Woman is a Rational Animal

A sociologist, historian, and women’s studies pioneer, Neera Desai (1925-2009) has earned her place among the most revered Indian social scientists of the twentieth century. An embodiment of ‘activist scholar,’ Desai devoted her academics and public activities to offering a solution to the “woman question,” or understanding and alleviating the plight of women in society [1].In pursuit of this, Desai published her most famed work Woman in Modern India, cited as one of the first historical anthologies of the status of Indian women, and offered a comprehensive critique of society and rigorous study of women’s place in it.[2] By studying this anthology, it becomes clear that Desai’s understanding of the status of women is deeply embedded within social paradigm and social change, and that the plights faced by women are the progeny of said social paradigm. Thus, not only is deep, rigorous social critique required for uplifting women’s status, but so is action. In this regard, Desai embodied the activist-scholar, and used her role as a scholar to induce large-scale societal change.



Desai was born in 1925 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat to a Brahmin caste family that stressed female education and high culture.[3] She attended the Fellowship School in present day Mumbai throughout her childhood, an institution whose “primary focus was (in the pre-independence era) the instilling of a nationalist consciousness” [4],  and that also had significant influence from British Theosophist activist Annie Besant.[5]

Perhaps from this detail alone we can already gauge why Desai viewed the status of women and social change as deeply coupled, as Desai’s own educational opportunities were a product of the social changes happening in India during the 19th and early 20th centuries. To Desai, the burgeoning British resistance movements had deep correspondences to “Enlightened Indians, who imbibed ideas like equality, progress, liberty, and nationality, and reason as the basis of the thought process.”[6] The social reform movements (SRMs) of the time increasingly viewed education of women as part of a national project to liberate India. In Reading Neera Desai: A Journey Straddling Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in India”, Indian historian Indu Agnihotri makes the same connection: “Neera Desai sees a clear link between the SRM, the nationalist movement and the emergence of women’s organisations. The SRM, she says, recognised woman as a personality, … and struggled to end the economic, social, political and other disabilities from which she suffered.” [7]

Desai herself went on to attend the elite Elphinstone College in 1942 before subsequently heeding the calls of Mahatma Gandhi and formally joining the ongoing Quit India Movement. [8]On why she joined the movement, Desai cites her attendance at the conference where the Indian National Congress signed the Quit India resolution, and her refusal to be a bystander when many of the signers were subsequently arrested by the imperial government. [9]Desai considers this series of events the catalyst of her commitment to political activism, ushering in a new “phase” in her life, so it is no surprise that the leaders of this movement, men and women alike, had profound influences on Desai. On Gandhi’s influence specifically, Desai has stated:

“His honesty and his purposiveness of the whole issue and his dedication and his sparkle and candidness – all these things have affected me.” [10]

And of her total adolescent experience:

“this phase of my life, the adolescent phase of our life is the total atmosphere, that means .. the political upheavals, communal and all those things, as well as the family background, they were somehow or the other affecting my psyche, which may not be perceptible at that time, but which has shaped [my psyche].” [11]

Prior to returning to and graduating from Elphinstone College in 1947 with a BA in History and Economics, Desai married Marxist sociologist Akshay Ramanlal Desai. The two settled in present day Mumbai where Ashkay taught at a local university. The couple prolonged having a child together until Neera completed her PhD studies in 1965 in Sociology at Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (SNDT) Women’s University, after she accepted a position at the university in 1954.[12]



While a graduate student, she became interested in the general concept of social change, and its lasting impacts on both social groups and individuals. This endeavor started out as an interest in the lasting effects of British imperialism and decolonization, as she titled her M.A thesis The Impact of British Rule on the Position of Indian Women.[13]This thesis was later reworked into the more comprehensive Woman in Modern India, where Desai offered a detailed anthology of the status of Indian women in the midst of India’s various social changes. Woman In Modern India makes it clear that to Desai, we can understand the status of women as a function of the culture and society they reside within. Indu Agnihotri again agrees: “there was an attempt not to study women in isolation but through a history of ideas and social movements, which sought to negotiate status and rights.” [14]

Cover to Desai’s “Woman in Modern India” (1957).

