Gloria Steinem was one of the most vocal spokespersons of the women’s rights movement in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and, at 87 today, still carries the torch for women in different social strata. But did you know that the trailblazing feminist was once part of Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan Movement in India? Steinem spent a couple of years in India in the 1950s, when she also studied at Miranda House College of Delhi University and travelled with missionaries across South India.
Steinem shot to fame in America in the 1960s as a journalist, a writer, a political activist and a feminist. She went on to campaign for reproductive rights and became a social commentator on issues such as prostitution, human trafficking and pornography. But she never fails to recall the time she spent in India, which she says taught her some important life lessons and was the starting point of her activism.
Her journey to India began when she was awarded the Chester Bowles Asian Fellowship by the Chester Bowles Trust, to travel across India in the late 1950s. A bright 22-year-old, she journeyed East, ready to take a fresh look at life and expand her horizons.
Since she did not come from wealth, Steinem offered to write for travel companies and the airlines themselves in exchange for an airline ticket to India. She managed to get a one-way ticket for her journey through an airline company.
Steinem stopped in London en route to India and it was here that she discovered she was pregnant. She had broken off an engagement back in America and her options were limited. Not wanting to raise a child at such an early age, she found a doctor who agreed to perform an abortion on her, even though abortions were then illegal in England.
Soon, she was India-bound and landed in Bombay, in February 1956. She spent a few days in the city before travelling to Delhi, the country’s political capital. There, she met Jean Joyce, who was working with the Ford Foundation. Joyce introduced Steinem into Indian culture. You could say she had a soft landing.
Steinem’s fellowship took her to Miranda House College, a women’s college at the University of Delhi, where she enrolled to study for a year. At Miranda House, her classmates taught her to wear an Indian sari and travel around the city in the local buses.
While in Delhi, Steinem took up a variety of jobs to sustain herself. A talented young woman, she helped design sandals and wrote promotional material for these sandal companies, and even took up a few modelling assignments for advertisements.
In her spare time, she wrote a book titled The Thousand Indias (1957), a guidebook for the Indian government, which encouraged American students and academics to explore India.
After completing her school year at Miranda House in 1957, Steinem decided to travel across India and bought a third-class railway ticket to visit the south. She went to the Theosophy Society of Madras, travelled to Kerala, and visited several temples and villages decked in an Indian sari.
While embarking on her journey, she paused at Paramdham Ashram Pawnar, Warda, a community run by Vinoba Bhave, a social reformer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Bhave was leading a movement called Bhoodan, or the ‘land gift’ movement. In true Gandhian spirit, Bhoodan proponents would travel from village to village on foot, asking property owners to contribute land to the poor, who often worked the land without ownership.
While writing about and engaging in local activism, Steinem became connected to noted Indian communist leader M N Roy’s Radical Humanist group through his wife Ellen Roy, and worked alongside Gandhian activists in the villages of Ramnad, in Tamil Nadu, helping to stop caste riots with Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement.
In a 2007 interview with Meenakshi Mukherjee and Ira Pande for the India International Centre Quarterly, Steinem said, “Going from village to village with Vinoba Bhave’s followers and learning about Gandhian activism probably helped me to become what I am today. […] But, if you want to know how people live, you have to go where they live; if you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them. I learned that in India.” Her experiences in India changed the way Steinem approached activism as she realized that a problem had to be resolved from the grassroots level.
At Bhave’s ashram, new groups were formed across the movement with a motive of bringing justice and equality, one such group was a Protestant Missionary from the USA. Steinem met a Protestant missionary from America who wanted her to travel with the group in the wake of the Bhoodhan Movement. While at these villages, the Protestant group initiated a broader discussion on the concept of caste, religion, and the deeper meaning of life with respect to religion. They convinced her that having a woman among them would enable women to contribute to their discussions. Steinem joined them on this journey that went from one village to another. She would speak to women and invite them to join conversations and put forth their opinions in these dialogues. She wanted to help them improve their status and later wrote, “Girls are much less likely to be sent to school. The national female literacy rate is less than half that for males . . . and their humanity is so minimally acknowledged that killing a wife in order to take another wife—and get another dowry—is one of the major sufferings addressed by the women’s movement.”
While walking with the Bhoodan Movement, at the meeting with the villagers, Steinem would listen to people’s complaints.
After the discussion, group leaders would attempt to settle disputes amicably. It showed her what optimism and resolve could accomplish. She helped initiate a dialogue between conflicting parties and enabled women to put forth their views, which was unprecedented in many cases.
At night, the villagers would feed the group rice cakes and sweet, milky tea and share their sleeping mats with them. Steinem was struck by the simplicity of their lives and how little she knew about the world than she had imagined.
The Bhoodan marches continued from 1951 to 1964 and yielded more than four million acres of land for the poor. Prime Minister Nehru told parliament, “This frail man [Vinoba Bhave] has just accomplished, solely by the force of nonviolence, what all the military power of the Government would be unable to do [through forced collectivization.]” Gloria came away seeing how grassroots meetings could affect change.
After her time with the Bhoodan movement, Steinem returned to Bombay, where she stayed at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) before visiting Calcutta and Rangoon in Burma to experience more of the South Asia and what it had to offer. She found herself in Hong Kong, staying at the YWCA again. She also visited Tokyo and Kyoto, and by July 1958, it was time for her to leave Asia. She sailed steerage class on President Cleveland bidding adieu to India and Asia.
Steinem left India with memories and experiences of a lifetime. Her time in India had enabled her to think deeply about women’s rights. Even today, she remembers India fondly. In 2014, at the Jaipur Literature Festival, in a dialogue with long-time friend and Indian activist Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, Steinem recalled how during the two years she spent in India, she absorbed Mahatma Gandhi’s organizing principles, which she would later apply to American feminism: Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down; to learn, you must listen; to be heard you must speak; and to bring change against all odds, you must fight “as if it matters”.
Vishwajeet Deshmukh is a law student at Government Law College, Mumbai. He is the recipient of Tata Trusts and 1947 Partition Archive Research Grant 2021. His research interests include history, law, and cinematic studies.
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