The history of India is full of women who bucked convention and fought the odds to keep their names in our history books. The most familiar of these legends involve queens, poets and educators. But did you know that, long before the battle for more women in science, technology and engineering became the war it is today, Indian women were shattering glass ceilings in the sciences? They were also taking up politics, medicine and philanthropy, helping other marginalised sections of society to be seen and heard. Here’s a look at some inspiring but lesser-known stories of the earliest feminists and activists of modern India.
Rani Rashmoni (1793-1861)
Even before she became a teenager, her poor father, who was a petty labourer, married her to a wealthy widower. Luckily, her husband was a progressive man and involved her in his business. When he died in 1830, Rashmoni took on the role of a zamindar.
Her humble origins had made her compassionate towards the poor and she donated large sums of money to charity. She also set up several ghats for public bathing, drinking reservoirs, homes for the elderly and soup kitchens in Calcutta. Inspired by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, she raised her voice against social evils like child marriage and sati. She also submitted a draft bill against polygamy to the East India Company.
The most magnificent contribution of Rashmoni was the construction of the famous Dakshineswar Temple dedicated to Goddess Kali, for which she purchased 20 acres of land in 1847. Read More
Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886 - 1968)
After completing her studies at the Madras Medical College in 1912, she became the first woman House Surgeon at the Government Maternity and Ophthalmic Hospital. When she married Dr Sundara Reddy, she made him promise to ‘‘always respect me as an equal and never cross my wishes”. She, along with Annie Besant and others, founded the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) and addressed political and social issues faced by women.
In 1927, the WIA nominated her to the Madras Presidency Council. She was unanimously chosen as its Deputy President, making her the first woman legislator in India. Muthulakshmi Reddy was also the only woman on the committee appointed to survey education across India. 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. Read More
Amrit Kaur (1889 - 1964)
India’s first woman Cabinet minister, the first Asian and the first woman to head the governing body of the World Health Organisation and founder of AIIMS, India’s premier medical institution – Rajkumari Amrit Kaur gave up her comfortable life as a princess to join India’s struggle for independence. As one of the key architects of a new, independent India, Amrit Kaur was very active during the 1942 Quit India Movement. She organised a number of dharnas and demonstrations in various parts of India and was seriously injured in lathi charges several times. She was arrested and sent to Ambala prison for a month and put in solitary confinement.
Amrit Kaur also championed the cause of women’s education, was opposed to the purdah system and worked for women’s health. She led the campaign against child marriage, forcing the government to raise the marriageable age of girls to 14 and later to 18. Read More
Anna Chandy (1904 - 1996)
When Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore, despite strong opposition, opened admission for women in the Government Law College in Trivandrum, Anna Chandy enrolled for a post-graduate degree in law and was the first woman in all of Kerala to do so. Next, she became India’s first woman judge.
Anna also started the first women’s magazine in Malayalam called Shrimati. Along with articles about home management, general health and the like, it discussed women’s freedom, the question of widow remarriage and grievances of women workers in farms.
When she decided to join active politics and stood for elections from the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly (SMPA), Anna faced a slander campaign that included scandalous slogans and graffiti on the walls of Trivandrum, accusing her of having links with the Dewan of the state and other government officials. Read More
Purnima Sinha (1927 - 2015)
Making one’s own laboratory instruments for research is unthinkable even in most modern, well-equipped labs today. But here was one of India’s first women physics research scholars looking for scraps from World War II surpluses sold on the footpaths of Calcutta, to build her own X-ray equipment for her PhD. Not only did she build it, she also went on to study different types of clay from all over India. Her pioneering research on Indian clay had many applications, from X-ray studies to oil-drilling, to geology, to even art and pottery.
Besides physics, Purnima Sinha also learnt music and painting and translated science books into Bengali. She also took a keen interest in anthropology and regularly contributed articles to The Journal of the Asiatic Society of India –Science and Culture and the Economic & Political Weekly. Post-retirement, when she moved to Shantiniketan, Purnima delivered a course in Sangeet Bhavan on the ‘physics of music’ and collaborated with potters there. Read More