Dr. Maria Framke

Hidden histories: Women’s role in rural development programmes in India, c. 1920–1966

October 2021 – March 2022

Research Description:

Echoing recent calls for a ‘gendering’ of development history, my project examines Indian women’s contributions to rural reconstruction programmes between the 1920s and 1960s. The project’s main objective is to explore the uncharted history of female actors’ roles in designing and implementing rural development schemes in India in three key areas, namely health, education, and sustainable livelihood. These initiatives were partly state-led, and partly carried out by voluntary organisations. Their analysis provides novel insights into international entanglements across North America, Europe, and South Asia that shaped the processes of Indian nation state building. Moving beyond the existing scholarship, which mainly focusses on male actors, the goal is to produce an account of the twin processes of development and expansive citizenship by shifting the focus to elite women working with subaltern rural women. To achieve this, the fundamental questions the project raises are: did these schemes, influenced by contemporary social feminism, re-iterate the conventional dual model of male and female divided work sphere? Did this type of female work and participation re-inscribe a secondary feminised role or did all this activity elevate women as ‘equal citizens’? The project encompasses both the late colonial and the early postcolonial periods and thus allows to put continuities and ruptures into stark relief.

The proposed research combines an actor-centred biographical approach with the investigation of institutional history that takes organisations and networks into account. While retaining the focus on women’s contributions, one guiding hypothesis is that the ‘zone of encounter’ between elite imaginations and rural realities will tell us about the contestations that accompanied the implementation of these schemes. In this way, the project will provide an in-depth account of how women conceptualised ‘development’ for themselves, and what these contestations meant for the historical genesis and graded nature of citizenry in the world’s largest democracy.


Maria Framke is a historian of modern South Asia and a research fellow at the History Department of Erfurt University. She has researched and published on the history of international organisations, imperial and nationalist politics, humanitarianism, and international relations and ideologies in the 20th century. Maria received her doctorate from Jacobs University Bremen in 2011 on the topic of Indian engagements with Italian Fascism and German National Socialism in the interwar period. Her current research focuses on ‘South Asian humanitarianism in armed conflicts, 1914–1945’ and on ‘Hidden histories: Women’s role in rural development programmes in India, c. 1920–1966’.

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