Indigenous Girls and Education in a Changing Colonial Society. The Dutch East Indies, c. 1880-1942

Indigenous Girls and Education in a Changing Colonial Society. The Dutch East Indies, c. 1880-1942
Kirsten Kamphuis


So far, the history of Indonesian girls’ education in the colonial period has mainly been explored by historians who have focused on governmental policies, and by those interested in theories of emancipation and modernity. This has often resulted in narratives about education as either a pathway to anticolonial activism and the birth of the Indonesian nation state, or as a gateway to ‘modernity’ and women’s emancipation. This thesis, by contrast, argues that a focus on girls’ education can help us to shift the perspective away from such teleological frameworks.

This research project reconsiders the topic of girls’ education by taking the diversity of the late-colonial Dutch East Indies as its starting point. In doing so, the thesis integrates four widely diverging regions – the sultanate of Yogyakarta, West Sumatra, Flores and Minahasa – in one comparative framework. This allows for a kaleidoscopic view on girls’ schooling from modernist Islamic initiatives to nationalist organizations and Christian missionary schools. The comparative framework enables an interrogation of the importance of local factors, while also doing justice to broader societal developments, such as the growing popular support for nationalist movements and the increasing labour market participation of Indonesian women. While the importance of the new colonial ideology represented by the early-twentieth-century ‘ethical policy’ should not be underestimated, this research supports the argument that this policy was far from the only driving force behind developments in female education. Throughout the chapters, the strikingly diverse and highly gendered educational landscape of the Dutch East Indies is moved into two recently developed historiographical fields.

In the first place, following the approach of colonial childhood studies, there is a continuous attempt to explore the historical experiences of indigenous girls themselves. This allows for a glimpse of girls’ own agency and the historical subjectivity of a group that, in historiography, is usually framed as the ‘object’ of colonial civilizing missions. In the second place, this thesis precisely reconsiders the idea of colonial education as being driven by civilizing missions. Most importantly, the thesis argues that in most cases, their schooling encouraged indigenous girls to become agents of gendered civilizing missions in the context of a colonial society in flux.


Kirsten Kamphuis

Defended in


PhD defended at

European University Institute, Department of History and Civilization






Gender and Identity