Women’s Labor Division in Colonial Bengal

India subcontinent became the colony of the British entirely on August 24, 1608, and the life of  women went through hardship from the ancient era to the end of colonization. With the emergence  of modernization under colonization, several movements took place and the ancient hegemony of  the society-women should stay at home, started to change and females started to involve  themselves with the financial sector in both rural and urban areas. The social formation, the  emergence of female education, and the financial needs encouraged them to find employment and  break the social taboo. Even though the emergence of urbanization collapsed the very traditional  economic foundation of Bengal, it created new earning opportunities in city areas for working class males. It destroyed women’s rural economic sources, and it was difficult for women to shift  to cities and find new employment. Therefore, it can be said, the modernization of Bengal under  the British colony had positive and negative aspects in the labor division of Bengal women. 


British Bengal Becomes a Curse for the Rural Women 

Modernization of the Bengal economy by the British power emerged with industrialization.  The modernization in this subcontinent brings dependency on artificial crafts that gradually  destroyed the traditional economic foundation. This modern development has positive impacts on  males’ economic contributions and negative effects on females’ economic contributions to Bengal.  First of all, in large-scale industries female workers account for only a little portion of the labor  force, except for domestic workers as it seemed taboo for women to work in the industry. The  emergence of modern industry has had a strong impact on the traditional rural economy  particularly, and industries recruited the largest number of male workers. As a social scientist  Nirmala Banerjee in her thesis “Modernization and Marginalization” suggested, the jute industry  had employed about 28 thousand factory workers and the ratio of male and female was 87:36 (50). 


Hence, industrialization created a good opportunity for lower-class working males. For  instance, it was a vague statement of that time, “if the mill worker husband returned from the  triumphant, he would cover his wife with gold” (Banerjee, 67). From this statement, we can  conclude how many opportunities were being opened for working-class as well as educated males  due to industrialization. On the contrary, because of these the traditional non-agriculture industries  of women like hand-looming clothes, making bread and shoes, and other handmade domestic  goods have been destroyed and replaced with the machine; then female workers are significantly  focusing on agricultural work (Women’s Work in Colonial India, 158).  

Moreover, when the British authorities established political hegemony in the subcontinent,  they began to create independent industries to process regional raw ingredients and agricultural  goods for overseas markets. For economic interests, the British established a good transportation  system, established institutions to implement the British government, finance, trade, education,  justice, and medicine with modernist technology that also increased the demand for skillful  laborers, and most of the time male thought as suitable candied for that sector. On the other hand,  because of these, the government had neither invested nor modernized traditional economic  activities that continue to meet the ordinary needs of the people. Further, women’s financial  activities are more influenced by the traditional roles of women, which limits the mobility of  women, and it could not compete with the excellent finished industrial goods. Modernism during  the Bengal presidency from 1881 to 1931 had a major influence on the economy of the village.  During the entire presidency in 1911, approximately 41% of employees in the production and sales  departments are women. Due to modernization, Bengal’s women end up losing more. In 1961, the  participation rate in the workforce of women was the lowest in West Bengal (Khan). Thus, modernization of the Bengal economy by the British power was a curse for women whereas it was  a blessing for working-class males. 


Women’s Limitations in the City Labor Market 

With modernization the economy of Bengal become unban-based rather than rural-based.  To participate in the labor market and economy women need to migrate to cities. Nevertheless,  there were significant setbacks that hindered rural women’s migration to the cities to work and  contribute to the economy. Ranajit Das in his essay, Economic and Political Weekly, explained, a  few women who worked in the industry got namely wages compare to men. Any sickness or  pregnancy accounted as leave to redact women’s wages and to reentry, they needed to pay a bribe  (7). Females were unfree agents from the ancient era; they were strictly restricted by the  conventions and taboos adopted by the community, and caste to which they belong. And it seemed  to be disgraceful for a respectable woman to migrate and work in the industry. Then, most  industrial male workers are usually not obligated to pay for their village land or property. To retain  their rural base by remitting back a portion of their earnings to maintain their families, or try to  build up a village property; they keep their wives and children in the village. Thus, women did not  get a chance to migrate to cities and participate in the labor force. 

