Race, Caste, and Christian Cosmopolitanism: Pandita Ramabai and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of the Late 19th Century

Friday, January 4, 2019: 3:30 PM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Jana Tschurenev, IGK Work and Human Life Cycle in Global History (re:work)
In 1887, at the invitation of Frances Willard (1839-1898), the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) received a remarkable attendee from abroad at their annual convention in Nashville, Tennessee. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), a renowned social reformer and feminist from Maharashtra, India, commended the WCTU for “[t]he overall beauty and excellent management” of its convention, which “would have made even the British Parliament and the United States Congress envious” (Kosambi, 200-201). For her part, Ramabai also left a lasting impression on the American women; they responded enthusiastically to her fundraising call, financing formation of the Ramabai Association. For several decades, this organization and its successor sponsored Ramabai’s projects in Maharashtra for the education and social betterment of high caste Hindu widows. Concurrently, Ramabai remained within the global WCTU network, serving as life-time vice-president of its India branch. In my paper, I consider the social politics of Christian women’s temperance in a trans-regional and intersectional frame. First, I analyze Ramabai’s cooperation with her American temperance counterparts. I then contrast the politics that Ramabai contended with; those of race and ‘imperial feminism’, in her interactions with the WCTU, and those of India’s caste system. Second, I locate Ramabai’s social reform projects in Bombay and Poona within her local contexts of feminism, caste, and emergent Hindu nationalism. Her approach towards ‘low caste’ women, I argue, corresponded closely to the maternalism that characterised imperial feminism at the time. This dynamic of authority becomes particularly apparent when juxtaposing Ramabai’s feminism with the contemporary temperance activities of the anti-caste movement. In this way, my paper illuminates the complex trans-regional and local intersecting politics of race, caste, and women’s temperance activism observable in India and globally during the late 19th century.
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