Item #17988 Archive of 60 Letters Between Young Indian Women Regarding Their Education and Professionalism Against Social Norms of 1930's, Over 190 Handwritten Pages, Archive Indian Girl Education.
Archive of 60 Letters Between Young Indian Women Regarding Their Education and Professionalism Against Social Norms of 1930's, Over 190 Handwritten Pages,
Archive of 60 Letters Between Young Indian Women Regarding Their Education and Professionalism Against Social Norms of 1930's, Over 190 Handwritten Pages,

Archive of 60 Letters Between Young Indian Women Regarding Their Education and Professionalism Against Social Norms of 1930's, Over 190 Handwritten Pages,

Indian Girl Education, Archive


An archive of correspondence of the first generation of educated women in India. 60 letters totaling 190 handwritten pages from between 1930 and 1943 in British colonial India by young women native to the Indian subcontinent. In 1931, Indian female literacy hovered under 3% making this group of girls exceptionally rare. Four of the letters are romantic letters written between two young women. The letters, written in English, are between Ruth E. Bergevin and Avarani, shortened to "Rani". Ruth was either an American missionary living and teaching in India, or a native Indian woman like Rani. We found one record of a "Ruth E. Bergevin" who was an American missionary in India during the time of correspondence. Dehra Dun is often called the “school capital of India” and the Girls’ High School is one of the oldest hubs of female education in the nation. Both women express a painful desperation to cross the physical distance between them, reminding one another of past moments spent alone together, private references rich with subtext despite carefully omitted details. Other letters revolve around Queen Victoria High School, a girls boarding school in the city of Agra in the Indian state Uttar Predesh. Its authors are mainly students but include graduates who have gone on to pursue higher education and careers as well as family members and teachers writing to the girls. This archive records the interactions between a group of highly educated women actively building community beyond the traditional domestic sphere their peers were still relegated to. Archive includes silver gelatin photo of one of the girls in graduation cap and gown measuring 5.5 x 8 inches.

The letters show young women creating their own burgeoning culture of education and professionalism. Those who graduated write back to former classmates, at once nostalgic and inspirational, showing a path beyond graduation. Students still studying at the school write back, catching alumni up on the latest happenings.“I feel very very homesick for Q.V. I am so glad that you understand this, people here don’t seem to understand it. O how many times in the day I long to be back at Q.V [Queen Victoria High School]... I shall never forget those happy years.” For these female students who went against social norms by pursuing education, close community with like minded peers was especially meaningful. “I sleep where I used to, and Mercy’s desk is next to mine and sometimes we hardly can control our mirth…I cannot tell how much you both are missed," one girl writes to an alumni. "My dear Ninethies soon to be tenthies, How are all of you? I hope hale and hearty in spite of the heat...Do any of you want a ducking in the lake? The water was quite cool and pleasant when I touched it."

The students put enormous pressure on themselves in their studies as academic success was the path toward an independent future. "I am enjoying my work and also doing it most faithfully as I am an uncertified junior and can be dismissed at any time. Probha dear I am again hoping to appear form my psychology exam this year. Please pray for me to get through as so much depends on it. I am trying very hard though tI get very little time. I shall never fully get over this blow. In the beginning it shook my faith in God... This year of service will not be counted and if I pass than after two years I will be made permanent. This is a very bitter experience in my life. You know how very sensitive I am." They trade detailed advice toward each other's success, "Don't get 'ghabraod' [panicked] when you get your paper. Keep steady. Read the whole paper twice or thrice so that you understand every question. Divide up your time. Write first those you know best only leave room in the paper for the others or mark them well so the examiner can see the numbers."

Female education was a heavily fraught issue at the intersection of colonial and patriarchal rule. "You can imagine what a task it is; and I take Hindi, in which I am not very used to writing things, although I wrote two letters in Hindi." Schooling for girls was often treated as a method for improving the minds, morals and habits of future mothers, a precursor to married life and its requisite domestic responsibilities. It was feared by Hindu nationalists for awakening independent desires outside the patriarchal home. In Indian society at the time, a woman's objective from early childhood was marriage. For a woman to choose anything other than matrimony would have been radical. "Ivie and I have decided never to get married. I'm not going to tell you the reasons for this decision until you are safely married!" Colonialism, on the other hand, relied heavily on education for building a population that would submit to and uphold British rule. "It's great fun coming back here as a teacher but even more as a senior teacher because here as you may remember they make a lot of difference between senior, junior teachers." What neither system could control were the ways in which girls would make educational opportunities all their own, creating communities that supported healthy competition and camaraderie to propel students beyond graduation into higher education and professional life. "Miss Paul who is our dining room prefect is very keen about the tables being clean and she gives marks to every table at the end of the week, the table which has the most marks gets a vase of flowers. You'll be glad to know that since this has started my table has got the vase and as yet it had not been taken from us. My table girls are very keen about keeping the table clean."

