in the writing of Justice vs Tradition; Lucy Woodcock, Speech, May 1963, reported in The WA Teacher, Teacher's Federation files, NBABL, N111/2743.

39 Theobald, Majorie and Dwyer, Donna, 1999: ‘An Episode in Feminist Politics: The Married Women (Lecturers and Teachers) Act, 1937–47’, Labour History, Vol. 76: 5977, at 65–66.

40 Holmes, K., 1998: ‘Spinsters Indispensable: Feminists, Single Women and the Critique of Marriage, 1890–1920’, Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 110: 6890; Whitehead, Kay, 2007: ‘The Spinster Teacher in Australia from the 1870s to the 1960s’, History of Education Review, Vol. 36, No. 1: 117.

41 McKinnon, Alison, 2010: Women, Love and Learning: The Double Bind, Bern: Peter Lang; Theobald and Dwyer, ‘An Episode in Feminist Politics’, pp. 59–77.

42 Northern Miner, 4 January 1932, p. 4; Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 20 December 1932, p. 9; Maitland Daily Mercury, 10 January 1933, p. 8; Northern Miner, 21 January 1933, p. 2; Truth, 23 May 1937, p. 18.

43 The Northern Miner, 4 January 1932, p. 4.

44 Theobald and Dwyer, ‘An Episode in Feminist Politics’, p. 66.

45 Lucy Woodcock, 1964: ‘Brave Hearts’, Our Women, May, p. 26.

46 Theobald and Dwyer, ‘An Episode in Feminist Politics’, throughout.

47 Advertiser, 14 January 1949, p. 9; Argus, 14 January 1949, p. 5; Daily Telegraph, 18 December 1952; UAW Nation Conference, ASIO Report 63/178, p. 3, included in ‘Margaret Holmes’, NAA: A6119, 3362, p. 53 of 146.

48 Lucy Woodcock, Response Speech, Testimonial Dinner 1953, UAW files, Series Z236, Box 32, Folder 4, NBABL.

49 United Associations News Sheet, 1955, pp. 3–4.

50 Woodcock, ‘Brave Hearts’, p. 26; see also Lucy Woodcock, 1963: The WA Teacher, May, Teacher's Federation files, NBABL, N111/2743.

51 Woodcock, ‘Brave Hearts’, p. 26.

52 Kapila Khandvala: Report on ‘Women in Professions and Services’, Parts I and II, 1947–48, AIWC, Twentieth Session, 29 December 1947 to 1 January 1948, Madras.

53 Healey, Madelaine, 2103: Indian Sisters: A History of Nursing and the State, 1907–2007, London: Routledge. Her introduction states: ‘The colonial nursing leadership was weakened by its failure to mobilize either Indian or Western nurses and by its adherence to a professionalizing agenda that had relatively little real application in the Indian context’ (see Chapter 2) and then ‘The internationalist, professional orientation of Indian nursing was reinforced by the post-Independence arrival of nursing advisors in India, working for government and non-government development agencies’.

54 Desai, Neera and Thakkar, Usha, 2001: Women in Indian Society, New Delhi: National Trust of India, pp. 117.

55 Banerjee, Nirmala, ‘What Ever Happened to the Dreams of Modernity? The Nehruvian Era and Women's Position’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 17, 25 April–1 May: WS2–WS7.

56 Ibid., pp. 6–7; it has been slowly rediscovered. Dr Kumud Sharma found it in the Uttar Pradesh archives in the early 1980s, passing it on to the Centre for Women's Development Studies in Delhi, after which Leela Kasturi wrote about it in Samya Shakti, the Centre's journal in the early 1990s. Then it was circulated more widely in 1995 by Krishnaraj and, most recently, the text has been analysed by Chaudhuri, pointing out both its continued and striking relevance and its internal contradictions. Maitreyi Krishnaraj, 1995: Remaking Society for Women: Visions from the Past and Present, for Indian Assoc., New Delhi: Women's Studies Conference; Maitrayee Chaudhuri, 1996: ‘An Analysis of the First Plan Document on Women’, first published in Patricia Uberoi (ed.), Social Reform, Sexuality and the State, Sage.

57 Kapila Khandvala, 1948: Dissenting Note, WRPE, published by NPC, New Delhi, p. 234.

58 Canberra Times, 16 August 1946, p. 3. Her speech was aimed directly at the commonly held Australian view was that Indian workers were not assertive; see, for example, The Australian Worker over this period. Tribune, 13 August 1946, p. 8; Resolution 13, Proceedings of 2nd Australian Women's Charter Conference, 4–11 August 1946, p. 30, Australian Women's Charter Committee, Sydney.