Similarly, the life of working-class people who migrated to cities in search of livelihood,  their life was uncertain, so they could not bring their children and wife in that uncertainty. The  women who migrated to cities to work were often bounded to serve the lust of employers. Next,  in an urban environment, a worker’s wage was unlikely to be enough to support the family, so the  worker’s wife could not move to the city. Further, almost all women in factories in Bengal have been humiliated and forced into prostitution. For instance, a quarter of the workers admitted to  prostitution and went to the factory, but never returned, which made it difficult for women to move  to the city (Banerjee, 67). In fact, in cities, women’s living conditions had no privacy at all, which  might make their lives more vulnerable. In addition, Bengal women were particularly sick and  helpless. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, infertility, and child mortality was very  high and the treatment cost was also expensive (Banerjee, 67). These conditions were invincible  to the weak economic infrastructure of lower-class women. All these made the migration of women  to the city impossible, let alone joining the labor force and contributing to the family financially.


The Picture Started to Change: 

The social reformation of Hindu society, the emergence of female education, the negative  impacts of the Purdah system, financial needs, and modernization encouraged upper and middle class Bhadramahilas to find employment. According to the 1901 Calcutta Census, 725 women  were engaged in various professions. This included the categories of professors, directors,  teacher’s administrators, inspectors and doctors, photographers, writers, editors, and reporters (The  Bhadramahila in Public Life: Employment and Politics, 310). These statements vividly showed  that upper and middle-class females were enthusiastic about establishing themselves and it was  possible to increase female education in colonial Bengal. First of all, the spread of women’s  education had given birth to the demand for female employment in society and the females started  to think against the social taboo of conservativeness. Besides, middle-class women and helpless  widows were encouraged to take various vocational training, so that women could use this  knowledge in new services to support themselves financially. These qualifications and the impact 

of education forced them to think, they deserve a better life than their mothers and grandmothers,  and this thought encouraged them to find employment. 

Moreover, often finding employment was related to social formation as some educated  Bhadramahilas (Respective Lady) thought they should provide others with opportunities for  gaining knowledge through their advancement, and the Bhadramahilas become engaged with  various public services. For example, Bamasoondoree Devi of Pabna was educated by her husband  and later set up a school to provide basic education to women (The Bhadramahila in Public Life:  Employment and Politics, 315). Again, Purdah played a significant role in women’s finding  employment in that society. For this, there was an opportunity for the women to achieve a higher  status by employing themselves without any competition and contact with the males which also  encouraged upper-class Bhadramahilas to find and involve themselves in the teaching sector like  Zenana’s (Girls) education. As the article named, “The Bhadramahila in Public Life: Employment  and Politics” explains, the need for a Zenanas inspectress for girls’ schools and educational  programs became important in 1870 and it created an opportunity for educated Bhadramahilas to  involve with the teaching profession (319). Therefore, several women found the teaching  profession as a respectful way of employment. 


Furthermore, with the emergence of modernization, there was a significant change in  technological advancement, as a result Bengal as well went through industrialization, to adapt to  that radical change, for both men and women, professional skill was needed to develop. The  difference between professional occupations and these vocational qualifications was that the  professionals require special training and a relatively high level of education. In this way, 

modernization included upper and middle-class women working outside the residence and  establishing direct economic contact with the colonial government. This contact helped the female  to break the social taboo and to establish themselves as independent individuals positively  influenced them to be independent and find a new way of employment. 

In conclusion, women had been victims of discrimination since ancient times. From ancient  times to modern times of colonization, women have had to face innumerable struggles in the field of education and work. However, some upper-class and middle-class Bhadramahilas had got  education and career after a severe struggle. Moreover, with the modernization of society in  colonial Bengal, women’s position had changed the least. Though modernization collapsed the  ancient income organization of rural Bengal, some males got the benefits of urbanization. And  urbanization of lower-class women meant losing everything. In a word, the condition of women  was always subservient till the 20th century, but with the spread of education, women learn how  to fight back and ask for equal eights. 




 Works Cited 

Banerjee, Nirmala. “Modernization and Marginalization.” Social Scientist, vol. 13, no. 10/11,  1985, pp. 48–71. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3517219. Accessed 14 July 2021. “Chapter 6”. Women’s Work in Colonial India, Pp. 158 

https://bux.bracu.ac.bd/assetv1:buX+HST302+2021_Summer+type@asset+block/Wome n_s_work_in_colonial_India.pdf 

Gupta, Ranajit Das. “Structure of the Labour Market in Colonial India.” Economic and Political  Weekly, vol. 16, no. 44/46, 1981, pp. 1781–1806. JSTOR, 

 www.jstor.org/stable/4370376. Accessed 15 July 2021. 

Khan, Salma. “Economic Life of Women.” Bux, 


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