Bandung and Emma Poeradiredja are inseparable in the history of the women’s movement in the Sundanese region. It is in this city that the intellectual founders of the largest women’s organization in Pasundan faced numerous challenges before finally establishing it. According to Mansyur Darman in “Emma Poeradiredja: Tokoh Wanita Pejuang Tiga Zaman” (2017), Emma was born on August 13, 1902, in Cilimus, Kuningan, to Raden Kardata Poeradiredja and Nyi Raden Siti Djariah, both from the Ciamis lineage. Her journey from being a student to a railway employee in Bandung, ultimately becoming a parliament member, showcases her commitment to societal progress.
Emma’s primary vehicle for navigating the currents of the women’s movement was Paguyuban Pasundan. R. Djaka Soerjawan, in “Sejarah Berdirinya Paguyuban Pasundan” (1990), notes that Emma’s father had long been an active member of this organization, laying the foundation for Emma’s organizational spirit. Before settling in Bandung, Emma, at the age of 16, joined organizations like Bond Inlandsche Studieren and Jong Java during her time at MULO Batavia. Her experience in Jong Java introduced her to the concept of women’s equality and protofeminist movements.
Upon moving to Bandung in the early 1920s, Emma joined Jong Islamieten Bond, where she became a mentor for the Bandung branch. In 1925, she became the first to advocate for women’s suffrage in legislative seats. Emma was acutely aware of the challenging political position women faced at that time. According to Angga Pusaka and Widyonugrahanto in “Dina Mangsa Tahapan Katilu: Biografi Politik Émma Poeradiredja, 1935–1941” (2018), suffrage was originally tied to income and taxes. However, Emma’s persistence led to a revision in 1925, allowing women with a minimum income of ƒ300 who could read and write to vote.
In 1930, Emma established Pasundan Bagian Istri within Paguyuban Pasundan, later renamed Pasundan Istri in 1931. This women’s organization aimed to “awaken Sundanese women in all forms of goodness to honor Sundanese customs,” as stated in R. Djaka Soerjawan’s book. In 1938, Emma’s dedication bore fruit as she was elected as a member of the Gemeenteraad, or City Council. Her success was not confined to Bandung; it resonated across the Sundanese region, influencing the political activism of many women, including R.A. Tjitjih Wiarsih in Cianjur.
The close bond between Emma and Tjitjih Wiarsih in Cianjur became part of local lore. It is romantically narrated that the two activists often discussed Pasundan Istri’s agenda while sitting on a mat and chewing betel. Their relationship was symbolized by the term “aceuk,” meaning “elder sister.”
Emma’s success in spreading her political influence to various regions in the Sundanese region can be attributed to Bandung’s role as a vital hub for Sundanese community mobilization and her strategic use of cultural activism. She revived the concept of women as Sunan Ambu, embodying Sundanese femininity not only in domestic spaces but also in the complex public sphere.
In her words from “Papantjen Isteri Soenda” (1940), Emma emphasized the evolving role of women: “The place of women in life must change; the mothers in the present age must participate in supporting and enduring all the conditions of life; they must strive and work for the glory of the nation.”
Emma Poeradiredja’s legacy endures, as she remains a pioneering figure in the history of Sundanese women’s activism, leaving an indelible mark on the path toward gender equality in the Sundanese region.