Raden Ajeng Kartini is hailed in Indonesia as that country’s first feminist. She was born in April 21, 1879, in North Central Java, the daughter of a Javanese official serving the Dutch colonial government. During this time, women were secluded from the age of 14 until marriage. This did not stop Kartini from aspiring for higher education. She received a scholarship to study, but succumbed to family pressure not to continue her education. And despite her written pronouncements that she would never marry, she consented to be the consort (fourth wife) of a man 25 years her senior. A year after her marriage, shortly after the birth of her son, Kartini passed away at the age of 25. Prior to her marriage, Kartini founded a school for young girls.

Influenced by Dutch feminists, Kartini wrote passionately for the improvement of education, public health, economic welfare, and traditional arts in her country. The following source is an excerpt from a memorandum she wrote in January 1903 in response to a request from an official of the Dutch Ministry of Justice during a visit to Batavia. In it, Kartini makes two main points. First, Kartini argues that women should be educated because they are the mothers of the future nation’s leaders. She wanted Westernization and instruction in the Dutch language, something which in today’s parlance is seen as “un-nationalistic.” “Modernization” at that time, however, was associated with “Westernization.” Thus, the desire to modernize her country and access the language of knowledge could be interpreted as a “nationalist” move. Second, in Kartini’s view, given the resources and the Javanese population of 27 million, educational policy should first be directed to elite women who could then open schools for the rest of the “masses.” She did not believe grass cutters should be taught Dutch, but she did criticize the Javanese culture’s hierarchical nature, where younger siblings had to grovel to older ones and where norms dictated elaborate rituals of hierarchy. Overall, she wanted to alter relations between Indonesians and the Dutch a decade before the flowering of the nationalist movement.

Source: Kartini, Raden Ajeng. “Give the Javanese Education” In Letters from Kartini: An Indonesian Feminist 1900-1904. Translated by Joost Coté. Melbourne: Monash University, 1992.


Give The Javanese Education!
Japara, 1903

While it may be absolutely impossible to provide an entire population of 27 million people with education immediately, it would not be impossible to begin by providing education to the upper layers of that population and developing it in such a way that they could be of benefit to those below them. The people are very attached to their nobility; what emanates from them finds ready acceptance amongst them. What advantage has been taken of this fact which could be of benefit to all parties, the Government, the nobility and the people?

To date more or less the only advantage has been to ensure law and order and the regular receipt of revenue. The State and the nobility have benefited from this but what have the people themselves gained? What benefit have the people had from their highly revered nobles who the Government uses to rule them? To date, nothing, or very little; more likely they have been disadvantaged on those occasions when the nobility has abused its power, which is still not a rare occurrence.

This must change, the nobility must earn the reverence of the people, be worthy of it, and this will be of inestimable benefit to the people.

The Government must prepare the nobility for this and this can only be achieved by giving the nobility a sound education, one not exclusively based on an intellectual education but one which also provides a moral education.

This principle must not be lost sight of in any education to be provided for the Javanese. …

And one should not be too hard on those individuals whose moral character remains coarse and unrefined: in most cases the fault lies not with them but with their education. Great care was taken with their intellectual development but what had been done for the training of their character? Nothing! Without the inclusion of moral education even the best of education systems could not hope to achieve the results which might be expected of it.

And Native society has a great need for an improvement of its moral foundations, without which the measures taken by the Government, however well intentioned they may be, will, if not totally fail, at best have only minimal results. Therefore the moral bases of Native society must be improved; once a decent moral basis has been established then the seeds of progress can be successfully cultivated.

Who could deny that the woman has a great task to perform in the moral development of society? It is she, precisely she, who is the one to do this; she can contribute much, if not most, to ensure the improvement of the moral standards of society. Nature herself has appointed her to this task. As mother, she is the first educator; at her knee the child first learns to feel, to think, to speak; and in most cases, this initial nurturing influences the rest of its life. It is the hand of the mother which first plants the germ of virtue or wickedness in the heart of the individual where it usually remains for the rest of the person’s life. Not without reason is it said that a knowledge of right and wrong is imbibed with a mother’s. milk. But how can Javanese mothers now educate their children if they. themselves are uneducated? The education and development of the Javanese people can never adequately advance if women are excluded, if they are not given a role to play in this.