59 Khandvala, Report on ‘Women in Professions and Services’, Parts I and II.

60 Ibid., Part II, p. 99.

61 Ibid., p. 99.

62 Ibid., p. 98.

63 Ibid., Part I, p. 83. The focus on professionalization that Khandvala describes here as articulated by the matron, doctors, and Christian churches was similarly described by Madelaine Healey in her discussion of the generalized weakness in colonial nursing leadership and in post-colonial international advisors in her 2013 Indian Sisters.

64 Sarla Sharma, transcript of interview, 18 January 2014, Old Delhi.

65 Hajrah Begum, transcript of interview, conducted by Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) Oral History project, 19 September 1994, held NMML.

66 Healey, Indian Sisters.

67 Campbell, Craig, Sherrington, Geoffrey, and White, Margaret, 2007: ‘Borders and Boundaries in the History of Education’, Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, Vol. 43, No. 1: 16, at 5–6.

68 White, Margaret H., 2007: ‘Traversing Personal and Public Boundaries: Discourses of Engagement in New Education 1930s–1980s’, Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, Vol. 43, No. 1: 151163, at 154, 156157; Brehony, Kevin J., 2006: ‘A New Education for a New Era: The Contribution of the Conferences of the New Education Fellowship to the Disciplinary Field of Education 1921–1938’, Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, Vol. 40, Nos 5&6: 733755, at 751–755.

69 Smith, Henry L., 1944: ‘The World Federation of Education Associations’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 235, September: 107112, at 109. The WFEA, like many educational organizations in the United States of America, became caught up in Cold War polarizations after the Second World War and merged into the ‘World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession’ in 1946.

70 Singleton Argus, 21 July 1939, p. 8; SMH, 23 August 1939, p. 9.

71 R. J. Heffron, Minister for Education, Testimonial, Teachers Federation 1953, NBABL, UAW files, Series Z236, Box 32, Folder 4, NBABL; Obituary, Teachers Federation, 1968; United Associations of Women Newssheet: 1968.

72 Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 3 September 1942, p. 10; Education, 15 July 1938, Report of Conference, p. 705, cited in J. M. O'Brien, 1985: ‘The NSW Teachers Federation, c 1957–1975’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, p. 121; Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), 400511, p. 9.

73 Interview with Beverley Langley, 2016, and article, Pix, 29 November 1947, p. 3.

74 The Newcastle Sun, 16 December 1935, p. 7; Lucy Woodcock, 1938: Education: Journal of the NSW School Teachers’ Association, 19 January, p. 69; cited David McCallum, 1990: The Social Production of Merit: Education, Psychology and Politics in Australia, 1900–1950, London: The Falmer Press, p. 96; Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 3 September 1942, p. 10.

75 Betty Makin, interview, in Susan Mitchell, 1987: The Matriarchs, Ringwood: Penguin Books, p. 48.

76 Betty Makin in ibid., p. 50; North Lismore Star, 9 August 1946, p. 6.

77 Education: The Journal of the NSW Teachers Federation, issues for September (pp. 768, 782–783), October (pp. 798–799, 801–803, 805–808), November (pp. 11–13), and December 1938 (pp. 33, 55).

78 Margaret Henry, 2007: ‘Flowering, Fading and Facing the Facts: World Education Fellowship in Queensland—1970 to 2005’, New Horizons, Vol. 114.

79 Established by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (Begum Rokeya).

80 Banerjee, ‘What Ever Happened?’.

81 NFIW Congress Report 1962, p. 16.

82 Khandvala, Plenary speech, 2nd Women's Charter Conference, NLA Jessie Street Papers, 2683/3/1259–1270, NLA; Kapila Khandvala, 1946: Speech to New Education Fellowship conferences: ‘Education, International Understanding and Peace’, in Rupert J. Best (ed.), 1948: Education for International Understanding: Selected Addresses to the International Education Conference Held in Australia from 31st August to 12th October, 1946, Adelaide: New Education Fellowship, pp. 24–38, 113–116.

83 Jyotibehn Trivedi (born Jyoti Master), interview, 21 January 2015, Santa Cruz, Mumbai. Dr Trivedi later became vice chancellor of the SNDT Women's University and supported the foundation of the Research Centre in Women's Studies (RCWS).

84 Roger and one of Reba and Roger's sons can be seen photographed with Kapila, C. M. Trivedi, Lucy, and Jessie at Santacruz, Bombay, in January 1955. Presumably Reba took the photo. Jessie Street Papers, MS 2683/11, NLA.

85 Lewis, Three Faces, p. 118.

86 Ibid., pp. 110–126.

87 Ibid., pp. 110–126, which can be compared with descriptions of the Children's Library and Club in Erskineville, Sydney.