Under British colonial rule, homosexuality was criminalized in 1861 under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code outlawing sexual activities "against the order of nature" and making homosexual activity punishable by up to ten years in prison. Ruth Bergevin was a teacher at a Presbyterian mission school for girls in Dehra Dun, India, and Rani a teacher training in Lahore, Pakistan, 234 miles and a crowded train ride apart. Three of four of the letters show the deep passion that Ruth feels towards Rani “I love you truly truly! God bless you—every minute I’ll be looking at the moon tonight too!” These women spent years apart seeming to have only visited each other once a month or less creating a certain longing we see in these emotionally raw letters. Ruth writes “When do I get to see you next?” In a 1935 letter addressed from Rani to Ruth “Beloved my Ruth, Another Friday with its crowded memories and another 15th. A month since I saw you at home for the last time—and a month since I saw mummy. It must have been a long month for her, when it has felt almost endless to me in spite of having seen you twice.” She expresses a deep struggle to keep her sanity amidst scholastic studies and the difficulties of hidden identity in Lahore, “I need you so badly—need you to keep me natural for I find myself growing dreadfully artificial…” She shows her vulnerabilities to Ruth in this deeply personal letter “…I feel so disgusted of myself—specially when I realize how unworthy of you I am being…Beloved if you were here you could keep me steady and more truthful.” She leaves the letter unsigned, perhaps not even having sent this letter to Ruth because of the pain and insecurity she felt writing this. Though it seems it isn't the first time Rani has expressed her deep thoughts to Ruth as Ruth writes “Yes Rani – my best beloved, I shall always be near you and through every experience. Thank you for being you.”

The concept of bhadramahila added pressure to Indian girls who were expected to excel academically while maintaining conservative feminine ideals against Western influence. A memsahib was an Englishwoman who followed western norms of living, eating, drinking and keeping company with men, all forbidden by traditional Indian culture. One young girl writes "Corrie Singha told me when he was here that I could never hope to play outdoor games well until I could run faster, and I could never run faster until my legs were stronger. I read in a magazine that legs become strong when rubbed every night with mustard oil, so I have that done now; Don't be surprised if by next year you find my name among the great Indian sports-women." An educated Indian woman was doubly curbed by colonialism and patriarchy, expected to receive a Western education while preserving her own often restrictive cultural norms. These letters suggest the freedom experienced by female students was not so easily contained. "As I approached the end of the passage I saw coming towards me a girl with broad pleasant grin on her face, she had an altogether friendly look-and as to her clothes, I never saw anything that looked more like as if I had seen it before. She seemed wondering Iike I was whether she ought to say 'Hellow' to me-I thought I'd make the effort-but what do you think-I was walking into a mirror-the other girl was so sweet!"

Their descriptions of life at school are loving and full of warmth for the experience as well as their classmates. In one letter a girl describes a typical night in the dormitory, "Some girls are sitting in the hall studying under the fans while others are in the common room sleeping or reading and I am alone in my room scribbling a few lines to waste your time as usual.” The girls trade exam grades like gossip and bolster one another's performances, too, as each individual contributed to the success of the whole. "Well how did you like your exams, I hope all of you did well and will be my class girls next term."

When the British Parliament gave the East India Company a large grant in 1813 to promote education, English teachers flooded India. By 1848 the first schools for girls were being established, however eighty years later women's education was still minimal. Some European and American women turned India's female education into an opportunity for their own increased independence. "We have two new people on the staff. Miss Thomas from college in Madras...Then there is Dr (Miss) Tucker. An American refugee...Miss Thomas is sweet, simple, quiet, pleasant and easily shocked. Dr. Tucker is learned, charming, old but so stern-she has been teaching in a boys school and treats as little boys in class." With open positions as teachers in foreign countries, they were enabled to travel, live alone and pursue careers, and in doing so they leveraged their way into the public sphere, founding associations like the Ladies' Society for Native Female Education in Calcutta, run entirely by women. "No of course I don't mind your saying you'd pay my fare, etc. Why should I mind. If I did come I think I'd ask for a loan from you till the time I started working and by that time of course I'd have conveniently forgotten! Once I get independent, I'll make it a point to visit you once a year at least."

Some female students, upon receiving their diplomas, were inspired to continue their own education rather than immediately pursuing marriage and domestic life. While many of the letter writers seem to have gone on to college and teaching jobs, others did return home to marry. “Next time I write to you I’ll be in college," one wistful letter reads. "I also wish you were going back too.” The intimacy between students and teachers speaks movingly to their shared first generation experience. “Thank you very much for sending us the box, but even more for your sweet letter-which I was able to read without much effort. That is a complement to either you or myself, but in spite of that I have already read it five times,” writes one student to a former teacher. “Last Thursday Miss Sterling took all the staff to see the Taj by moonlight," one new teacher writes to her mother. "We went after an early dinner and stayed there a couple of hours, so my first glimpse of the Taj after all these years was by moonlight!”

These letters capture both the exhilaration and the difficulty of forging new paths. “Now I think I feel quite at home here but still at times I get into a funny fit and wish to run away. But just a few days are left for us to go home and so I am looking forward to that opportunity…We have moonlight nights and everything else is lacking.” Another writes, “In the beginning everything is so new and strange and I know so little of the previous work that each class has done, that it takes me very long to prepare.” Still another expresses the same sentiment of determination in struggle, “I have been here a month now. But it seems so much longer...I do so want to make a success of this my first job.”

This archive is a heartwarming blend of personal news with the academic scorekeeping of students swapping exam grades, award announcements, commiserating over disappointments and congratulating each other's successes. A graduation day speech included reads “As this day draws to a close it brings to an end a certain epoch in your lives. A day like this is like a bridge or a mountain peak. As you stand on it we can’t help looking backward as well as forward.”

The indelible social as well as educational experiences for this rare group of women, detailed in the archive, no doubt played its part in the sweeping social change of their time.

Item #17988

Price: $2,900.00