The Royal Asiatic Society presents:
Dr. Jharna Gourlay (University of Lucknow) – Forceps, Stethoscopes and Sisterhood: British Female Doctors in 19th Century India
At the end of the nineteenth century a very special group of British women went to India. They were the doctors and nurses. Most of them were missionaries, but a significant number was secular, not associated with any specific denominations. They wanted to provide medical care to the respectable Indian women who lived in seclusion and were reluctant to see a male doctor, European or Indian. There was a lot of unnecessary physical suffering among them, particularly at child birth. The British women doctors wanted to alleviate their suffering by offering modern medicine and surgery to them and train them in medical skills so that they could look after themselves. They looked at Indian women as their ‘sisters’ and felt that it was their duty to help them. In history, these women doctors were commonly referred to as ‘medical women.’
The scholarly explanation so far was that the British women doctors were looking for lucrative employment in India and the missionaries among them were sent to proselytize among indigenous women. They used the idea of suffering Indian women for their own advantage.
This assumption I question and suggest an alternative explanation of why these medical women went to India. It can be argued that these medical women were a product of the first wave of feminism that emerged in Britain and America around 1850s. Their feminism had a global outlook. As they fought for their own civil rights, they also looked at other women around the world who were in similar situations of control and exploitation. The medical women who went to India grew up in this climate of an awareness of social inequality. Some of them were active agitators for equal rights in the medical profession in Britain, some fought for equal rights within the church, others breathed the same air.
The medical women’s achievement in establishing hospitals and training centres, and in creating employment opportunities for Indian women from various strata of the society, tells us a different story of a cross-cultural relationship between two groups of women, who, though poles apart, empowered each other in a significant way.
Introduction by Professor Anthony Stockwell (RAS):