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Women– conformists and rebels

It gave me a lot of pleasure to write this piece. I think my mother in law is fascinating. She stayed with me for six months recently and it was a learning experience. She, like many of her generation, inhabits her identity so firmly and easily, without much angst or internal conflict. She does Varalakshmi puja, cuts fruit every morning, observes all kinds of Hindu rituals and calls herself a “housewife.” But she is so much more. Either she compartmentalizes really well, or she sees no contradiction between doing ‘womanly chores’ as she calls it and being a feminist. Maybe compartmentalizing is the secret to success– got to think about that.

I usually don’t show pieces to my husband but I showed this one before publication. He told me that my first draft was too hagiographic (it was). So I added all the other feminist woman names. My original last line, which I really liked went like this: Next year, she will be 80. She lives a quiet life in Thiruvananthapuram: still singing, writing, and feeding family. Her son, Narayan, is to paraphrase Mint columnist, Natasha Badhwar, my daughter’s father.”
My husband didn’t want his name in the piece. He said that the point of the piece was not the personal connection but the fact that some women of the previous generation were achievers without the “encouragement” that the NYT piece describes. So I toned down the piece in general and took out that last line.
Then came the search for photos within our boxes. I have included the three contenders here.

A conformist and a rebel
A phenomenal achiever who became the ‘first woman chief secretary of Kerala state’ in 1991
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Fri, Oct 11 2013. 04 44 PM IST
Padma Ramachandran was the first woman chief secretary of Kerala. Photo courtesy: Shoba Narayan
Updated: Sat, Oct 12 2013. 12 28 AM IST
At the time of Partition, in Rawalpindi, lived a family of five sisters and one brother. The youngest, Padma—“how my parents wished I had been born a boy”—had received a Briar Cliff scholarship to study in New York, US.
But her father refused to send her. It was enough, he said, that she had been allowed to study beyond high school, unlike her sisters. Young Padma studied, not in New York, but at Presidency College, Chennai, where she is still remembered by her generation as being an excellent debater. When she returned home after university, her brother, Mani, who was an IAS officer, dared her to pass the IAS. Everyone knew it was hard. There were very few women in the IAS at that time: Anna George being the first. Padma had no role models—not in governance, and certainly not within her vast joint family. She took the IAS exam, and to her family’s utter surprise, passed it. At the training academy—Metcalfe House in Delhi—Padma learned to ride a horse with the boys and shoot a rifle. Parallely, she submitted to an arranged marriage to a fellow IAS officer, and began her career in Kerala, overseeing tens of thousands of people at age 29, as collector of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram). She travelled the world, Mexico to Denmark, the US and the Far East, working on women’s issues for the UN, always clad in a sari, and traditional nose-rings. Had you run into her at an airport, you would have dismissed Padma as a typical south Indian housewife. If you met her today, you would think that she is a traditional Indian aunty: feeding people, singing bhajans and keeping in touch with nieces and nephews. The weird thing is that she is—traditional, that is. Padma, like most Indian women, is both a conformist and a rebel. She is also a phenomenal achiever who became the “first woman chief secretary of Kerala state” in 1991. How did this happen?
Recently, there have been a slew of articles questioning why women are so under-represented in a variety of sectors, including science. The reason given is usually lack of confidence. In a recent piece in The New York Times, the writer suggested that the reason many girls didn’t pursue the sciences is because they were not encouraged. They were told that they were not good enough. This is something that Indian women have heard all their life; and yet, some of them (like wine grown under harsh conditions) age beautifully. Telling them that they cannot do something only dares them to.

This is certainly true of the previous generation. Besides bold-faced names like poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu and cultural activist Pupul Jayakar, there are scores of achievers such as feminist writer Devaki Jain; sociologist Zarina Bhatty; writer and academic Nabaneeta Dev Sen; Vina Mazumdar, a pioneer of women’s studies in India; educationist Mary Roy; theatreperson Vijaya Mehta; scholar Kapila Vatsyayan; schoolteacher Sushil Narulla; and feminist scholar Jasodhara Bagchi. What makes these women who faced conditions harsher than those that we do today, thrive in the workplace?
What made them confident when their whole world belittled them in ways large and small? What gave them grit and resilience?

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing, it would be to figure out how to help girls develop a thick skin. I used to think this was about resilience and inner strength, but it is not merely that. It is about perception and how you receive messages. It is about learning to deflect and do what psychologists call “reframing”. When a well-meaning physics teacher asks: “Are you sure you can do this?”, the average boy would receive the message quite differently than the average girl. When a father says: “Be careful how you approach that problem”, the girl will more likely back off from the problem instead of tackling it head-on. When the concerned boss says: “I have no problem with you taking on that assignment”, the average woman will hear the doubt in his voice and turn it down based on this perception. These are signals and women—for better or worse, in this instance—are more tuned to hearing signals, both stated and unstated. Women are also more likely to concede to the negativity implied in the signals, even if they were not intended. Men, bless them, won’t have a clue.