One social change Desai studied in the book prevalent in the Indian women’s studies literature today is her analysis of the Bhakti movement in early modern India. The Bhakti movement was a religious reform movement in medieval India that had profound effects on how all people of all faiths on the Indian subcontinent practiced their religions. It stressed ritual and individual relationships with the Hindu deities, and in this regard ushered in a more democratized paradigm than its hierarchical predecessors.[15] Desai treats the Bhakti movement as an example of sociocultural change that had the consequence of, at least marginally, raising the status of women in India. For Desai, the key point here was that the Bhakti ‘stood for the right of women to religious worship,’ and “unlocked the gate of religion to women.”[16] She also notes, however, that women’s status remained relatively low, with the explanation that

“since no fundamental change occurred in the very foundations of social structure their influence too was temporary and limited. Hence the deteriorated traditional orthodox attitude towards woman continued till the advent of the British in India.” [17]

For this failure, Desai cites features like the movement’s framing men as the only beings suitable for spiritual salvation, and women simply as obstacles to this goal. From Desai’s treatment of the Bhakti movement, we see socio-cultural assumptions and practices can have very real impacts on the quality of life of the individuals and social groups, in this case Indian women. Desai also implies that to ever have lasting effects on the status of women, there must be some “fundamental change” in social structure, further tacitly implying that the answer to “the woman question” lies at the fundamental level of Indian society. The caste tradition immediately comes to mind as a progenitor for both social rigidity and oppression, but Agnihotri compiled a list of other practices Desai mentions as relegating women to low level status:

  • “niyoga which treated women mainly as mere begetters of male children”
  • “the shraddha ceremony signifying the importance of the male child”
  • “the denial of education through the exclusion of women from religious rites like the upanayana
  • “the double standards of morality which not only pardoned the lapses of the male but sometimes even approved of them, while severely penalising the woman for even the slightest deviation from the legal and moral norms”
  • “the ideal of pativrata which demanded one-sided fidelity and marital love and duty from the woman without imposing a counter–obligation on the part of the male”
  • “the sinister custom of deforming the widow by cutting her hair and the imposition of other such compulsory rules so that she would look drab and therefore not be attractive to men”
  • “the branding of the mere presence of the widow as inauspicious, relegating her to the humiliating position of an unpaid life-long domestic servant, socially shunned as a sight of ill-omen and excluded from all festivities and functions.” [18]

Thus, Desai is not only offering a historical analysis of Indian society, but a critique of it. Her argumentative style has deep similarities with the critical theory tradition in Western sociology, which finds the origins of deep social inequalities in the critiques of fundamental aspects of these societies.[19] The focus of the Bhakti movement on the divinity of Indian men instead of women, as we can see, is just another mode by which Indian culture otherizes women, and to Desai, the material inequality between men and women is a direct result.


The Activist-Scholar

But critical theories have a silver lining, in that while the sociocultural practices leading to social inequality may be deeply fundamental to a society, they are not innate or immutable. Desai seems to share this view of the problem of gender inequality within India in her meta-commentary on the discipline of women’s studies, and social science as a whole:

“They [Western scholars] state that social sciences have to be value-free… you say that you have to change, then you have to have some values – change for what? Change of what? Change where? Now, all these things have to come if you accept that there is some concept, there is something in your mind, to which you want to goad all the action. And it is there I think that the action component is very important for Women’s Studies.”[20]


This blunt rejection of the positivist approach to the social sciences signals a sharp deviation from the historical formulation of the discipline. The original positivists of the 18th century, including Saint Simon and Auguste Comte, all advocated for the ‘social physics’ not simply for intellectual curiosity or knowledge acquisition, but for the application to changing society for the better. However, at the same time, these positivists intended for this to be a value free endeavor. But Desai saw this as counterintuitive, if not delusional. If a social scientist devotes their time to studying a social problem, they are already imposing their judgement on some social phenomena as a problem. Thus for Desai, one should simply embrace value judgements and involvement in the social sphere.

However, not only does one need to take action to truly enact change in society, one must also act in order to understand the nature of social problems. In The Making of a Feminist, a journal article Desai wrote for the Indian Journal of Gender Studies in 1995, Desai attributes her understanding of the “woman question” to her activist work:

“My own experience of grassroots work in a rural development project from the 1980s, constant interaction with activists in India and my position in the [women’s studies] movement have contributed significantly to my feminism.”[21]

This notion of “feminism as experience” profoundly guided her work as a scholar. If one truly wants to both exact change in and understand the social sphere, one must both critique society and take action, and become a scholar-activist. A following of Desai’s activities in the latter half of the twentieth century would signal that she was attempting to embody this role.

