The Indonesian Hero Who Revolutionized Women's Education

The Indonesian Hero Who Revolutionized Women's Education

By Katherine George


Because she challenged the all-boys’ club and won.

By Katherine George

Ten girls sit in a classroom at the paternal home of Raden Adjeng Kartini. In 1903 Indonesia, women’s education is a rarity. But Kartini and her sister Roekmini are preparing the day’s lessons, teaching skills like first aid, cooking, hygiene and traditional handicrafts. It is a humble beginning for the country’s female population but a historic one nonetheless.

Raden Adjeng Kartini was born into Indonesia aristocracy — her father worked for the Dutch colonial administration as a governor — and unlike most Indonesian girls in the late 1800s, she was afforded the opportunity to attend a Dutch school. This early education shaped the young girl’s ambitions, helping her develop a love of reading that blossomed under the influence of conceptual thought.

It’s a backlash against Suharto’s systematic movement in undermining and weakening the women’s movement.

Hera Diani, editor, Magdalene

At age 12, as dictated by social tradition, Kartini was forced to withdraw from school, set aside books and begin preparing for the secluded homelife of a nobleman’s wife. But she also spent the next decade corresponding with her Dutch schoolmates, expressing her concerns about colonialism and the oppressive restrictions that dictated a woman’s place in society. Hera Diani, co-founder and editor of Magdalene, a Jakarta-based digital feminist magazine, says that Kartini was “a visionary” who “talked about equality and feminism” and “tried to break through from her privilege” and the oppressiveness of noble life.

Collectie tropenmuseum portret van raden ajeng kartini tmnr 10018776

Raden Ajeng Kartini

Source CC

Kartini wanted to see nationalist emancipation through women’s education, which she wrote extensively about in the letters to her friends. She wanted to convince the Dutch that Indonesians were self-sufficient, and her letters have since come to symbolize the Indonesian independence movement and the country’s feminism. Indeed, in Kartini: The Complete Writings, 1898–1904, historian Joost Coté notes that Kartini’s letters document a seminal moment and turning point in Indonesia’s colonial history. 

After being forced to leave school, Kartini managed to persuade her father to let her continue learning. She studied to become a teacher; in 1903, at the age of 24, she opened the first primary school for native Indonesian girls on her father’s property. In November of that same year, she was forced into a polygamous marriage to Raden Adipati Joyodiningrat, the regent of Rembang, who was nearly twice her age. But Kartini’s spirit did not wane: She continued running her school and planned to open more. 


Sadly, the budding feminist died just one year later, in 1904, from complications during childbirth. In 1911, Jacques Henrij Abendanon, former minister of culture, art and religion of the Dutch East Indies, had Kartini’s letters published. Door duisternis tot licht (Through Darkness Into Light) proved so popular in the Netherlands that the Dutch created the Kartini Foundation, which, in 1916, cut the ribbon on the first girls’ school in Java. Another 30 Kartini schools opened across the country in its wake. In Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Helen Rappaport posits that Kartini’s letters were “put to good use by Dutch colonial reformers.” 

It wasn’t until 1922 that an Indonesian translation of Kartini’s letters was published, and her image came to symbolize anti-colonialism and the feminist movement in Indonesia. Fifty years after her death, Kartini’s birthday, April 21, was declared a holiday under Sukarno’s Old Order, and according to Chilla Bulbeck in Sex, Love and Feminism in the Asia Pacific, has encouraged “women to participate in the hegemonic state discourse of pembangunan (development).”

But Suharto’s New Order had other plans. After the 1965 coup in which Suharto overthrew Sukarno, there was a movement to erase the old dictator’s legacy and usher in the will of the new one. In tune with this complete dismantling of all vestiges of the Old Order, Kartini’s legacy was also retroactively altered: The new regime celebrated her as an obedient daughter and wife rather than as a radical thinker. In contemporary celebrations, women often wear restrictive, opulent clothing, creating a further disparity between the modern vision of Kartini and the reality of the natural, free style she observed in her life.

Magdalene’s Diani says that this is an annual source of conflict in Indonesia. “It’s a backlash against Suharto’s systematic movement in undermining and weakening the women’s movement, including by reducing Kartini’s ideas into ibuism or motherhood.” In response to the bastardization of Kartini’s legacy, Indonesian feminists, Diani says, “just ask people to celebrate Kartini’s brilliant mind.”

Kartini has been a victim of a revisionist history that overshadowed her radical ideas about nationalism and women’s education with state-serving propaganda. But for the women of Indonesia whose great-grandmothers attended Kartini schools and who grew up devouring her letters, the spirit of Kartini still thrives.