So the first thing is to make everyone aware of this “unconscious bias” in their signalling. In a famous experiment, two identical CVs were sent to university professors. One CV belonged to a fictional “John”, and the other (identical) one belonged to a fictional “Jennifer”. John got more job offers and a higher starting pay. Just based on a male name. Jennifer was more “likeable”. It wasn’t just the men who succumbed to this bias. Women bosses offered John a higher pay too. So don’t tell me you are a feminist as if that makes it all okay. No matter how concerned a father you may be; no matter if you are a feminist—man or woman; no matter how evolved you think you are, the way we all react to girls is fundamentally different from the way we react to boys.

Teachers are key in this process. They need to be aware of how they treat their girl students with respect to their boy students. They may think that they are treating every one equally without even being aware of the tilt towards boys; without being aware of their unconscious biases. The only way for girls to deal with this bias is to not “give a damn”, as it were. Be less sensitive. View put-downs as pick-ups. And realize that women have walked this path before. That young woman, Padma, for instance: After a stellar career in government, she became vice-chancellor of MS University in Vadodara. Her last name is Ramachandran. Next year, she will be 80. She lives a quiet life in Thiruvananthapuram: still singing, writing, and feeding family.

photo 2

Padma Ramachandran is Shoba Narayan’s mother-in-law.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns


  1. This post made me feel as though I was in a wierd time capsule somewhere.

    First, clear salutations to your M-I-L for her achievements and for raising, by all accounts, wonderful children.

    I thought the Eileen Pollack article talked more about lack of encouragement – her principal who stopped her from taking calculus classes, her undergraduate professors who didn’t suggest graduate school, her colleagues who didn’t like her dress sense.

    But, all that was then! That was a time when most of the teachers and administrators were men, the heads of departments (science and math departments in particular) were men, and people in industry were men.

    Today just about every college and university (in the US and quite a bit elsewhere too) has women professors and womens groups and whatever else. The Internet has opened the channels of knowledge and communication and there is no longer a barrier to information.

    Most high schools these days have gender balanced faculty and their deans (and guidance counselors) are women, nearly half the Ivy league has women presidents, and tons more by way of principals and teachers are women. Many of my own teachers in school (India) and college and B-school (Penn, woman president!) were women.

    Now when I reflect back, I think I see that it was your own experiences, Shoba, prompted you to write this article. Your initial foray to the USA, your Memphis experience, your return and wedding … all punctuated by lack of support and encouragement. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like, but I can and do sympathize. It takes a lot of guts to move forward from there.

    But the world has moved, changed. There is a lot more support for women than in the 70s and 80s. (That was thirty years ago!) Today is not a time for articles about Marie Curie’s suffering, rather it is a time to build on what has since happened and go forward. I think a woman should just reach out .. and there are other women who will gladly help her reach for the stars.


    1. Agreed, Naina. But the two points Ms. Pollack makes are that women drop out due to lack of encouragement even now, and that they drop out because they don’t find people like them in all echelons– feel isolated. The article bothered me a lot, even though it was beautifully written. So how do I respond? One is to combat her views which is hard. The other is to say what you have said (which I am going to say). The third is to say that women thrive without encouragement and have done so for years. Statistically small percentage, I agree, but…. hence the personal touch, cos I couldn’t have proven it through statistics.


    2. Naina I agree with your analysis but I did not like the Pollack article.
      It appears Pollack is quoting her own experience (from many years ago) and the anecdotal experiences of contemporary women in science, but I am truly surprised that for a professor (woman professor) of her stature she has offered very little by way of solutions. What a downer to write a 10 page article in NYT about women who still feel isolated.
      I had hoped she would write about college women science clubs and invited women scientist speakers and women holding key positions in scientific and industrial research organizations but there is very little (if not nothing) of this in her article. What a waste.
      Other things I’d point out are that (a) not all women will choose a career in math or science and (b) math or science is not necessarily a career for all women. The numbers in the NYT article suggest a significant improvement in women in math and science and maybe that number also represents the extent of women’s interest in these fields. Nothing wrong with either by the way.

      Shoba the biggest punch back to Pollack is that women don’t need bellyache or yet another “story about their plight”, but they need stories of encouragement and hope and support. Contemporary stories – not stories from 100 or 30 years ago about women in nightgowns, isolated and depressed and squeezing radium out of pitchblende.

      And in that spirit, Shoba here is my question to you. Your articles lately have been mostly about home and home-people. Anything new on the horizon? A trip to Singapore or Dubai or USA, perhaps?


      1. Vinay. My husband had exactly your take. Exactly!! He didn’t like Ms. Pollack’s article either. My original idea was to offer a point-by-point counter view on her take. He suggested that I “make it positive.” Talk about women who don’t need the encouragement and still go on. Ergo my MIL. Went to Singapore. All my friends can talk about is how expensive everything is. Nowhere abroad. Will think. Must go!!


    3. Naina and Vinay … I am very glad to see your posts (and Shoba’s responses) and I share your views. I feels nice and warm to have proper discourse and debate … makes this blog feel like a NYC coffee house with Shoba as the barista (Shobarista!).

      Vinay I really liked your last part about traveling and writing something new, and Shoba I hope you do that soon!


