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Desiring to “engender” the written history of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the movements it led or initiated, the author looks at the first generation of middle-class women who became communists in colonial Bengal in the period 1939 to 1948. Judging that much of the available printed and archival source material inadequately describes the role of women in the CPI, the author interviewed many of the surviving women CPI recruits and studied their printed memoirs. She examines in particular two organizations that were established in the late 1930s and early 1940s, namely, the Chhatri Sangha (Girl Students' Association) and the Mahila Atma Raksha Samity (Women's Self-Defense Association). The author contends that the recruiting and mobilizing strategies of the CPI—while focused primarily on class—also had important consequences for gender relations: many middle-class women found themselves transgressing the narrowly constructed norms of propriety and mixing with women of lower classes and working in public spaces together with men in ways the existing nationalist feminisms/nationalist conceptions of women's public activism had not made available. The author concludes that these revelations show the need to rethink stereotypes about the communist women, stereotypes built from the experiences of new generations of feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, but which seem not to have been as rigidly created or enforced in the 1940s as they were later on.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2013-03-01

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