Devika Sethi, Jawaharlal Nehru University/University of Göttingen
'Girl clerks', 'Lady officers' and 'Officers' wives': Women's employment in the Indian state
This paper looks at the issue of women’s employment with the colonial and early post colonial Indian state at different moments in time, and at different levels in the hierarchy. The first part of the paper focuses on the 1920s, when the civil branches of the Government of India not only advocated that women be employed as clerks, but also paid them higher wages than they did male clerks. Why they did so, and how and why they rationalized this are the questions raised here. The second part examines the state’s attitude to the question of employing married women at two levels in the hierarchy: as clerks in the 1920s, and as officers in the 1950s. In the context of the latter, it examines the ‘marriage bar’ rule, that applied -- at the government’s discretion -- to female officers of the Indian Administrative Service till as late as 1972. The third and last part focuses attention on the wives of Indian officers posted abroad in the 1950s, who were forbidden from taking up ‘gainful employment’. As the result of Prime Minister Nehru’s personal intervention in the matter, the rule was amended partially, but in a way that reinforced bureaucratic hierarchy.
This paper focuses attention on moments where gender issues intersect issues of bureaucratic hierarchy. Often, the state is seen as merely drawing on existing patterns of gender inequality, but here we see it as an agent that in fact introduces gender inequality, and delineate the variety of ways in which it has done so in a historical context. It is argued that while in the late colonial period women were only allowed to participate in the activity of government at the lower rungs, in the post colonial period – in keeping with the self image of the Indian state as a liberal one – they were allowed access to the higher rungs of the bureaucracy. When they began climbing these rungs in the 1950s, the state used the ‘marriage bar’ as a means of exerting its power. Even though, as the testimony of female officers indicates, this bar was applied infrequently and selectively, its very existence mediated the relationship of the state with its female employees in a decisive way.