    4. Naina and Vinay I agree. Here’s my two – literally two – cents.

      First of all I don’t see a conflict or contradiction in being a “housewife” AND being a feminist. Where did we, as a society, get the idea that “feminist” somehow means anti-home or pro-something else? I think modern feminism really has embraced the concept that women are truly equal to do whatever they want and whatever is within their capacity to achieve. If that means going to a day job as a banker (or IAS officer / collector) AND making rasam at home for dinner – then so be it. That’s their choice and its their freedom to do so. What I admire about Ms Ramachandran (after I looked her up) is that she is a “minimum fuss” sort of lady who quietly worked for various feminist (as it turns out) causes but never made a big splash of it. I read a piece about the grain scarcity of 1966 when agitating students surrounded her office and threw stones at her … and yet she stood firm and let law and order take its course. Strong strong woman. Also, while her brother dared her to pass IAS, its clear her family did not stand in her way. OK I’m not sure how educated everyone was, but they did not lock away her books or force incessant time-waste home chores on her during her study time.

      Second, I think we should focus on elevating the middle. I mean in each group there are A, B, C players. The A players are superstars – self-driven, obstacle blasting achievers (like Ms Ramachandran). The fact that they did not get encouragement (or anything else) did not stand in the way of success for them. But the B players, of which there are some 300-400 million in India (and 50% of that being women) are the ones who do need care and encouragement to lift up and move forward. Even some of the A players (e.g. geniuses in bone crushing poverty who end up illiterate and eventually unsung) need encouragement. So with a H/T to Vinay I agree that Shoba and Ms Ramachandran, and indeed all of us, should do whatever we can to encourage those who need it. I actually strongly resonate with Vinay that Ms Pollack could, and indeed should, have written a more positive article.

      NS I agree with you by way of future work for our host! Shobarista (nice name!) if you are accepting requests, perhaps you can persuade Ms Ramachandran to give a more detailed account of the 1966 riots in Kerala and how, as a woman, she overcame them?


    5. Naina I agree with your view mostly but not entirely. Your article is applicable to young/er women who want to choose a proper profile career like Padma-ji or like you in banking etc.

      But there is no real support whatsoever for people like me (and Shoba when she first arrived, post-marriage, to the USA as a dependent to husband). OK there is a lot of encouragement in the Journalism programs, lots of “supportive talk” by way of supportive women professors, deans and fellow women students. Even so, the support is somehow limited to emotional and psychological support. It’s not tangible, real support to get a job and launch a career.

      OK from a “capitalist” point of view one can say you got the degree and the emotional support so what’s the problem, get a job. That is easy to say for MBA grads who, regardless of ethnicity and purely on the strength of their numeric skills, get their break. But to get a job as a professional journalist or reporter, for a newly arrived South Asian woman, is next to impossible. (Even Shoba wrote about this – her “rejection letters” episode.)

      Taking Vinay’s hint – let’s be positive. What can be done? I guess nowadays there are SAJA and other organizations that can help women develop themselves and gain skills applicable to that profession. This needs to be extended and publicized more so that more women can take advantage of it.


  2. It was great to read about someone so accomplished professionally from that generation. It also goes to say that there were a few families highly progressive and supportive of women empowerment in those days – because the life which Mrs. Padma led could not have been achieved by a woman without family blessings.Thank you Shobha for sharing her story.

    I believe there could have been several Padmas in our country if similar support for women was available in earlier generations. My own mom, mother to three well-accomplished daughters, and in her late 60s, regrets to date that she could not study much and work and be independent…yet she did come from a progressive family with her father being a global traveller in his times and exposed to international family-best practices (if I can extend the business jargon!), and still ended up getting married into a large joint-family before she turned 18.

    But the future can be changed and this is where we should make a difference – ensuring empowerment of women and making them self-sufficient and independent. A lot of social issues can also be mitigated this way…


  3. Interesting! But why do you think teachers are the key? ‘Genderizing’ conversations are happening all the time at home even today. I am not sure about ‘men..won’t have a clue’ either. I would think there are clued in men too.

    It is really admirable that Padma, with her remarkable blend of tradition and modernity, was unimaginably ahead of her times, but yet I am not sure how much of it was due to ‘thick skin’ and how much of it was her own innate ability. When I was watching Malala being interviewed on You tube, I could not help thinking that her background was in some superficial ways similar (reading Twilight saga, listening to Justin Bieber etc) to urban young people elsewhere in the sub-continent, yet her courage, self-possession and clarity of expression was uniquely hers. Perhaps ‘thick skin’ is important only for average mortals like us? 🙂

    Moving away from this a little, my nephew (twenties) when we argue about these issues, points out that it is also hard to be a male because society expects a certain level of achievement and accomplishment from men and it is a lot of pressure to keep up with that!


    1. Usha: good point about clued-in men. But the context of that statement was about self-doubt/confidence. I think men don’t second guess– as much as women do. Again, this is a generalisation. But that’s my view. We doubt and self-deprecate to be likeable. Tell your nephew to keep it going 🙂


  4. Saluting women of that generation , who were indeed quiet achieves against severe odds .They were truly an inspiration for the younger generation ,which spurred us on to reach for higher goals.
    A wonderful inspiring read.


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