Mandakini Arora on why feminist history matters

“If, as women, we do not know how we are what we are, then a part of our identity is missing.” Mandakini Arora’s compelling introduction to “Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore”.


History, or the way we remember our past, affects our present and future and determines to an extent what we will achieve. Each of us has a personal or individual history as well as shared or communal histories. These histories are parts of our identity and can be empowering or disempowering.

Histories of women, more often than histories of men, go unrecorded. Feminist historians such as Joan Kelly and Gerda Lerner have pointed out that women’s history puts women in history and at the same time gives women a history. This book is an act of remembering – remembering the many women and their many associations that have made us what we are today. If, as women, we do not know how we are what we are, then a part of our identity is missing. The English writer George Orwell famously wrote, in his novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” His was a negative comment on the uses and abuses of history. But put positively – to be in control of our lives we need to be in control of our past. We need to record and know our history.

Most of us would acknowledge the contributions of our parents to our lives. What about our figurative, mostly invisible parents: women who insisted that girls be allowed to finish school like their brothers, women who argued that men should be allowed to have only one wife, women who were the first to engage in activities that had hitherto been considered the prerogative of men and too “unladylike” for women to attempt, women who fought to bring domestic violence out from behind closed doors and to make it a public issue? Some men, too, fought for these rights for women. To such women and men we owe much that is intrinsic to our very identity as women in Singapore today. Mrs George Lee – one of the founders and the first president of the Singapore Council of Women, which protested against polygamy in the 1950s – reportedly said that the council’s early work was difficult yet the founders persisted not just for themselves but for the “next and next generations”.

The Association of Women for Action and Research celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2005. In documenting its relatively short history, we acknowledge the much longer history of women’s activism in Singapore without which AWARE might not have come into existence. Today women in Singapore can vote, enjoy the same education as men, own property in their own right, stand for election to government, be the only legal wife of a man and even choose whether to marry or not. If we took these rights for granted we would do our figurative foremothers a disservice. AWARE builds on the efforts of individuals and organisations who worked in the past to better women’s lives, at the same time as it is uniquely a product of a specific time, circumstances and individual efforts.

Dr Mandakini Arora is an independent historian and writing consultant. She studied History at Duke University, and was a part-time lecturer at the National University of Singapore.

Arora, Mandakini, ed. Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore. Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.

Featured Image: Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture

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