‘Trail blazer’ is a term we use loosely today. But back in the early 20th century, there was a woman who was breaking barriers one after another. She was the first Indian woman legislator; a campaigner of women’s rights; and the driving force behind one of the biggest cancer institutes in India today. Sadly, few remember the journey of Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy and how she set so many milestones against the odds.
– No girl had ever been admitted to the college before and her background didn’t help either
Born on July 30, 1886, in the small princely state of Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, Muthulakshmi had a lot stacked against her. Her father Narayanaswami Iyer may have been the principal of the Maharaja’s College but her mother Chandrammal was a former devadasi. In conservative 19th century Pudukkottai, marrying a devadasi was sacrilegious and Narayanaswami Iyer and his family were ostracised.
But Muthulakshmi was as gritty as she was brilliant, and was determined not to let caste hold her back. After successfully passing the matriculation exam as a private candidate in 1902, she applied to the Maharaja’s College for higher education. Naturally, this created a storm. First, no girl had ever been admitted to the college before and her background didn’t help either. The parents of boys threatened to withdraw their children from the college and there were angry protests all around. But the family held its ground. And, having a progressive ruler helped.
Little did the Raja realise that this girl was going to make history. Muthulakshmi went on to study at Madras Medical College in 1907, again the first female student in the Department of Surgery. She completed her studies in 1912 and became the first woman House Surgeon at the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital.
– She demanded that her husband promise to ‘always respect me as an equal and never cross my wishes’
As a doctor, Muthulakshmi’s first cause was to challenge the system of ‘wet nursing’, where upper-class women got Dalit women to breastfeed their babies as neither childcare nor breastfeeding were seen as ‘appropriate’ activities for privileged women. Muthulakshmi spread awareness among her patients regarding the benefits of feeding mothers’ milk to infants.
In 1914, she married a doctor, Dr Sundara Reddy, but she made sure she set the rules at the very start. She demanded that her husband promise to ‘always respect me as an equal and never cross my wishes.’
Meanwhile, Dr Muthulakshmi started to work with theosophist and women’s rights activist Annie Besant and along with her and a few others founded the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) in 1917. She expressed her views in the journal Shri Dharma, published by the WIA, to address political and social issues faced by women. In 1927, the WIA nominated her to the Madras Presidency Council. Here, she was unanimously chosen as the Deputy President, making her the first woman legislator of India.
This marked the beginning of Dr Muthulakshmi’s lifelong effort to ‘correct the balance’ for women by removing social abuses and working for equality. She passed bills to raise the age of marriage, women’s right to property and for choice in the matter of education and career. She is believed to have remarked, ‘Laws and legislation are there only for sanction. It is up to us women to energise these and implement them into action.’
Concerned about human trafficking, Dr Muthulakshmi also moved to pass the Immoral Traffic Control Act, which would shut down brothels. She also proposed the Devadasi Abolition Bill. She organised several seminars and meetings all over Madras and interviewed several hundred devadasis. However, the bill lay dormant after Muthulakshmi resigned from the Council in 1930, protesting Gandhi’s arrest after the Salt March. It was only in 1947 that Madras Devadasis (Prevention of Dedication) Act was enacted.
– She organised several seminars and meetings all over Madras and interviewed several hundred devadasis
But prejudice is deep-rooted and social change takes time to take root. So, when three young girls who had run away from being dedicated as devadasis approached her for help, Dr Muthulakshmi had a huge challenge on her hands.
She tried to get the girls admitted to hostels and schools but no one would take them. Finally, she took them under her wing and started a shelter called Avvai Home in 1931. The home, which she initially ran from her own residence in Adyar in Madras, went on to become a sanctuary for all women and children who sought protection and education: young destitute widows, deserted wives with their little children who had nowhere to go, orphaned girls, abandoned babies and unwed mothers. Today, it also has an educational complex with a school and teachers’ training institution providing empowerment and economic independence to poor girls and women.
Dr Muthulakshmi was nominated by the Nationalist Women’s Organization of India to represent Indian women and give evidence at the Third Round Table Conference in London (1930) and the World Women’s Congress in Chicago (1932).
Around the same time, under the chairmanship of educator Sir Philip Hartog, a committee was appointed to survey education across India. The Viceroy nominated Dr Muthulakshmi to be a member, making her the only woman member on the panel, and she travelled extensively across India to review women’s education. Her efforts were recognised when leaders of the time included her name in the first flag of Independent India that was hoisted at the Red Fort in 1947.
Many years later, Dr Muthulakshmi lost her sister to a misdiagnosed case of rectal cancer and this was the beginning of her dream to build a specialised institution for cancer care. When she approached the Government of Tamil Nadu for land, the then minister asked: ‘Why a cancer hospital? People only die of cancer.’ So, with the help of the WIA, Dr Muthulakshmi set up a fund and established the Adyar Cancer Institute in 1954, in a small hut. Today, it is a comprehensive cancer centre comprising over 500-bed hospital, a research division, a college of oncological sciences, and a division of preventive oncology.
– Dr Muthulakshmi set up a fund and established the Adyar Cancer Institute in a small hut
Two years later, in recognition of her wonderful work in the social sector, Dr Muthulakshmi was awarded the Padma Bhushan. She also helped establish multiple other organisations for women and children and was the first Chairperson of the State Social Welfare Advisory Board, and the first Alderwoman of the Madras Corporation Avvai Home.
Muthulakshmi passed away in 1968 at the age of 81, but her legacy still lives through the multiple lives she transformed and the great institutions she created.
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