It’s a sad but unavoidable fact that things have almost always been harder for women in India. Despite certain sections of society becoming more open to the idea of equality between the sexes, there remains a deep rooted misogyny in the country. Despite these odds however, there have been women who have displayed unbelievable courage and a will to move forward in the face of cultural and social rejection. From Prem Mathur, the first female commercial pilot in India, to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who became President of the UN General Assembly, these women have changed the landscape of India for the better.
Here are some Indian women who broke the norms at a time when it was completely unheard of.
1. Justic Anna Chandy: The first female judge in India
Born in 1905 in Trivandrum, Chandy was the first woman to get a law degree in her state. While practising as a barrister, she also promoted the cause of women’s rights, founding the magazine Shrimati, that she also edited. In 1959, she was appointed as a judge in the Kerala High Court, a position she remained in for 9 years.
2. Kittur Rani Chenamma: One of the earliest women to fight for independence
In 1824, Kittur led an armed rebellion against the British East India Company in response to the Doctrine of Lapse. She was martyred and is remembered to this day as one of the earliest Indian rulers to have fought for independence. Her tremendous courage, swiftness of action and open defiance of the Brits was something that had never been seen before.
3. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit: First Indian President of the United Nations General Assembly
The sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya was born in 1900. Her work as an Indian diplomat and politician brought her a lot of attention, especially considering she was the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post. In 1953, she was appointed the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly. She was a stalwart and an inspiration in the human rights movement worldwide.
4. Savitribai Phule: One of the first female teachers for girls in India
One of the first women teaching girl students in India, Savitribai endured stones and cow dung being pelted at her and being orally abused while walking on streets, just because she was a woman teacher who taught girls and boys equally. During the 1850s and 60s, she welcomed untouchables around her. She encouraged women’s education and their liberation from the cultural patterns of the male-dominated society at a time when feminism meant nothing in Indian culture.
5. Anandi Gopal Joshi: First Indian woman to get a degree in Western medicine
Anandi was married off at the young age of 9, and while this would put an end to most dreams at that time, her husband actually encouraged her to get an educated. In the late 1800s, this was almost unheard of, but she managed to fly to the US, with the support of her husband, and end up becoming the first Indian woman to obtain a degree in Western medicine. In her efforts, she discussed the persecution she and her husband had endured, and stressed the need for female doctors in India.
6. Begum Hazrat Mahal: Was a pivotal figure in the Indian Rebellion of 1857
Born in 1820, Begum handled several of the affairs of state for Awadh, along with her husband. She played a major role in the Rebellion of 1857, but was exiled when the British recaptured Lucknow. While in exile, she drew everyone’s attention towards the demolishment of temples and mosques by the British to make way for the construction of roads, as well as highlighting other injustices purported by the English.
7. Sunitha Krishnan: Started one of the most effective anti trafficking organisations despite facing death threats
Born in 1972, Sunitha works as an inspiration to people to work towards betterment. She runs Prajwala, a non-governmental organization that rescues, rehabilitates and reintegrates sex-trafficked victims into society. At the age of 15, she was gangraped, but this incident only increased her resolve to work in the areas of anti-human trafficking, psychiatric rehabilitation and social policy to bring about awareness regarding sex trafficking. She is regularly consulted not just by the Indian authorities, but also by the United Nations and the US government.
8. Prem Mathur: India’s first woman pilot
Captain Prem Mathur obtained her commercial pilot’s license in 1947 from Allahabad Flying Club. At the time, it was unheard of for a woman to be a pilot in India. FInally, she was accepted by Deccan Airways in Hyderabad, and even passed the interview with flying colours. However, there was massive public rejection of a woman pilot in command at the time, and she was forced to fly for private airlines. A few years ago, she finally flew with the Indian Airlines.
9. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: Fought for freedom as well as the revival of arts and culture in India
Born in 1903, Kamaldevi accomplished more things for India in terms of country, society and culture than any of us can imagine. She fought for the freedom of India, worked in social reform, especially in the field of women’s rights and the upliftment of women in the country, facing severe protest and backlash in the process. The National School of Drama, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Central Cottage Industries Emporium and the Crafts Council of India, all exist thanks to her belief in the power of culture to change society.
10. Jhansi Ki Rani: A symbol of resistance against the British
Born in 1828, Rani Lakshmibai has always been one of the most iconic and powerful female figures in the minds of the people of the country. Her resistance of the British and the ferocity with which she battled has become stuff of legend, and her military prowess in general was considered beyond par. She was martyred in 1858, during the battle of Kotah Ki Serai.
11. Sucheta Kriplani: One of the few women to help draft the Indian Constitution
Born in 1908, Sucheta was a celebrated freedom fighter, working with Gandhi during the height of the Quit India Movement. She was also one of the few women elected onto the Constituent Assembly and helped draft the Indian Constitution, this during a time when women in public office was a seldom seen thing. She was also the founder of All India Mahilla Congress, established in 1940, and served as the first woman Chief Minister of India (U.P. Government) between 1963-67.
12. Durgabai Deshmukh: Started Andhra Mahilla Sabha in 1937 to fight for women’s rights
Durgabai was born in 1909 in Andhra Pradesh, and was married off at the incredibly young age of 8, but later left her husband to work. She displayed a keen sense of duty, ambition and belief in a better country however, working in the INC, helping with Gandhi’s Satyagraha activities and enacting several social welfare laws. She fought hard for women’s rights and drafted a national policy on social welfare while she was part of the Planning Commission.