In the meantime provide education, instruction, for the daughters of the nobility; the civilizing influence has to flow from here to the people; develop them into capable, wise, fine mothers and they will vigorously spread enlightenment amongst the people. They will pass on their refinement and education to their children: to their daughters, who in their turn will become mothers; to their sons who will be called upon to help safeguard the welfare of the people. And as persons of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment they will in many different ways be of assistance to their people and to their society. …

Really, an important factor in the uplifting of the population will be the progress of the Javanese woman! Therefore it should be the first task of the Government to raise the moral awareness of the Javanese woman, to educate her, to instruct her, to make of her a capable, wise mother and nurturer! . . .

Schools cannot advance society by themselves: the home must cooperate in this. And it is from the home in particular that moral guidance must come—after all the family influence is present day and night, the school only several hours a day.

And how is it possible at the moment for the home to provide this nurture when such an important element in it, the wife, the mother, is totally unprepared for this nurturing role. . . .

If the nobility knew that the Government desired that its daughters be more highly cultured then, initially, it may not send its daughters from personal conviction, but it would nevertheless send them on their own volition. The nobility must be encouraged in this direction. What does it matter with what motives their daughters are sent to school? The issue is that they are sent to school!

With those who are to teach the girls entrusted to them, lies the task of developing, to the best of their abilities, women who are refined and cultured, who are aware of their MORAL VOCATION in society, to become its loving mothers, wise, upright nurturers and, beyond that, to be of service to society in every way, at a time when so much help is needed.

For the time being a single school could be opened, a boarding institution so that children could be totally educated in this spirit; however the institution should also be open to day pupils. The medium of instruction should be the Dutch language. It is only a knowledge of a European language, and in the first instance of course, Dutch, which will in the foreseeable future, be able to civilize and bring spiritual freedom to the upper layers of Native society!

The best means to learn that language is by thinking and speaking in that language whenever possible. It is not necessary that thereby one’s own language should be neglected: this should receive attention second only to the learning of Dutch.

It would be highly desirable if all the works of European literature which could have a beneficial and uplifting influence on the Javanese were translated into that language. And this should be done! But, at the moment these do not exist and will not in the near future.

Must the Javanese in the interim then grow up in ignorance when “more light” is so desperately needed in a society which has such need for better moral foundations upon which to base its material progress? It is not the intention to teach the Dutch language to the entire Javanese people: what use would the agricultural labourer, the woodcutter, the grasscutter etc. have for Dutch? It should be taught only to those elements of society who have an aptitude for, and are suited to, learning Dutch, and at all times it should be made clear to such pupils and one should work with this in view: that knowledge of the Dutch language by itself does not represent cultural refinement, that being civilized consists of something more than simply speaking Dutch, or superficially adopting Dutch manners, and even less in wearing Dutch clothes. Knowledge of Dutch language is the key which can unlock the treasure houses of Western civilization and knowledge; one has to exert oneself to appropriate some of that treasure for oneself. . . .

General knowledge about the Indies and its people should be spread widely amongst Dutch people; were they to get to know about the Javanese from an unbiased point of view, prejudice would disappear so that not only the educated, but also the ordinary Dutch person would come to regard the Javanese as a fellow being who, through no fault of his own, is his spiritual inferior and not because his skin colour is brown.

Books written in this spirit for Dutch people would be most beneficial to both Java and to the Netherlands itself and it would be of even greater value and influence if a child of the people itself could reveal that people to the Netherlands! For that reason also it would be very good if the Javanese were taught Dutch - he would then be understood all the better when expressing himself in that language and in this medium tell of his desires, requirements and needs.

But why should an interest in the Indies be developed among the Dutch only as adults? Could this not be begun earlier? Schools offer a perfect opportunity for this, both in the Netherlands and in the Indies. . . .

Oh, every opportunity should be utilized to invoke an interest in the Indies in the Netherlands and especially amongst the young!

The children of today will be the rulers of the Indies tomorrow! . . .

As engineer or as forester, energetic, intelligent Natives would be most suitable and could be of great benefit both to the Government and to the people!

Therefore the Netherlands should make it possible for the sons and daughters of Java to qualify themselves which would enable them to raise their people to a higher level of spiritual development and greater flowering—to the honour and glory of the Netherlands.