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  5. Raden Ajeng Kartini: Indonesia's Feminist Educator

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FOCUS June 2009 Volume 56

Raden Ajeng Kartini: Indonesia's Feminist Educator


Raden Ajeng Kartini is hailed as Indonesia's first feminist. April 21, the day of her birth, is celebrated as "Hari Ibu Kartini" (Kartini Day). She is seen as the symbol of Indonesian women's emancipation.[1]

Kartini was born on 21 April 1879, in a village called Mayong in the town of Jepara, North Central Java to an aristocrat family. She is the daughter of Raden Mas Adipati Aryo Sosroningrat, the Regent of Jepara. She went to a primary school, along with her brothers, for the children of Dutch planters and administrators. Other girls from aristocratic families did not receive the same formal education she obtained.[2] But under the old Javanese tradition of pingit, she was kept in seclusion at home until marriage upon reaching the age of twelve years.

Seclusion from twelve years of age until marriage did not stop Kartini from aspiring for further education. During her period of seclusion she wrote letters to many friends abroad, read magazines and books, and rebelled against the strong tradition of gender discrimination.[3] Her father gave her books on Javanese culture to "balance her western education and subscribed to a Literary Box, a box of magazines, children's books, modern novels and foreign news, which was changed every week by a local library."[4] In 1892, when she was twelve years old, Kartini made friends with the wife of the new Dutch officer appointed as Assistant Resident of Jepara, Mevrouw Ovink-Soer. Mevrouw was "highly cultured, had published a number of magazine articles," and later wrote a book entitled Women's Life in a (Javanese) Village. She was also a fervent socialist and fervent feminist.[5] One account says that the Dutch people who supported her desire to be educated and to search for new kind of education for herself were proponents of the then new colonial policy called "Ethical Policy" that emphasized[6]

increased education of the Indonesians, fuller participation by them in their own local government as civil servants, efforts to raise the peasants' standard of living through agricultural improvements and the promotion of indigenous handicrafts.

Her father, a Javanese official serving the Dutch colonial government as a local administrative head on the north coast of Java, introduced her and her sisters to the reality of life for the people whom he governed, to the world beyond the then Dutch East Indies, besides exploring the intricacies of their own rich cultural heritage. He took his daughters to meet the villagers during times of crisis and celebration.[7]

She obtained a scholarship to study in Holland, a desire she worked to achieve for quite some time, but family pressure led her to ultimately reject it. She did not want marry but she consented to be the fourth wife of the Regent of Rembang, Raden Adipati Joyodiningrat, a man twenty-five years her senior. She died on 17 September 1904 after giving birth to a child a year after her marriage. She passed away at the young age of twenty-five. Prior to her death, Kartini founded a school for young girls.

Kartini as a Feminist

In 1903, Kartini obtained permission to open in her own home in Rembang the first ever all-girls school, for daughters of Javanese officials. She created her own syllabus and system of instruction. The school aimed at the "character development of young women, while at the same time providing them with practical vocational training and general education in art, literature and science."[8] It was also a school that was both Western and Indonesian. By 1904, the school had one hundred twenty students.[9]

Kartini realized that the education she obtained that widened her choices in life should also be enjoyed as a right by all of her people. Influenced by Dutch feminists, Kartini wrote passionately for the improvement of education, public health, economic welfare, and traditional arts in her country.

She wrote in January 1903 a memorandum about education entitled Give The Javanese Education! addressed to an official of the Dutch Ministry of Justice.[10] She emphasized the need to educate the women for the development of society. She wrote:

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.

xxx xxx xxx

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!

She further wrote about the need for the formal education of the girls of the noble class:

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!

She pointed out that given the resources and the Javanese population of twenty-seven million, educational policy should first be directed to elite women who could then open schools for the rest of the "masses." [11] She wrote:

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.

She also explained that the purpose of formal education is not merely to learn the Dutch language. She argued

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.

She criticized the Javanese culture's hierarchical nature, where younger siblings had to serve older ones and where norms dictated elaborate rituals of hierarchy. [12]

She also criticized the nobility by writing thus:

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.

Kartini wrote many letters that were later published in Holland in 1911 in a book entitled Through Darkness into Light, and became a bestseller. It had four editions until 1923.[13]

She also wrote about her own Javanese society and the suffering of the rural poor, and the practice of polygamy.


Overall, she wanted to alter the relations between Indonesians and the Dutch a decade before the flowering of the nationalist movement. Thus, the desire to modernize her country and access the language of knowledge could be interpreted as a "nationalist" move.[14]

In her preface in the 1960s book Letters of a Javanese Princess, a collection of Kartini's letters, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote:

I am delighted to gain the insight which these letters offer. One little remark in one of the letters is something I think we might all remember. Kartini says: "We feel that the kernel of all religion is good and beautiful. But, O ye peoples, what have you made of it?" Instead of drawing us together, religion has often forced us apart and even this young girl realized that it should be a unifying force. The girl who wrote these letters happened to have a father who, as she says, was liberal and had a tremendous understanding of the longings of the hearts of the young Javanese. He allowed his daughters to go to a foreign school until they were twelve and then they had to return to the cloistered home life, but among themselves there was a freedom of communication and a closeness, which did not exist in many of the Javanese families of the day.

In present-day Indonesia, Hari Ibu Kartini or Kartini Day is seen as an "important event in the school calendar, often providing the setting in which students can explore Indonesian history, the roles of women in society, families and the rich cultural diversity of Indonesia....[and p]erhaps most importantly, it is for educators seeking to nurture the independence and self esteem of children in their care.[15]

Kartini lived a short life of twenty-five years and yet she left a legacy that supported the rights of Indonesian women in particular, and national identity in general. In the context of the remaining many challenges facing Indonesian women today, Kartini provides an inspiration to the continuing effort to overcome them.


1.Susan J. Natih,"Kartini, her life and letters,"The Jakarta Post, 21 April 2005.

2.Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London and New Jersey: Zed Books Limited, 1994), page 141.

3.Bebeth, "Raden Ajeng Kartini, Are We Really Free?," Just About Anything, 21 April 2005,

4.Natih, op. cit.

5.Hilda Geertz, editor, Letters of a Javanese Princess ? Rada Adjeng Kartini (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1964), page 8.


7.Natih, op. cit.

8.Geertz, op cit., page 23.

9.Jayawardena, op. cit., page 145.

10.In Letters from Kartini: An Indonesian Feminist 1900-1904, translated by Joost Cote (Clayton, Victoria: Monash Asia Institute, 1992).

11."Southeast Asian Politics, Non- fiction, Javanese Education," Women in World History, available in

12.Southeast Asian Politics, Non-fiction, Javanese Education, ibid.

13.Geertz, op cit., page 23.

14."Southeast Asian Politics, Non-fiction, Javanese Education," op. cit.

15.Natih, op. cit.