In 1972 Desai joined the Social Task Force of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, when two years later she contributed to the Towards Equality report, a landmark study into the status of women in India and a signal for the need for structural, sociocultural reform.[22] Desai also founded the Research Unit for Women’s Studies at SNDT, which undertook rural development work, most notably in the town of Udwada in South Gujarat. [23]Her Center for Rural Development, operated out of SNDT, undertook awareness generation programs and activities among rural women, regardless of caste, through film screenings, meetings and workshops on health, education and legal rights of women.[24] With these activities, Desai and her colleagues had the direct goal of challenging patriarchal mindsets and changing attitudes towards women and girls, and altogether developing the ‘feminist consciousness’.  Workshop participants were drawn into discussions about the declining sex ratio, combating violence against women, Constitutional guarantees and the legal rights of women, along with their reproductive rights’, but also trained women with income-generating activities, like with skill training programs in block printing, quilt-making, and ‘tie and dye’ processing of cloth material.[25] The Research Unit later became the Research Centre for Women’s Studies in 1985, one of the first formal academic departments for women’s studies in the nation.

Desai’s lasting impact on the landscape of the women’s movement in India was that she elucidated the role of the activist-scholar. Desai articulated that the collective socio-cultural consciousness of India has vast consequences on the real, material well-being of Indians. We saw this in Desai’s biography, where a change in consciousness among Brahmin Indians in the early twentieth century gave Desai the opportunity to attain higher education, but we also saw this in Desai’s description of the supposed spiritual inferiority of Indian women during the Bhakti movement, which led to the very real inequality of material between men and women. Desai’s major insight was that this connection can be utilized for empowering women throughout India. Theorizing about and subsequently implementing ways to cultivate the ‘feminist consciousness’ could, with time, chip away at the material inequality the women of India face. Thus, Desai cemented the idea that one could contribute to the greater women’s movement by being a formal academic, and that academia can be a tool for social change.



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[1] Forbes, Geraldine. “Reflections on South Asian Women’s/Gender History: Past and Future” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History , vol. 4, no. 1, January 2003, doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/cch.2003.0012

[2] Forbes, “Reflections on South Asian Women’s/Gender History: Past and Future”, paragraph 3

[3] Forbes, Geraldine. “Foremothers”, Gender & History, Vol.17 No.2 August 2005, pp. 492–501

[4] Neera Desai. “Transcript of Neera Desai”, Global Feminisms: Comparative Case Studies of Women’s Activisms Interviewer: C. S. Lakshmi, 2003. URL = <https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/globalfeminisms/wp-content/uploads/sites/787/2020/05/Desai_I_E_102806.pdf>

[5] Geraldine. “Foremothers”, pg. 492

[6] Agnihotri, Indu. “Reading Neera Desai: A Journey Straddling Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in India”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 25 No. 2, May 2018, pp. 234–255 pg. 243.

[7] Agnihotri, “Reading Neera Desai: A Journey Straddling Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in India”, pg. 244.

[8] Forbes, “Foremothers”, pg. 493

[9] “Transcript of Neera Desai”, pg. 7

[10]“Transcript of Neera Desai”, pg. 9

[11]“Transcript of Neera Desai”, pg. 9

[12] Forbes, “Foremothers”, pg. 493

[13] Forbes, “Foremothers”, pg. 493

[14]Agnihotri, “Reading Neera Desai: A Journey Straddling Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in India”, pg. 241.

[15] Agnihotri, “Reading Neera Desai: A Journey Straddling Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in India”, pg. 239.

[16] Agnihotri, “Reading Neera Desai: A Journey Straddling Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in India”, pg. 242.

[17]Desai, Neera. “Woman in modern India.” Bombay: Vora & Co. (1977 [1957]) pg. 10-11.

[18] Agnihotri, “Reading Neera Desai: A Journey Straddling Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in India”, pg. 239.

[19] Bohman, James ,”Critical Theory”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University,  Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/critical-theory/>

[20] “Transcript of Neera Desai”, pg. 14

[21] Desai, Neera. “The Making of a Feminist”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 2 no. 2, September 1995, pp. 243-253.

[22] Forbes, “Foremothers”, pg. 494

[23] Patel, Vibhuti. “Women’s Studies in Praxis: Dr Neera Desai’s Contribution towards Developmental Work for Rural Women in Udwada, South Gujarat”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 25 no. 2, 2018

[24] Vibhuti, “Women’s Studies in Praxis: Dr Neera Desai’s Contribution towards Developmental Work for Rural Women in Udwada, South Gujarat”, pg. 266.

[25] Vibhuti, “Women’s Studies in Praxis: Dr Neera Desai’s Contribution towards Developmental Work for Rural Women in Udwada, South Gujarat”, pg. 270


About the Author

Buduka Ogonor is a third year undergraduate at The University of Chicago majoring in Physics with a minor in Data Science. He enjoys trivia, football, basketball, and watching films and TV.

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