Feminism in India gradually appeared in the 1800s, picking up traction towards the latter half of the century. It is considered to have been initiated by men, largely as part of the Bengal Renaissance and the sweeping cultural changes it introduced. This is why it is common to think of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore as being the most prominent feminists. This is when sati and widow disfigurement came to be abolished, and women's education gained more mainstream acceptance.
Women's right to own property also sees its roots in this era. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that women gained the autonomy to lead their own movements. However, as is typical to a patriarchal society, the contributions of fierce female changemakers have been side-lined and forgotten. Here are a few women leaders that you should definitely know about:
One of the earliest feminists in Indian history, Savitribai was born in 1831 to a Dalit family of the 'Mali' community in Satara, Maharashtra. Savitribai and her husband, Jyotirao, are known for their incredible work on caste and gender. Savitribai did not receive any formal education and was illiterate until she got married. At the age of 9, she married Jyotirao (who was 13 at that time), who completely changed the trajectory of her life.
Jyotirao, along with his friends, educated Savitribai. She took to it and subsequently undertook teacher's training programs. It is speculated that Savitribai was the first female Indian teacher and headmistress. Her focus was always the education of girls, and she collaborated with her husband, and fellow-feminist and friend, Sagunabai, to start a school. Soon after, the husband and wife were running three schools focused on education for girls. Despite facing severe backlash and harassment from the upper caste community, Savitribai persevered tirelessly towards her cause. She also opposed female infanticide, and despite the harassment she suffered at the hands of Brahmins, she established a shelter for Brahmin widows to give birth safely. Aside from this, she was also an incredible poet and published several feminist works. Unfortunately, her life was cut short by the plague and she passed away at the age of 66.
Born in 1909 in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, Durgabai was a politician, freedom fighter, social worker, and lawyer. She was married off when she was 8 years old to her cousin. Fortunately, her choice of leaving him at age 15 in order to further educate herself received support from her father. Her inclination to pursue social work was homegrown, as her father was also a social worker. When her husband remarried and passed away, Durgabai took his widow under her care.
Deeply influenced by Gandhi at a very young age, she was one of the leaders of the Salt Satyagraha, and was also arrested for her role as a freedom fighter. When she was in jail, she found that several women were behind bars only because they were illiterate. This came to motivate much of her work. For her firebrand nature, she came to be known as the 'Iron Lady'.
She became an exemplary lawyer, and was one of the fifteen women members of the Constituent Assembly of India. She was also on the Planning Commission in 1952, and rallied for the creation of the Central Social Welfare Board. Through this, she implemented programs for the training and education of women. She fiercely championed women's education, and in 1958 was the first chairperson of the National Council on Women's Education. She advocated for separate family courts with the intention of providing quicker relief for women. Durgabai established Andhra Mahila Sabha in 1937 that aimed at alleviating women’s difficulties by educating them. She set the tone for women to be an active part of government and have exceptional professional success.
Ramabai was born in 1862 in Maharashtra. Predictably, she was married at age 11 to Mahadev Govind Ranade, who was a widower and 21 years her senior. She was not educated prior to her marriage, and Mahadev, who was a judge, devoted himself to educating her despite resistance from his family members. He was a social reformer in his own right, and his determination and efforts inspired Ramabai to follow a similar path.
Her first initiative was the 'Hindu Ladies Social Club' where she aimed to cultivate public speaking skills among women. She herself became known for her oratory and exceptional leadership. She was responsible for starting the first Bharat Mahila Parishad. She headed the Bombay Seva Sadan in 1908 and the Poona Seva Sadan in 1909, both of which were organisations focused on feminist causes. Ramabai managed a school in 1909 focussed on the education of women, where she prioritised vocational/ professional training to ensure they could improve their finances. Under her leadership, the number of female students enrolled at the school increased from six to over thousand in the span of a decade.
These are only a few among the several Indian feminist changemakers that risked everything to improve the condition of women. The tireless work of these women leaders has impacted Indian society in a manner that manifests itself even today, and we have much to be grateful for.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)