Women, Professionalism, and Social Service: Early Childhood Care and Education in India, 1880s-1970s

Women, Professionalism and Social Service tells the history of Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) in late colonial and early post-colonial India. As a policy field, ECCE comprises diverse public health, social welfare, and educational policy interventions, directed at babies, infants, and pre-school children. The book analyses the development of the field of ECCE in India in terms of a professionalisation, socialisation, scientisation, and institutionalisation of female-gendered care work.

The development of ECCE in India, the book argues, was driven by female activists and educationists, supported by national and transnational networks. In the 1880s, Indian women, connected to the global Froebel kindergarten movement, saw ECCE as a promising field for promoting women’s education, professional training, and gainful employment. Upper-caste Hindu widows were the first social group targeted by programs for training kindergartners, nurses, and teachers. The work of these widows – ascetic, unmarried women – was framed as a self-less dedication to the common good. These competing tendencies of professionalisation and civic voluntarism, or, social service, the book shows, characterise the trajectory of ECCE in India until today.

In the inter-war period, the major national women’s organisations promoted crèches, nursery schools, and child welfare centres for the safe keeping of working mothers’ infants. Bio-political arguments for the strengthening of the Indian nation-in-the-making were brought forward to argue the case of a socialisation (Vergesellschaftung) of the care for the young, particularly for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Building on international expertise, new academic institutions were founded for the training of social workers, and for the study of child development and psychology. The professionalisation of childcare was thus accompanied by a scientisation (Verwissenschaftlichung) of childhood. Under the early post-colonial social planning initiatives, these tendencies converged in the institutionalisation of ECCE. This public ECCE sector, however, remained limited, underfunded, and crucially relied on women’s volunteer labour for its functioning. Today, these are still characteristics of the work conditions of women who run the Anganwadis – the major Indian institution which currently delivers child development services, and which emerged from the ECCE experiments of the inter-war and early post-colonial periods.