Why Are Female Achievers Missing From ‘General Knowledge’?

Posted on July 23, 2015 in Society

By Shrilakshmi Tiru:

Article 53 of the Indian constitution talks about the President and the executive power of the union that “shall be exercised by him“; and this is just one of the innumerable passages which wipes out the possibility and the acknowledgement of anybody but a male to occupy the constitutional posts. And this continues even when women have held the post of President and Prime Minister of India and currently hold the post of Chief Minister, MPs, MLAs, and Speaker.


The more disquieting part is the nonchalance with which we lap it up every day. Vested interests of the conformists have been naturalised, ossified and gift wrapped given to us to an extent that we fail to notice it quite often. The Gramscian common sense is what seems to be at work.

It is but natural that we learnt the name of the Father of our Nation in General Knowledge lessons. Weren’t there any deserving women to contend for a label of that high a stature? And if there were, would calling them ‘the Mother of the Nation’ be a tad too much? Even the phrase would probably sound preposterous to many; deviant almost!
Charles Babbage, Father of the Computer, we all are aware; but why is Ada Lovelace, the first programmer, the first to prepare an algorithm to run on Babbage’s machine absent from the larger picture? Why didn’t we ever encounter Judith Estrin‘s name, one of the pioneers in developing IP specifications underlying internet technology, in our Computer Science books?

Our nomenclature classes in Biology were introduced to us with the name of the Father of Modern Taxonomy – Carl Linnaeus – but probably the ink ran out when it came to mentioning Maria Sibylla, world’s pioneering ecologist, naturalist and entomologist, to whom even Linnaeus referred to for his works.

Pages and pages on Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev, Surya Sen exist in History but not many of us know about Aruna Asaf Ali or Sucheta Kriplani. Probably nobody would name Sumati Morarjee as a leading industrialist when she even though she became the president of Indian National Steamship Owner’s Association, as early as 1956 and is also known to be the first woman in the world to head an organization of ship owners.

Some we might know of only because they were the ‘first’ to do something. We work with a double edged sword when we gender the achievements but it is also important to create a positive image in the popular imagination. No wonder then that Indira Gandhi was called a ‘Lady Prime Minister‘ in innumerable speeches and interviews. The attempt to qualify the use of the office with ‘lady’, the inability to put aside the ‘burden‘ of her gender, betrayed the political consciousness which saw offices only worthy of a male.

The allegation is not of somebody holding a personal grudge against achievers incidentally women, but of a prolonged, sustained blind eye towards these women, and not an innocuous one at that. People generally, work for and achieve what they see. So why do we generally turn to women only when our atavistic impulses knock from the within? Sure, we do know our Indra Nooyi, Christine Lagarde, Chanda Kochhar, etc., but is that all? Undoubtedly numbers are on the rise, but in a skewed fashion. Probably the fact that we know a significantly larger number of women in Bollywood/Hollywood is also an aspect of the Gramscian ‘common sense‘. Where are the other women? What are they doing? Why don’t we know about them?

The questions can be spared a thought, a constructive action could grow towards acquainting the world with achievers of the female gender or they can be tossed aside as what Yeats called the “voice grew shrill“.