88 NFIW Congress Report 1962, p. 16.

89 NFIW Congress Report 1965, p. 29; NFIW Congress Report 1967, p. 8.

90 As examples: The Catholic Press [Sydney], 15 July 1920, p. 27; 17 March 1921, p. 13; The Southern Cross [Adelaide], 12 August 1927, p. 11.

91 War Resisters League, 1932: Programme, Militant Pacifism Conference, Saturday 7 May 1932, ‘“The Technique of Gandhi” by Kapila Khandvala, Feminist, Leader of the Indian Youth Movement’, 6–9 May, W10-54-004, p. 6. Swarthmore College Peace Collection, online: (accessed 24 October 2018).

92 The Mercury, 9 January 1936, p. 10.

93 SMH, 8 April 1938, p. 4; Marie Gollan was a left-wing activist from Cessnock, associated with the Miners Union and with the IWD committee in Newcastle.

94 Hebrew Standard of Australasia, 1 January 1942, p. 6; 3 September 1942, p. 10; 5 November 1942, p. 3; 26 November 1942, pp. 6–7.

95 Lucy's statements to the 1948 Australian Teachers’ Federation Conference, remembered by Doris McRae, who attended the conference. Cheryl Griffin, 2005: ‘A Biography of Doris McRae, 1893–1988’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, p. 210; Advocate, 12 May 1949, p. 5.

96 The Biz [Fairfield], 17 January 1952, p. 5; Cessnock Eagle and South Maitland Recorder, 17 November 1953, p. 3.

97 Tribune, 21 December 1954.

98 Tribune, 10 August 1955.

99 McClelland, Jonas R., Fitch, J., and Jonas, W. J. A., 1985: Report, Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing in Australia, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

100 Tribune, 10 August 1955.

101 Married to Scots journalist Alec Reid; Congrés Intenational Des Femmes, 26 November–1 December 1945, p. 60, translated by Helen Randerson.

102 Ibid., p. 138.

103 Later Vidya Munsi, the well-known activist and historian; ibid., p. 332.

104 Best, Education, pp. 113–116; Argus, 13 September 1946, p. 6.

105 2,100 Indian troops dead or missing, with 4,000 captured, compared to 700 Chinese troops killed.

106 NFIW Congress Report 1962, p. 18.

107 Ibid., p. 17.

108 Ibid., pp. 14–19; NFIW Congress Report 1965, pp. 4–5, 25; NFIW Congress Report 1967, pp. 7–8.

109 NFIW Congress Report 1962, p. 16.

110 NFIW Congress Report 1967, p. 8.

111 Ibid.

112 NFIW Congress Report 1965, p. 4.

113 NFIW Congress Report 1967, p. 8.

114 Kapila Khandvala, 1946: ‘Report of the Australian Conferences to AIWC’, 10 December, throughout. Typescript, AIWC Archives, New Delhi, pp. 1–20; Mithan Lam, 1946: Roshni, Special Issue, ‘Impressions of the Women's Charter Conference in Australia’, November, pp. 42–48; see especially p. 44 for the disappointment and surprise felt by Khandvala and Mithan Lam, her fellow Indian delegate to the Australian conference. After describing a series of problems women in Australia face, Lam wrote: ‘These things grieved us greatly, for we were under the impression that women in Australia were very advanced.’

115 This approach to analysis is discussed further in Goodall and Ghosh, ‘Beyond the “Poison of Prejudice”’, pp. 116–140.

116 Cathy Bloch, 13 September 1963, Third National Conference of the UAW, NAA, 63/178; Interview notes: Cathy Crowley, phone interview, 4 October 2013; Jeannie Lewis, interview notes, phone interview, 4 October 2013; Lee Rhiannon, notes from personal communication, 6 October 2013; Cathy Bloch, interview notes, phone interview, and email correspondence, 22 September 2014.

117 Kapila Khandvala to Judah Waten, 1966 to 1972, 6 aerograms with reference to correspondence earlier than 1966 and contacts. NLA MS 4536: 2/957; 2/1312; 2/1445; 2/1624; 2/1833.

118 Kapila Khandvala to Lee Rhiannon and Freda Brown, 1970–1977, letters held in Senator Rhiannon's personal collection.

119 Research visit to Kapila Khandvala College of Education, Mumbai, photographs, archives, August 2015. Lucy Woodcock, obituary, Education, 20 March 1968, p. 36; ‘Vote of Thanks to Lucy Woodcock’, 22 February 1968, United Associations of Women, Newssheet, April–May 1968, p. 1, SLNSW.

We are grateful for the research assistance of Helen Randerson in Australia and Ajinkya Lele (Mumbai), Rindon Kundu (Kolkata), Subarta Singh, and Unnayan Kumar (both in Delhi) in India.

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